Table of Contents


NATO celebrates its seventieth anniversary this year. Since the end of the Cold War, many have been predicting the organization’s death—or, at least, its irrelevance. While such predictions have so far been proved wrong, NATO, widely hailed as the most successful security alliance in modern history, has consistently been in turmoil. NATO’s members generate political support for the alliance and forge agreement on its missions through constant conversation, even if not always cordially. Lately, however, disagreements among the allies have been more disruptive than usual.

As NATO looks forward to its next seventy years, it must adapt its institutions and strengthen its partnerships with likeminded countries.

Issues at Stake

The New Test for NATO

As historian of NATO Stanley Sloan has long argued, “NATO in crisis” is the oldest refrain of the post–Cold War era.1 And although that era is changing, the international order is not necessarily in any more or less of a crisis. The strains are severe, but they are not creating any fundamental fissures that did not already exist.2 Since the 1990s, secretary-generals of the United Nations (UN) have warned that the UN is becoming marginal to international security. The international trading order has been stagnant at best since the failure of the Doha Development Round of talks to lower trade barriers around the world.3 And Chancellor Angela Merkel is not the first German leader to state that Europe cannot completely rely on U.S. security guarantees, nor is President Emmanuel Macron the first French leader to issue calls to arms for European strategic autonomy.4

Alicia von Voss
Alicia von Voss is a program officer in the Security, Defense, and Armaments Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

The main underlying causes of the current strains on the post–Cold War era are rapid political, economic, and technological changes. These shifts, together with the failure of national governments to adequately address concerns that stem from them, have created a sense of unease among significant portions of the electorate in most democratic societies. This trend has corroded norms, challenged institutions of both the national and the international order, and strengthened states that do not share Western values, especially China and Russia. These developments confront NATO member states domestically and on the international stage and add a new element to allies’ usually constructive discord.

The Shifting Balance of Power

Turmoil in the West is changing the relative relevance of the four major players in international relations: China, the European Union (EU), Russia, and the United States. That has implications for the global order in general and for NATO’s purview in particular. Today’s central question is whether liberal societies will agree on means to prevent the emergence of a new disorder with which China, Russia, and other authoritarian powers are comfortable. Europe and the United States—despite their navel gazing—can still prevent that outcome, because they continue to dominate the international institutions that set global agendas and rules. But the window of opportunity is closing.5

Russia is punching far above its weight. With an economy smaller than Italy’s and only two products on world markets—weapons and energy—Russia hardly seems suited for the digitized twenty-first century.6 However, President Vladimir Putin has found a way to compensate for these shortcomings. He has partly fulfilled his great-power ambitions by weakening Russia’s perceived adversaries through disinformation, political interference, and even military action against neighbors such as Ukraine. In the process, he has also undermined a security order in Europe that Russia considers unfair.

In the long run, military overreach, coupled with a weak economy, is likely to weaken Russia’s position. Yet, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and one of the two major nuclear powers, Moscow will remain an important actor with the potential to cause inconveniences. But Russia is, in effect, a regional power, as former U.S. president Barack Obama put it in 2014: a potent threat to its immediate neighbors, but one with a limited ability to shape international politics on a global scale, despite Russia’s use of asymmetric strategies and Putin’s recent muscle-flexing in Eastern Europe and Syria.7

On the other side of the spectrum, China has become an emerging power—an economic and political heavyweight. For the time being, however, Beijing does not pose a direct military threat to NATO.8 President Xi Jinping’s China is a competitor in the sense that it supports changes in the global order that contradict the liberal international order that NATO is explicitly dedicated to preserving.9

Florence Schimmel
Florence Schimmel is a program assistant in the Security, Defense, and Armaments Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

While China’s long-term strategic goals are global, its short-term ambitions are regional.10 Beijing focuses, in particular, on extending its economic and political influence in East Asia and on building political alliances supported by investment deals with countries across the globe, with an emphasis on Africa, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. China is moving westward via its Belt and Road Initiative to assert strong influence over countries that sign up to this major development project. In Eastern Europe, China supports leaders and governments who follow an opportunistic and often euroskeptic agenda, which ultimately weakens the EU as a force for democratic progression.11

The United States, with its economic strength and military capabilities, remains the sole superpower.12 Moreover, it benefits from a network of global allies and from its soft power. These qualities have given the United States a global leadership position. Yet America increasingly appears tired of its leadership role. Under Obama, the United States started to incrementally reduce its international commitments, not only in Europe but also in the Middle East.13

The fourth great power, the EU, has lost political cohesion in recent years. With the United Kingdom’s planned exit from the bloc, some Eastern European politicians’ open contradictions of European values, and economic and fiscal problems in the South, European integration is under fire.14 Idle boasting of global ambitions and strategic autonomy cannot hide the fact that the EU is in a difficult position.15

None of these trends is likely to reverse in the near future. The consequences of these changes for NATO and the transatlantic security relationship should not be underestimated. For the alliance to remain the prime transatlantic security institution and counter the challenge to European and U.S. security posed by China and, to a lesser degree, Russia, NATO needs to widen its strategic perspective to include the Asia Pacific region as well.16


If NATO sees itself as an alliance that supports the liberal international order as much as the defense of Europe, it must prepare to help its partners counter—or, better still, preempt—the challenge to this order from China and Russia. That order is worth defending for the simple reason that it remains the best framework for a system comprising many players.

That said, institutions such as NATO that reflect the past will need to adjust to the new reality of global power distribution. Institutions have to solve problems for people to consider them relevant.17 When those problems and circumstances change, so should policies. For NATO, this means that the alliance may need to make contingency plans to relieve U.S. forces in the Atlantic, the Middle East, and Africa if they are required in the Pacific. The alliance may also need to strengthen its support to the EU in Eastern European countries that are being actively courted by Chinese and Russian diplomacy backed up by promises of developmental projects.

NATO can also shape the emerging global order by holding steady to, and universalizing, the principles and practices that make it successful: being a magnet for countries in transition to representative government, protecting countries that share the alliance’s values, and working hard to mold national interests into cooperative internationalism.18 More specifically, NATO needs to strengthen partnerships with like-minded countries such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Korea. The alliance needs to find ways to penalize Russia and China for assaults against weaker states. And NATO must effectively motivate countries in transition, such as Ukraine, to keep adopting better governance and rule of law practices that align with the coalition’s expectations.

Finally, NATO can help forge the coming multilateral world order because it has the capacity to constantly evolve and adjust to new security environments. The allies should apply that spirit of adaptability to support reform of the UN Security Council, which is woefully unrepresentative, and strengthen the UN’s powers to enforce rules that have been adopted by consensus. Stronger institutions help free societies prosper and constrain illiberal challengers.

Fortunately for NATO, the alliance is representative, and its members are empowered, active, and used to finding mutually agreeable solutions. That is why NATO is both perpetually in crisis and the most successful security alliance in modern history.19

This essay is based on written contributions by Kori Schake, deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies; Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute; Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director of the German Federal Academy for Security Policy; and Florence Gaub, deputy director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. The editors thank these individuals for their insightful input.


1 Kori Schake, “NATO in Crisis?,” Atlantic Council, accessed October 26, 2019,

2 Kori Schake, “NATO’s Old/New Normal,” unpublished, 2019.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Karl-Heinz Kamp, “NATO: Recalibrating Its Geostrategic Compass Is a Must if the Alliance Is to Remain Relevant,” Security Times, February 2019,

7 Julian Borger, “Barack Obama: Russia Is a Regional Power Showing Weakness Over Ukraine,” Guardian, March 25, 2014,

8 Steve Tsang, “How Should NATO Respond to China’s Rise?,” unpublished, 2019.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Karl-Heinz Kamp, “Great Power Relationships and the Next 70 Years of NATO,” unpublished, 2019.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Karl-Heinz Kamp, “NATO’s Coming Existential Challenge,” NATO Defense College policy brief no. 6, March 20, 2019,

17 Schake, “NATO’s Old/New Normal.”

18 Ibid.

19 Schake, “NATO’s Old/New Normal”; and Robert O. Keohane, “Alliances, Threats, and the Uses of Neorealism,” International Security 13, no.1 (1988): 169–176.