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The Future of NATO

Posted by: John Phoenix

To mark NATO’s 75th-anniversary summit in Washington this month, the Quincy Institute invited leading experts and practitioners to reflect on the past and future of the alliance.
The symposium begins with an introduction from Anatol Lieven, who serves as Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute.
The contributions to follow feature a wide range of perspectives, from those who have directly participated in European security institutions, such as former Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Rüediger Lüedeking and former U.K. Ambassador to NATO Sir Adam Thomson, to scholars who advocate for a more fundamental reorientation of the NATO alliance, such as James Carden and Joshua Shifrinson.

Table of Contents

Introduction

To mark NATO’s 75th Anniversary summit in Washington, D.C., the Quincy Institute invited leading U.S. and European analysts to comment on the future of the alliance. While differing greatly in their assessment both of NATO’s role to date and of how they would like to see it develop in the future, all agree that NATO is facing an exceptionally difficult and dangerous period in its history. 

NATO likes to describe itself as “the most successful alliance in history” not because it won a war, but because during the Cold War it deterred a Soviet attack on Western Europe and thereby prevented a new world war. What is too often forgotten, however, is that war was prevented not just by NATO solidarity, but also by NATO caution. Successive U.S. administrations — fully backed by their European allies — rejected calls for aggressive policies aimed at “rolling back” Soviet power in Eastern Europe. 

Since the end of the Cold War, by contrast, NATO has become committed to rolling back Russian power even in former Soviet countries on Russia’s own borders. As a result of the clash between this and Moscow’s determination to maintain a sphere of influence, NATO now finds itself in a proxy conflict with Moscow on the European Continent itself. If this turns into direct war, there is a good chance that it will end with a nuclear exchange. At that point, the question of the future role of NATO will become meaningless, if only because there will be nobody left to ask it. 

If direct war can be avoided, most analysts predict that mutual hostility between Russia and the West will continue for the foreseeable future, and will involve the risk of further clashes around Russia’s borders — for example, over the future of Belarus and Russian access to the exclave of Kaliningrad across NATO territory in Lithuania. How great this threat will be depends on how the war in Ukraine eventually ends, and whether it is through a compromise peace or a petering out into an endless semifrozen conflict.

Analysts agree that NATO’s European members will definitely try to rearm, especially if Donald Trump is reelected and U.S. commitment to Europe seems uncertain. Their efforts in this direction will, however, be hampered by economic stagnation, the conflicting demands of increasingly endangered budgets for health and social welfare, and the resistance of European countries to pooling their military production. In an effort to please Washington and ensure that the U.S. maintains its military presence in Europe, NATO is also likely to make public gestures toward a global role and the containment of China. 

If the U.S. does pull back from Europe to any significant extent, NATO is likely to abandon its expansionist program of recent decades and limit itself to the defense of its existing members. This shift would, however, lead to considerable tensions between NATO members over policy toward Russia.

One notable result of the war in Ukraine has been the almost complete disappearance from NATO discussions of the threat of climate change, previously described as “existential.” Nor does NATO have any strategy for the stabilization of countries to its south, or for addressing illegal migration across the Mediterranean. A few decades from now, however, the growth of these dangers may render many of NATO’s existing preoccupations irrelevant.

– Anatol Lieven, Eurasia Program Director, Quincy Institute

Contributions

Asli Aydintasbas

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has gone through many incarnations: NATO, the agent of transformation to bring Eastern Europe into the league of Western democracies. NATO, the fighter in the war against terrorism. NATO, the cybersleuth. The democracy-builder. The rules-based order enforcer.

And finally, at its 75th anniversary, NATO seems to be going back to its original mission: a collective defense pact to keep Europe safe — and Russia out.

It is not surprising that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has energized the organization and reaffirmed the importance of Article 5 to all member states, big or small. NATO is no longer “brain-dead” and certainly has the capacity to deter Russia from attacking its member states.

But there still is much to do for the alliance to retain its relevance into the future.

The first is creation of benchmarks and incentives for members to do more for their own defense, so Europe can reduce its reliance on the United States as its sole security guarantor. No matter who gets to the White House in November, American public sentiment is shifting in ways that are certain to have long-term implications for U.S. commitment to European security. 

At a time when Washington views China and the Indo–Pacific as the foremost strategic challenge, Europeans need to develop industrial capabilities so as to have the freedom to make independent decisions for their own destiny. That inevitably means increasing military spending and manufacturing to complement the U.S. role in European security today and develop more autonomous reflexes tomorrow.

NATO also needs to have a clear-eyed view of what its endgame in Ukraine is. Despite the slogan “Ukraine’s defense is Europe’s defense,” Ukraine’s Western backers do not have a unified vision for where Ukraine fits in Europe’s security. While supporting Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russian aggression has been critical for the alliance, given that Russia is far from losing the war, it’s time to start thinking of how this war ends — in ways that preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and build a new security architecture for Europe. 

Ukraine’s theory of victory is increasingly looking unachievable to its Western backers. It’s not hard to imagine negotiations for a ceasefire — even with continued Russian occupation in parts of Ukraine — at some point over the next few years. The U.S. and its allies need to be able to provide sufficient security guarantees for Ukraine, so its leaders and society have the confidence to accept a bitter peace — and embark toward a more desirable future.

That means a smaller but stronger Ukraine — and NATO can be a critical piece of that.

What role NATO plays in negotiations to end the war will define the future of the alliance — and the nature of strategic stability with a nuclear Russia. If NATO can play some role in the creation of a postconflict Ukraine, even in the absence of full membership for Ukraine, it will remain relevant in Europe’s future security architecture. 

Of course, none of this might happen. Europe may remain divided on the question of strategic autonomy, with many member states following the U.S. lead on geopolitical challenges. There may not be consensus inside the alliance for an active role for an endgame in Ukraine — leaving the matter entirely to Washington. America’s strategic involvement with the Indo–Pacific might make individual member states more eager to strike bilateral arrangements with Washington — hollowing out NATO’s core mission or creating an internal constituency that wants to steer the alliance more toward greater competition with China.

That, I am afraid, would mean that NATO’s perpetual search for a mission will continue into its fourth quarter-century and well into the next generation. 

Asli Aydintasbas is a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s foreign policy program and a Senior Associate Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Sven Biscop

In the European theater, conventional deterrence and defense should be ensured by Europeans. The 300,000 troops in a high state of readiness that the NATO New Force Model envisages on the eastern flank should be European troops. And they should need but a single American to be fully operational: SACEUR.

As it is, however, those 300,000 troops will still be dependent on American strategic enablers: intelligence, transport, deep strike, etc. Therefore, the European allies should go beyond the capability targets that NATO has currently assigned to them, and acquire all the necessary enablers themselves. That will undoubtedly require a collective effort, such as German Chancellor Scholz’s Sky Shield initiative for a unified European air defense system.

That is where the European Union can help. Not in trying to align capability development and defense planning of its member states under the E.U. flag. After exactly 25 years (the Common Security and Defence Policy was launched in 1999), it is clear that nations do not want this. But the E.U. does have instruments that work, or can work: the European Defence Fund to invest in research and industry and the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) to build modular multinational capabilities. Those should be put to use to help the European allies build a comprehensive, full-spectrum force package within NATO.

If the Europeans managed to achieve this, this force package would constitute a tangible European pillar of NATO, in terms of capabilities. The U.S. should fully support such a move, and refrain from irritating allies by seeing everything in terms of defense industrial interests. If Europeans spend more money, of course they will want to spend more (not all) of that on European equipment. Washington needs Europe to do more, for it will free up conventional military resources for its own priorities in Asia, while the American nuclear umbrella remains the ultimate guarantee.

Indeed, it is precisely because President Obama in 2012 already made Asia into the U.S.’ No. 1 priority that Europeans must build a complete pillar within NATO. Twelve years later, it is about time the European allies stop convincing themselves that whatever happens, the U.S. cavalry will always be there. The reality is that in case of simultaneous wars in Europe and Asia, the U.S. is likely to prioritize the latter. Moreover, E.U. member states can only confidently support E.U. candidate country Ukraine (and Moldova and Georgia) without having to fear direct Russian retaliation, because NATO provides deterrence — the conventional part of which Europeans must in the end ensure themselves.

An alliance that rests both on the U.S. and on an autonomous European pillar would be a much more balanced, and therefore more healthy alliance. But the Europeans should also build this pillar to prepare for less-healthy scenarios. If domestic politics lead the U.S. to reduce its commitment to NATO, the Europeans should be ready to seamlessly take over any task that the U.S. might withdraw from. Strategy is all about being prepared to uphold your interests, whatever comes to pass.

Prof. Sven Biscop is the Director of the Europe in the World program at Egmont — The Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels. He also lectures at Ghent University.

James Carden

As with so much else, NATO’s future will ultimately depend on the future America chooses for itself. American policymakers would do well to reconsider the wisdom of continuing the 80-year American military presence in Europe. One alternative would be to pursue a “less-than-grand” strategy of American engagement that focuses primarily on a regional security arrangement between the U.S., Mexico, and Canada in anticipation of China’s rise. If the U.S. is unlikely to ever fully exit the North Atlantic alliance, it might, at a minimum, step aside from NATO’s integrated military command, in the manner of Charles de Gaulle in 1966.

Given that it inhabits an entirely different part of the planet, Europe will naturally confront a set of different challenges from those facing the U.S. The most pressing, if various models are to be believed, will be the challenge posed by mass migration. 

For Europe to have a happy future, it must tend to its own garden, and this necessitates a strategy of containing and mitigating the effects of climate migration. The strategy could be twofold: First, E.U. member states might set up a kind of climate mitigation fund for sub-Saharan Africa, which, in turn, would be coupled with a robust interdiction strategy against illegal migration in the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

NATO, as currently conceived by transatlantic elites, is a danger to regional, and indeed, global stability: no NATO expansion, no war in Georgia in 2008; no NATO expansion, no war in Ukraine in 2022. Meanwhile, NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya resulted in the destruction of the Libyan state and mass migration flows across the Mediterranean. 

Sen. Richard Lugar’s indelible phrase, “Out of area or out of business,” implied that to survive, NATO had to go hunting for work outside of its borders — and in the three decades that followed Lugar’s recommendation, it did. But it turns out that there is plenty of “in-area” work for NATO to do — only contrary to what transatlantic elites constantly tell us, that work doesn’t have to do with the Russians. The threat to Europe’s future will not come from its east, it will come from its south — and the challenge will not be a military one. It will be humanitarian.

To successfully deal with this, NATO should adopt a medium- to long-term strategy of targeted devolution — its primary focus would be to defend Europe’s borders — and therefore its prosperity, its identity, and its security. The idea that NATO now has to go further and further “out of area” to the Indo–Pacific, is deeply misconceived — instead, in the coming decades NATO should transform itself into a pan-European coast guard and border patrol — perhaps in some combination with the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) and the European Gendarmerie Force.
In the end, if NATO is to actually serve a useful role in securing Europe’s future, it needs to abandon its pretensions of being a “global policeman” and become, instead, a cop on the beat.

James Carden is a contributing writer for foreign affairs at The Nation. He served as a policy advisor to the Special Representative for Intergovernmental Affairs and the Office of Russia Affairs at the US State Department.

Michael Kimmage

Over the next generation, the NATO alliance should be prudent about both development and change. Historically, the alliance has excelled at being what it formally is: a defensive military alliance. The alliance had been created to deter the Soviet Union, which it did for the duration of the Cold War. Now its task is to deter Russia. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has destabilized Russia’s relations with the West, NATO territory has not been attacked, and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of NATO member states has not been challenged by Russia. NATO’s most important responsibility is to ensure that this remains the case.

NATO’s self-definition as a defensive military alliance does not mean it can or should turn inward. Tensions between Russia on the one hand and Europe and the United States on the other are going to remain high for years, if not for decades. Even if NATO is unable to incorporate new states into the alliance — Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, or states in the Balkans and in the South Caucasus — NATO should be conceptualized as the inner circle of a two-layered strategy designed to contain the spread of Russian military power.

NATO should not be directly involved in the war in Ukraine or in subsidiary wars that flow out from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (in Moldova, say, or in Georgia). Yet NATO members should be deeply committed to ensuring Ukraine’s security. Were Russia to conquer Ukraine, NATO’s deterrent work would be rendered vastly more difficult. Were the Kremlin to see its war in Ukraine as a dead end, Russia would be easier to deter throughout Europe. In this way does Ukraine’s security reflect the overall health of the NATO alliance.

NATO runs two separate risks in its possible course of development and change. These risks can be characterized as overreach and underreach.

Overreach would entail the blurring of lines in the existing struggle between NATO and Russia. If the alliance is not disciplined, it could allow several things to happen: direct forms of conflicts between its members and Russia; direct involvement (of the alliance) in the war; and lack of clarity about NATO’s mission, which is to say lack of clarity about whether NATO is a defensive military alliance or an alliance geared toward expeditionary ventures.

NATO has been involved in wars previously — in Afghanistan and in Libya. NATO has never been involved in a war with a nuclear power. NATO’s strategic purpose is to avoid war with Russia or to make such war impossible. Overreach leading to unwanted escalation and in effect to a Russia–NATO war would be catastrophic. It could lead to a nuclear exchange, or it could lead to NATO’s backing down (to prevent a nuclear exchange) and thus to NATO’s undermining of confidence in the integrity and purpose of the alliance itself.

Underreach would occur were NATO to be unconcerned with the territory outside its formal perimeter. Were NATO to think of itself as “fortress NATO,” preoccupied only with the defense of member states, it could find itself in an increasingly precarious position.

Were Ukraine and Moldova to follow the trajectory of Belarus, NATO would face the Russian military across a very long border: Kaliningrad and Belarus in the north; Ukraine and Moldova in the south and on the Black Sea. The Balkans could become a zone of active contestation. This would be a great multiplicity of challenges for NATO, which Russia could exploit to gain advantage, to instill fear in alliance members, and to compel the United States to pull away from Europe and to concentrate on matters closer to home. Over time, underreach could weaken the alliance dramatically.

NATO will succeed in future years if it can find the golden mean. This means not falling into outright war with Russia; this means preserving the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a Ukrainian state and polity; and this means keeping Russia at bay in the many gray areas that surround the NATO alliance. In sum, NATO’s challenges in 2024 are greater than they were in 1949, when the alliance was created. Thus, its adaptability and strategic acumen will have to be greater as well.

Michael Kimmage is a Professor of History at the Catholic University of America. From 2014 to 2016, he served on the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State, where he held the Russia/Ukraine portfolio. His most recent book is Collisions: The War in Ukraine and the Origins of the New Global Instability. 

Anne Kraatz

The best development for NATO that one should wish for, I believe (even if the odds against its happening appear daunting at present), is that it should return to its fundamentals: Prevent war, in accordance to its obligation not just to defend all the signatories of the treaty but also to commit itself, in the words of the treaty, “not to enter into any international commitments that conflicted with the treaty” and to adhere “to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” 

The U.N. Charter states, as its first objective, “to maintain international peace and security” and “uphold international law.” In other words, in a more perfect world, NATO should work toward peace and not toward managing conflicts solely through military means in the future. 

Unfortunately, how NATO probably will develop and change is a very different matter. In his new strategic concept presented at the Madrid Summit in June 2022, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg set out five points for the development of NATO. Only one of these, “taking a global outlook,” was really “new.” This “global outlook” involves extending the treaty’s mandate exponentially. NATO would develop into a supranational organism with tentacles reaching into many corners of the world, if not all. 

On the other hand, a new generation of populist politicians in the United States and Europe will probably not want to take such a “global outlook” but will retreat, if trends are anything to go by, to their own shores in the perhaps-mistaken idea that conflicts here and there will not affect them directly. 

However, the same conflicts ongoing now might already have escalated to the extent that, even a generation ahead, their consequences will instead produce a general desire to project strength, whatever the human consequences. Thus, European nations will have rearmed and retrained their military and will possibly no longer accept the sole leadership of the U.S. in NATO affairs. It will then take a very astute politician to rein in everyone’s power instincts: Failing the presence of such a man or woman, NATO could actually break apart amidst exacerbated rivalries, including economic ones, and conflicting nationalist postures and interests.

Anne Kraatz is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute. She was a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Open Diplomacy in Paris, and a member of the Executive Committee of Democrats Abroad in France, in charge of organizing and moderating public debates on U.S. foreign affairs.

Ambassador Rüediger Lüedeking

NATO was created in 1949 to protect its members against the Soviet threat. During the Cold War, NATO was also very aware of the risks of escalation, some of which were existential. Accordingly, the main aims were to deter armed conflict and to ensure a reliable defense capability. In addition, the alliance sought very early on to contain the risk of a military conflict breaking out by respecting the Soviet Union’s central “red lines”; it did not even shy away from dialogue and verifiable agreements with an opponent not considered as trustworthy. This attitude found classic expression in the dual strategy from 1967 (the so-called Harmel Report), which is still valid for NATO today. According to this, on the basis of a guaranteed defense capability, NATO was ready for dialogue and détente with the opposing side.

After 1989, the bipolar confrontation only seemed to have disappeared. It has not been possible to integrate Russia into a new European security order. Rather, Putin saw that, in particular from the beginning of the 2000s onward, the policies of the U.S. and NATO had not taken into account Russian superpower interests, and that “red lines” had been crossed, especially by promising future NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia. This was also due to the arrogant “unipolar” actions of the U.S. administration under George W. Bush and its insensitive focus on military superiority and expanding its and NATO’s sphere of influence.

Particularly due to the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the emergence of a Cold War 2.0, it is now important to heed the lessons of NATO’s 75-year history:

  • The days of “peace dividends” are long gone. NATO and its members are called upon to restore their defense capabilities decisively and much more quickly. A focus on a mechanistic target of 2 percent of GDP for national defense spending will not be sufficient. The only decisive factor must be the sustainable closing of existing military capability gaps. And for many NATO member states, a rapid reintroduction of conscription will also be necessary.
  • But the second part of the Harmel strategy must also be urgently revived. We need a targeted diplomatic initiative exploring the possibilities of ending the war in Ukraine. Limiting ourselves to military support for Ukraine is shortsighted. A concerted initiative by important states of the international community holds the best promise of terminating the bloody conflict rapidly. Even China has committed itself to the central principles of the U.N. Charter and can be taken at its word. At the same time, however, the exclusion of Russia is ultimately not compatible with the dual strategy pursued by NATO during the Cold War. It guarantees only a long-term unstable and dangerous security situation in Europe.
  • NATO has always been most successful when the transatlantic partners have pulled together. Solidarity and cohesion between the U.S. and its European allies are crucial for NATO’s ability to act in the current critical situation. If, after the U.S. elections, a new administration terminates this cohesion, it will send a fatal signal not only to its European allies but also to its partners in Asia, which see themselves threatened by China and North Korea. America cannot be “made great again” if it stands alone and is isolated.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections in the U.S., however, the European partners must increase their defense efforts in order to focus more on Europe’s own security and to be able to assert themselves in the looming phase of global geopolitical upheaval. If this is not possible within the framework of the E.U., a “core Europe,” primarily under the leadership of France and Germany, should proceed in order to achieve strategic autonomy in the military area too. This is, moreover, the only way to limit defense spending. At this crucial juncture, the alliance must pursue with sound judgment a realistic security policy aimed at reestablishing sustainable peace and cooperation in Europe and the world.

Rüediger Lüedeking is a former German diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and Ambassador to Belgium.

Matthias Matthijs

It is imperative for NATO to become more balanced between America and Europe when it comes to burden-sharing. The European members of NATO should organize themselves in a way that they would be able to conduct military operations in their own neighborhood without the direct support of the Americans. While this does not need to be done by the European Union, the E.U. has a key role to play when it comes to providing joint financing for defense procurement and to help develop a European military-industrial policy. Key European members of NATO that are not members of the E.U. — including the United Kingdom, Norway, and Turkey — have a lot to offer to such a European pillar of the alliance, and they should be fully integrated into any European defense architecture.

Such a “rebalancing” of the Atlantic alliance — with the goal of the European members to spend a roughly equal amount of money on defense and having similar military capabilities — would guarantee that NATO will endure through the 21st century, as it would no longer be subject to the whims of American domestic politics. After all, an international alliance sharing both common interests and common values is equally valuable for both Americans and Europeans, as it would increase both North America’s and Europe’s influence in the rest of the world, and benefit its citizens by providing stability and security in which their mixed-market economies can continue to grow and thrive.

In reality, however, there is a substantial risk that European efforts will fall well short of what is needed to achieve a proper rebalancing of NATO. For political economy reasons, current and future American presidents will continue to encourage European allies to buy weapons and military hardware from the United States, and E.U. internal discord over joint financing and the interests of national defense industries will prevent integration of European military procurement. Aging European societies will only increase their demands for more social welfare at the expense of military spending. 

In this scenario, the United States will continue to exert a disproportionate sway over the alliance, which will maintain the unhappy equilibrium of American dominance and European free-riding within NATO, with those perceptions of each side reinforced across the Atlantic, and increased uncertainty over America’s future commitment to the alliance. There may also be pressure to expand NATO beyond the Northern Atlantic space, and invite America’s democratic allies in the Pacific, including Japan, South Korea, and Australia, to join. NATO would then serve as the U.S. vehicle to contain not only Russia, but also China. If this development materializes, it has the potential of further increasing geopolitical tension between the West and the rest as well as within NATO.

Matthias Matthijs holds the Dean Acheson Chair at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a Senior Fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Molly O’Neal

An armistice agreement in Ukraine — which now seems likely in the foreseeable future — should include a commitment by NATO and Russia to set verifiable limitations on conventional deployments on either side of a demilitarized truce line. This could either be considered a revamping and redesign of the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement or could be more circumscribed and less ambitious. In either case, for the U.S. in particular, structuring a durable peace would require reactivating diplomatic capacities sidelined during the zero-sum struggle between Russia and NATO. 

The postwar framework should explicitly allow the European members of NATO to increase national defense outlays to achieve a rough balance of conventional capability vis à vis Russia. This would require U.S. acceptance of a collective E.U. role in defense industrial development. The aim of this Europeanization of NATO would be to render the U.S. conventional military force presence in Europe less essential. The U.S. would still extend its nuclear umbrella over NATO members in Europe, but NATO’s European pillar would become more capable and have a greater voice in decision-making. NATO should shift its focus from expansion eastward to supporting Europe’s development of its conventional defense capabilities, an enterprise likely to take at least a decade.

NATO would remain the principal framework for mutual defense of the Transatlantic West. Russia and NATO should work to revive stabilizing measures to diminish the risk of renewed conflict in Europe, as in the years following the Cuban missile crisis. The restoration of nuclear arms control agreements should be given priority. 

The hard lessons of the last few years have exposed the failure of military power and even the harshest economic sanctions to resolve interstate conflict without unacceptable risk to the broader security interests of all parties. Diplomatic contacts between Russia and the United States would have to be put on a more sober and patient track. 

Without such agreements, the continuation of the war in Ukraine on its current trajectory carries the danger of escalation to direct confrontation between NATO and Russia. The determination of the U.S. and its partners to project unity and resolve in defense of Ukraine has taken on a life of its own and functions as an instrument within an information war, favoring “narrative” over reality. The summit in Washington in July risks being absorbed almost entirely in avoidance of any unwelcome controversy over the question of Ukraine’s path to membership and in the frantic attempt to make the prospect of eventual NATO membership credible to Ukraine’s leadership. Any open debate and frank reflection around shoring up NATO under a possible Trump presidency and exploring scenarios for the end of the war will, at best, remain behind closed doors. 

The nostalgic reification of NATO has played a big role in producing the dilemma now facing us. The July summit will celebrate the revival of U.S. prestige within NATO, the near-unanimity among European allies in supporting “victory” for Ukraine, and the restored relevance of NATO in the face of a renewed military threat from Russia to the alliance. The papering over of challenges to NATO and the failure to design and implement reforms will continue so long as there is no consensus around achievable war aims and no effort to find a negotiated end to the conflict. 

Dr. Molly O’Neal is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute and a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer dealing with Eastern Europe, Russia, and Eurasia.

Joshua Shifrinson

Alliances are ultimately arrangements between two or more states for security cooperation and are generally targeted against a particular adversary. NATO played this role during the Cold War, with Western European states, Canada, and the United States balancing potential Soviet ambitions on the Continent. Informed by this logic, many analysts predicted NATO’s demise after the Cold War; indeed, the alliance’s ability to endure and expand in scope (though not coherence and function) after 1991 at least partly motivates claims that the alliance’s shared values and institutional anchoring will allow it to thrive in future. 

Yet there is a simpler explanation for NATO’s post–Cold War endurance that ought to give us pause as to NATO’s future health. If alliances form largely in response to threats, it follows that they ought to end not simply when an old threat dies, but when a new threat emerges at the same time. From this perspective, the end of the Cold War saw the Soviet Union die, but because no new threat emerged, NATO could continue unimpeded. NATO became a Swiss Army Knife for spreading liberal values, fighting terrorism, and establishing an array of new goals.

Today, however, the situation is different: Domestic politics aside, we see a growing disconnect between European and American priorities. The United States is increasingly focused on China, so much so that the (overstated) China threat is one of the true points of bipartisan consensus in Washington. European states, on the other hand, are divided between those who see a pronounced threat from Russia and those who see an array of challenges from illegal migration and state instability along the southern maritime border.

Against this backdrop, NATO’s days may be numbered — at least in its current form. States with diverging or divergent interests can try to paper over their differences. In a world of finite time and resources, however, differing priorities tend to drive alliances apart, as member states place their bets and act out of self-interest. With NATO, this may not result in an abrupt end to transatlantic cooperation, but it does imply a progressive weakening of the commitment, waning coordination, and a hollowing out of the alliance. 

If and as American and European attentions continue to part, the United States may increasingly pass the security buck to the European members of the alliance. Without the ability to steer European security policy, Washington may well look to reduce its exposure to European contingencies — just as many in Europe may be increasingly growing reluctant to count on U.S. assistance amid a crisis in which, for self-interested reasons, Washington may be unwilling to help. A result could be a NATO that remains alive on paper but, in practice, is primarily a European show.

This would not be a bad result for the United States. Indeed, the founders of the alliance actually wanted NATO to be a temporary expedient, a shield behind which Western Europe could recover from the devastation of the Second World War before taking on the hard task of balancing the Soviet Union. That original idea was lost for much of the last seven decades. Yet, as NATO celebrates its 75th birthday, geopolitical developments — more so than domestic politics — may bring the founders’ vision back to the fore. 

Joshua Shifrinson is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy of the University of Maryland, and author of Rising Titans, Falling Giants: How Great Powers Exploit Power Shifts (2023).

Sir Adam Thomson

How NATO should and will develop over the next generation depends entirely on a guess about what happens geopolitically. 

Few alliances last even NATO’s 75 years. As an institution, NATO is too weak to perpetuate itself against key members’ wishes. The alliance will, as always, be fractious, and it’s harder to manage with 32+ nations than with the original 12. The U.S. interest in sustaining NATO is in secular decline. Some have predicted that NATO cannot last without the U.S. And an E.U.–based version of NATO is perfectly conceivable if a President Trump or similar were to pull America out. 

So, seen from the outside, it’s reasonable to wonder whether NATO will even exist a generation from now. But, viewed from the inside, NATO has staying power. It exists not just to keep Russia out and America in, but to keep Western and Central Europe from disintegrating again along national lines. Presidents Putin and Trump have massively increased European incentives for hanging together — preferably with but, if necessary, without America.

My guess is that a generation from now, NATO will still be in sustained military confrontation with Russia; Washington will still not want Europe — its largest trading and investment partner — to fall apart, even if the U.S. becomes a semidetached ally; and an E.U.–based alternative still could not rope in British, Turkish, and Norwegian capabilities as effectively. 

In that anxious security context, NATO should develop a European pillar in tighter collaboration with the E.U., pursuing common European procurement goals and smoothing transatlantic defense industrial frictions through NATO’s defense planning process. It should remain open to new members who can increase alliance security, including Ukraine. It should secure the Euro–Atlantic for America, leaving the U.S. and other individual allies to operate in the Indo–Pacific. It should be the arms control organization it claims to be, advancing proposals to Moscow to manage confrontation at lower levels of risk and higher levels of deterrence. It should work to be seen internationally as a valued stability generator in an unstable world, investing heavily in its partnerships for military professionalism under democratic political control.

And how will NATO in fact develop? Outlier possibilities exist for more significant damage to its cohesion and effectiveness from America’s isolationism and China focus, E.U. ideology and incoherence, British and Turkish E.U. complications, Russian and Chinese erosions, and the continuing lack of a shared vision among allies. 

It will be both less European and less transatlantic than it needs to be, less robust and more threatening toward Moscow than it needs to be, more internally factional than it ought to be, and less confident than it should be about working intimately with the E.U. and U.N. on geographical and functional instabilities. It may have lost Hungary and Bulgaria to Russian influence, and it will have gained Ukraine, formally or otherwise. It will be badly divided over China. Strong anti-Americanism in Europe will complicate public politics, but Europe’s structural inefficiencies will mean the U.S. is still the essential partner. 

Sir Adam Thomson is Director of the European Leadership Network. From 2014 to 2016, he was U.K. Ambassador to NATO.

By: Anatol Lieven

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