Nothing is forever, not even the world’s most powerful military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Other regional bodies modeled on NATO, such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, have long ceased to exist.1However, the need for a common, principled, effective, and adaptable institution to help allies in North America and Europe look after their defense requirements is hardly going away. The world remains an unpredictable and, at times, violent place.
The most fitting way to celebrate NATO’s seventieth birthday is therefore to reflect not on the alliance’s past but on how NATO can best serve its member states’ interests in the future. This collection of essays from some of the world’s leading think tanks aims to do just that. It offers insights from the brightest minds in allied countries on the challenges facing NATO, as well as recommendations on how the alliance should respond if it is to retain its centrality to its members’ defense thinking for decades to come.
The focus on how best to secure NATO’s future might seem misplaced. After all, the alliance has outlasted the many phases of the Cold War, a decade of near unipolarity, and two decades of an increasingly fractured geopolitical landscape, successfully adapting to each new period while growing in size. Why should the future be any different?
The answer lies in how NATO has adapted. It has flourished through these changes because, at each stage, the allies had the foresight to ask a group of eminent experts to provide counsel and steer the alliance into the new period. Whether it was the 1956 report of the Committee of Three, the 1967 Harmel Report, or, more recently, the 2010 report of the Group of Experts, it was deliberate human intervention, rather than good fortune, that prompted and guided each successive adaptation.2 That is what this collection of essays—building on sixteen policy discussions held across Europe and North America on NATO’s next seventy years —humbly proposes to do.3
The essays do not provide definitive answers on how to future-proof the alliance. The collection is meant to start, frame, and guide such a debate, not end it. The reader may find, on closer inspection, disagreements among the authors on subtler points of their recommendations and assumptions. That, too, serves a useful purpose. An alliance of democracies will want to think through its steps and policies in a deliberative process, while weighing alternative approaches and divergent views.
We hope that you find the reading informative and, above all, that it inspires the sort of reflection that has periodically rejuvenated the alliance through its first seventy years of existence.
The need to occasionally rethink NATO policies is well understood and broadly shared by the allies. The alliance has endured in part precisely because it takes the time to reflect and readjust. What may be less evident is whether the time for another such adaptation has come—and if it has, why now. After all, NATO’s seventieth anniversary on April 4, 2019, marked a date, nothing more.
Previous bursts of adaptation have generally been prompted by a rupture or crisis. The 1967 Harmel Report, for example, was a response to France’s decision the previous year to leave NATO’s military command. This coincided ominously with the potential expiration in 1969 of the alliance’s founding Washington Treaty, which states that twenty years after its entry into force, any country may leave the organization.4
Arguably, no comparable drama has directly afflicted NATO countries in recent years. However, a slow-motion shift in the global distribution of power, turmoil to the east and south of Europe, and gradual changes in the functioning of allies’ economies and societies have now added sufficient cumulative weight to warrant a pause for reflection.
Let’s take geopolitics first. China has become the world’s largest economy by purchasing power parity.5 In the process, it has jettisoned its policy of a harmonious rise and grown more comfortable with asserting its national interests in its near neighborhood, including by unilaterally claiming and fortifying disputed territories in the South China Sea.6 This has affected the way NATO works, including in the realm of technology. But arguably, the biggest single change is that the United States is now far more focused on China than on any other economic or military priority.7
This poses questions for NATO: Will the alliance, with its focus on Russia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, remain critical enough in U.S. thinking to justify the commitment of U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic resources? If not, what role, if any, is NATO to play in East Asia? And how, if at all, can the European allies balance their military responsibilities in and around Europe with a possible expanded role farther east?
Russia lags far behind China in both economic and soft power, but it has used its more limited resources very effectively. Moscow’s general strategy has been to deter what it perceives as challenges to its political order and territory, assert itself as an indispensable power in solving the most pressing global security challenges, and dominate its immediate neighborhood, including the rapidly melting Arctic.
To this end, Moscow has built up the military capacity to complicate NATO’s ability to operate in the Black, Baltic, and North seas as well as in the North Atlantic and the Arctic. Russia has changed its policy and posture to lean toward the use of nuclear weapons in early stages of conflict. In the minds of the country’s leaders, at least, this has deterred adversaries from moving against Moscow or countering Russia’s moves against its neighbors.
Russia has used force twice, in 2008 in Georgia and in 2014 in Ukraine, mainly to deny its neighbors the freedom to set their foreign policies independently of Moscow. Twice in the past decade, Russia has cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and allied countries farther downstream, demonstrating its willingness and ability to use energy as a weapon to bend other countries’ policies to its will. And Russia has deployed forces to, and established or reestablished a military presence in, a number of Middle Eastern and African countries, including Syria and the Central African Republic.
The allies have responded by reinforcing their Eastern flank, updating or completing NATO’s contingency plans, and redoubling their efforts at meaningful dialogue with Moscow. Nations have revamped the gas grid in Europe to better withstand attempts at energy blackmail. But that, in hindsight, was the easy part. In recent years, Russia has also begun financing extremist anti–European Union (EU) and anti-NATO political parties across Europe. And it has spread fake news in an apparent attempt to subvert the existing security architecture and weaken the Western democratic order and institutions.
These moves raise difficult questions for the alliance: Is Russia still a defensive, status quo power, or has a revisionist mind-set taken over? If the latter, how far is Moscow willing to go in undermining the European security order and democracies? Does Russia have a point that some elements of the security order in Europe, such as arms control treaties, need to be updated? If so, how can this be done without weakening allied cohesion and deterrence? What role, if any, does NATO have in safeguarding democracy and political order at home?
If state-sponsored challenges are difficult enough to deal with, then those below the state level are even trickier to grasp and counter—and increasingly prominent. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have generated hope and encouragement since the Arab Spring revolutions first roared in late 2010 but also plenty of concern to the allies, including in the form of mass migration and terrorism. These challenges might seem a world away from NATO’s 1949 Washington Treaty and its state-centered worries about conventional and nuclear threats. But the alliance has fared well over the decades precisely because it has continuously evolved to address its member states’ changing defense and security needs. NATO does what its members want it to do, and since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, this list has included the fight against terrorism.
The nature and sophistication of terrorist organizations themselves is evolving. The self-proclaimed Islamic State was able to control territory through its caliphate project. Elsewhere in the MENA region, from Yemen to Libya to the Sinai Peninsula, terrorist organizations are taking advantage of state fragility to set up smaller pockets of post-Westphalian governance. In addition, these groups are becoming better at fundraising for their activities, and this includes increased collaboration with smugglers of drugs, people, and antiques.8
As terrorism increasingly profits from organized crime, how should NATO respond to member states’ calls for protection? How can the alliance improve its collaboration with the EU and other international actors to deny terrorists and other criminals access to Europe? How does NATO balance the military and political exigencies of the fight against terrorism with its defense and deterrence responsibilities in the East? And what strategies deployed in service of deterrence on the Eastern flank might also be useful in discouraging terrorist attacks against NATO?
The impact of the technological revolution on the alliance’s work has been no less bewildering than geopolitical shifts or troubles in the neighborhood. Only a few fleeting years ago, military might was relatively simple to calculate. Leading Western think tanks still track defense budgets, manpower, and essential platforms in an attempt to decipher relative shifts in power. Yet the situation is no longer so simple. With so many critical military and civilian networks now built outside the West and connected to the internet—and therefore vulnerable to cyber attacks—adversaries and NATO countries alike have gained the ability to inflict unacceptable harm on each other’s economies and armed forces with the click of a mouse.
The allies need to rethink how they can avoid being blackmailed into inaction in times of crisis and how they harden their military information technology systems. Power, after all, is a function not only of the possession of capabilities but also of the freedom to use them. And here, modern technology has given NATO’s adversaries and allies potential ways to paralyze each other’s governments—tactics that were undreamed of only a decade ago and are yet to be fully reflected in allied plans, strategies, and exercises.
Warfare is about to become even more complex and complicated. Artificial intelligence is already revolutionizing military logistics and recruitment and is on its way to being applied to military equipment and weapons. NATO and nonallied countries have tested the first swarms of autonomously operated drones.9 These hold the potential to transform warfare by greatly increasing the speed of decisionmaking and engagement and by defanging many defensive and access-denial systems.10 A technology from another corner of the information technology universe, quantum computing, threatens to wreak havoc on encryption and secure communications.11
The sheer speed of these changes is testing the alliance in unseen ways. Most existing armaments standards and experts deal with the physical world of bullets and armor. At the very least, the allies may now require far greater cohesion on digital policies.
Western societies are digesting the ever-closer fusion of computers and warfare at a time of unprecedented soul-searching about democracy itself. Technology is partly responsible: the proliferation of digital platforms, while hugely beneficial in many regards, has helped reduce the average news consumer’s exposure to views that challenge existing beliefs and willingness to accept another point of view, which is essential to open societies. This matters to NATO. The organization has always been more than a military alliance of shared need and convenience. Its endurance is directly attributable to the sense of community among the allies, which have bound themselves together through shared values while respecting each other’s differences.
Those differences have proliferated in recent years. Globalization and interconnectedness have produced unprecedented prosperity but have also spawned a search for a more nostalgic, nativist way of life. In some cases, this backlash has been tinged with undemocratic hues and a rejection of international institutions. Established Western democracies are reopening long-dormant discussions about the meaning and boundaries of the rule of law and freedom of expression. Countries in transition to democracy have fewer role models to follow and more nondemocratic alternatives to consider.
Can NATO continue to play one of its most important post–Cold War roles—that of helping to make Europe whole and free again—if its own members begin to question elements of the political order that NATO is sworn to defend? Can divergences in political systems and beliefs break allies’ will and ability to use force jointly if a crisis calls on them to do so? Can allied governments maintain public support in NATO, including necessary levels of defense spending and military assistance to other allies, if they see each other less and less as part of the same political family?
The essays that follow may not fully satisfy readers’ yearning for definite answers. But they aspire to serve as a guide in the search for solutions to the challenges NATO faces at the start of its eighth decade.
This publication is sponsored by NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division. The opinions expressed in this publication do not represent the views of NATO.
1 Seth A. Johnson, How NATO Adapts: Strategy and Organization in the Atlantic Alliance Since 1950 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 1.
2 “Report of the Committee of Three,” NATO, October 5, 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_65237.htm; “Harmel Report,” NATO, November 16, 2017, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_67927.htm; and “Experts Group Presents Report on New Strategic Concept for NATO,” NATO, May 17, 2010, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/news_63644.htm.
3 For a list of the sixteen think tanks that contributed to the “New Perspectives on Shared Security: NATO’s Next 70 Years” event series, see the appendix of this collection.
4 Jamie Shea, “How the Harmel Report Helped Build the Transatlantic Security Framework,” New Atlanticist, January 29, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/how-the-harmel-report-helped-build-the-transatlantic-security-framework/.
5 Wayne M. Morrison, “China’s Economic Rise: History, Trends, Challenges, and Implications for the United States,” U.S. Congressional Research Service, updated June 25, 2019, https://www.everycrsreport.com/files/20190625_RL33534_088c5467dd11365dd4ab5f72133db289fa10030f.pdf.
6 See, for example, Steven Stashwick, “China’s South China Sea Militarization Has Peaked,” Foreign Policy, August 19, 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/08/19/chinas-south-china-sea-militarization-has-peaked/.
7 See, for example, “Remarks by Vice President Pence at the Frederic V. Malek Memorial Lecture,” White House, October 24, 2019, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-frederic-v-malek-memorial-lecture/.
8 Cameron Sumpter and Joseph Franco, “Migration, Transnational Crime and Terrorism: Exploring the Nexus in Europe and Southeast Asia,” Perspectives on Terrorism 12, no. 5 (October 2018), https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/binaries/content/assets/customsites/perspectives-on-terrorism/2018/issue-5/sumpter-and-franco-2.pdf.
9 Thomas McMullen, “How Swarming Drones Will Change Warfare,” BBC News, March 16, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-47555588.
10 John R. Allen and Amir Husain, “On Hyperwar,” U.S. Naval Institute, July 2017, https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2017/july/hyperwar.
11 Christian Brose, “The New Revolution in Military Affairs,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-04-16/new-revolution-military-affairs.