The North Atlantic Treaty Organization marks its seventieth anniversary today where it all began back in 1949. As the 29 current nations’ foreign ministers mark the occasion here in Washington with a series of formal celebrations—including a public “NATO Engages” event at the Anthem along the Potomac spearheaded by the Atlantic Council, German Marshall Fund of the United States, and the Munich Security Conference—it’s clear that beneath the celebrations is deep-seated uncertainty about the alliance’s future. Indeed, even as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg became the first international institution head to address a joint session of Congress, he pleaded with Washington to “talk nicely about NATO.” Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence delivered the Trump administration’s continued strong call for increased burden-sharing, singling out Germany as lagging far behind and warning Turkey about buying Russian defense systems if it wanted to remain in good standing with its alliance commitments. The German and Turkish foreign ministers offered their own strong defenses of their national prerogatives.
NATO is the preeminent security alliance network in the world and boasts the largest military force the world has ever seen. Representing close to a billion people with almost half of the world’s GDP, even with the rise of Asia, NATO nations represent not just the past, having stared down the Soviet Union, but the future as it expands far beyond the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, Caucasus, Afghanistan, and increasingly eastward. More countries than ever want to join and partner with NATO, yet its mere existence has never been as controversial, particularly here in Washington where President Donald Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO for not living up to its promises.
Putting NATO out of business has always been the end goal of the alliance. What kept NATO front and center as a security alliance centered on the Article 5 collective self-defense that, in the words of its first secretary general, “kept the Soviets out, Germans down, and the Americans in.” Ironically, Article 5, which is a favorite whipping boy of President Trump, has only been invoked by the United States after September 11 in Afghanistan. However, as NATO has expanded and with less clarity on concrete enemies, allies have grown further apart.
Even as the transatlantic alliance has frayed thanks to populism in almost all Western democracies (including episodes with Brexit, Trump, Italy, and Eastern Europe), American allies, including most recently Brazil and most concretely Japan, have been courted as NATO partners. The question remains whether after 70 years NATO can retain its centrality to decision makers as the center of gravity shifts eastward toward Asia. Russia’s open antagonism toward NATO is balanced by China’s more nuanced approach that has used its own open architecture of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to try and mobilize Eurasia, which is currently off-limits to NATO.
As leaders celebrate NATO’s 70 years in Washington, it’s important to recognize the incredible accomplishment of peace and security achieved in the aftermath of World War II while knowing that the future is already here. Protecting the vulnerable, including nations through collective self-defense, is in everyone’s interests, including the United States, regardless of its costs. However, the status quo no longer looks realistic as the post-World War II international order is being rewritten not just in Washington or Brussels but increasingly Beijing and beyond. Refocusing on NATO’s core military and security functions that hang in the balance with the new political realities of America and Europe including the European Union, rather than trying to be everything to all people around the world, will be critical.
Telling NATO’s incredible story over these past 70 years is important for generations of citizens who have forgotten the horrors of war and why such an alliance was necessary during the Cold War to protect the territorial integrity of Europe beyond the Iron Curtain and keep Greece and Turkey from going to war over the Aegean. As the struggle between authoritarian and open-societies enters a new phase with technologies that leaders back in 1949 could have only dreamed of, the core mission of NATO has never been more necessary given the dynamics of global power. Leadership itself has never been more necessary as we have seen the eclipse of Chancellor Merkel in Germany and Prime Minister May in Britain, along with President Trump’s populist repudiation of previous bipartisan consensus in international affairs including NATO itself.
As Secretary Madeline Albright reflected on what it would take to make it to its eightieth anniversary, NATO needs a new generation of leaders. In fact, it’s time to go beyond the leaders to the very nations and people who will determine whether or not there is a 100-year anniversary or another 70 years to celebrate what each NATO leader reaffirmed. Recalibrating, focusing, and tooling in on NATO’s future mission along with being crystal clear on what the alliance is and isn’t is the best tribute we can give to NATO and the best way to guarantee it will not be relegated to the dustbins of history, like many of its previous adversaries.
Joshua W. Walker, PhD (@drjwalk) is Global Head of Strategic Initiatives and Japan at Eurasia Group, the world’s leading geopolitical risk consultancy, and a fellow at the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program focused on Japan.
Photo Credit: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaking at “NATO Engages: the Alliance at 70.” NATO photo, via Flickr.