The transatlantic alliance deserves a resounding “happy birthday”. It kept the peace for 40 years of cold war, protected western Europe from communism, helped stabilise central Europe after the Soviet Union’s collapse and enabled unprecedented prosperity. It has shown admirable openness, adaptability and commitment.
“We’re incredibly complacent about the continuous delivery of peace and stability in our lives, and a hell of a lot of that depends on NATO,” says Sir Adam Thomson, a former British ambassador to NATO, now with the European Leadership Network, a London-based think-tank. “We tend to take it for granted.”
In many respects the alliance looks stronger than ever. It will soon have 30 members, encompassing more than 930m people. Together they produce around half the world’s gdp and account for about 55% of global defence spending. The allies are getting on with a long to-do list drawn up at last year’s summit, from ambitious readiness plans to new command centres.
Yet as this special report has pointed out, NATO is also deeply troubled. Douglas Lute and Nicholas Burns, two former American ambassadors to NATO, say Donald Trump has “hurtled the alliance into its most worrisome crisis in memory”. In a thorough assessment of “NATO at Seventy” for Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre, they set out a daunting array of the challenges it faces. The greatest of them is “the absence of strong, principled American presidential leadership for the first time in its history”.
Still, in some ways Mr Trump has done NATO a favour by concentrating minds on the need for the allies to spend more, and do more, for their own defence. And he has been right to highlight the German problem. To update Lord Ismay’s aphorism, NATO now needs Germany to be up, not down.
Mr Trump has also been an antidote to complacency. He has provoked the alliance into re-examining the fundamental reason for its existence, prompting Congress to spring to its defence and ministers to write editorials explaining why the world still needs NATO. He has set off a frenzy of thinking about the future of European defence. If anyone had started to wonder whether NATO mattered any more, Mr Trump (with more than a little help from Mr Putin) has ensured that it will continue to receive attention.
By keeping Europe secure, NATO serves America’s interests. Its defenders say that Mr Trump’s transactional approach is wrong-headed. Yes, America’s allies should do more, but their contribution adds to American strength, providing forces, firepower and valuable bases. In a coming era of great-power rivalry, it would be folly to give this up. America has many allies, in NATO and in Asia, which makes it quite different from China and Russia, says Mr Burns: “They have none.”
These are good reasons for expecting NATO to survive Mr Trump. But beyond the storms of his presidency, the geopolitical climate is anyway changing. If NATO wants to remain strong in the decades ahead, it needs to start preparing now. That will involve still more adaptation, none of it easy. Three areas stand out.
One is speed. Having to co-ordinate 30 countries makes quick decisions harder, yet they will become ever more vital. Streamlining NATO bureaucracy should help, but it is not enough.
James Stavridis, who served as supreme allied commander for Europe, says that if he could wave a magic wand, decisions in the North Atlantic Council (nac), where members vote, could be reached with a three-quarters majority rather than unanimously. In some circumstances, even that would be too slow: it can take three hours to get the nac together.
“If you have to convene the North Atlantic Council as a missile is flying to Manchester, it’s bye-bye Manchester,” notes Sandy Vershbow, a former NATO Deputy Secretary General. Clear protocols for responses are needed, too.
Second, the alliance should take a hard look at its priorities. Currently it finds itself doing both beefed-up collective defence and crisis-management at the same time. It risks being pulled in too many directions so as to keep its diverse membership on board. Sooner rather than later it should confront tough strategic choices.
Which missions could it drop? How much attention should it pay to areas of rising strategic importance, such as the Arctic? Should it continue to keep the door open to new members, or has its expansion reached its practical limits for now?
A Fundamental Realignment
The third shift in thinking is the one likely to matter most if NATO is to maintain its relevance: adjusting to China’s rise. As America’s strategic priorities pivot further towards the Pacific, what are the implications for the transatlantic alliance?
The European allies are only just starting to become aware of how America’s emerging rivalry with China could affect them through wariness of Chinese 5g telecoms technology, for example, or of infrastructure investments through President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Not all member countries are equally concerned about this, but they should be in no doubt about its future significance.
Small initial steps for NATO could include gestures such as opening a diplomatic dialogue with China and flying the flag in friendly countries in the Pacific, including Australia and Japan. The more global-minded European allies, notably France and Britain, are becoming more involved in freedom-of-navigation and overflight operations in the Pacific.
But eventually a clearer division of labour between Europeans and Americans will need to be considered. Stephen Walt of Harvard Kennedy School says there could be a time for “a new transatlantic bargain” between America and its European allies: America agrees to stay on in Europe, but at a reduced level of engagement; the Europeans agree to up their game in their own region and take on board America’s concerns over China on trade and intellectual property.
At the moment the chances for such a grand agreement look slim. It presupposes a shared view of the world that does not exist. Europe and America are at odds on many fronts. Mr Trump has described the eu as a “foe” on trade. The Europeans are making efforts to get round America’s extraterritorial reach over sanctions on Iran.
And where would the leadership for an ambitious new division of labour come from? NATO’s big players are all distracted: America by the Trump show, Britain by Brexit, France by protests and Italy’s populists, Germany by the end of the Merkel era and Turkey by its temptations to wander away from Europe. In such circumstances, just staying together as allies looks like a heroic task.
Still, it would be foolish to underestimate NATO’s ability to reinvent itself. It has done so before. If it wants to be in rude health at 100, this septuagenarian is due for another metamorphosis.