international analysis and commentary

NATO: Between continuity and change



The extraordinary longevity and success of NATO are rooted in its foundation on a common identity and shared values, still vital between the two shores of the Atlantic, as well as on its capacity to adapt to change. Today the challenge the Alliance faces is twofold: the complexity of the international relations scenario and the security implications of new technologies, with particular reference to Artificial Intelligence.


On April 4, 2019, NATO turned 70. This is a time span that usually goes beyond the entire existence of an international organization. An analysis of NATO’s 70 years of success and its future perspectives may be summarized in two apparently dichotomous terms: continuity and change.

Continuity is that of a community of values binding the peoples of the two shores of the Atlantic. NATO not only survived, but succeeded – from 12 member countries in 1949 to the current 29, almost 30 – throughout the 40 years of the Cold War and the following 30 years of “world disorder”. This is mainly due to a widespread sense of cultural belonging and to a common origin that came far before the Alliance itself was established, an identity patrimony that had been settled for centuries.

The second term to which the longevity of the Atlantic Alliance is to be ascribed is its unceasing ability to transform itself in order to adapt to the changes of the international context: continuity and change, then, as fundamental terms of an equation that still makes the Alliance relevant.



After the most devastating war in history, in which humanity knew the inhumanity of the Shoah, we understood that the threat of conflict was not totally removed rom Europe. Once the Nazis were defeated, the security of the continent was still threatened by its division into two hostile blocks. An Iron Curtain had descended across Europe. In four years, from 1945 to 1949, we were witnessing a tight turning in our history. Allies of 1945 became adversaries: on the one side, the Soviet Union; on the other side, the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Four years later Italy was one of the founders of the Atlantic Alliance. It was a real and conclusive taking of sides for Italy, but also for the liberal democracies that found themselves as allies against one of the enemies of the Second World War. In the words of Lord Ismay, the First NATO Secretary General: “The goal of NATO is to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, the Germans down”.

NATO immediately showed its capacity to adapt. Quite early Germany also joined the Alliance to defend the West against the Soviet threat. Germany was no longer a power to be harnessed. As Washington soon understood, it became instead a fundamental ally that together with the other Europeans could ensure a pivotal contribution from a strategic point of view, as well as in terms of resources, to the common defense.

Europeans need a permanent and structured involvement of the United Stated in their defense: never again should there be a withdrawal on the other side of the Atlantic like the one that took place after the Great War, leaving us at the mercy of our monsters and fratricidal wars. The Americans want the Europeans to play an active role and contribute in an adequate manner (since the very beginning this has been an important aspect for the US administrations, to also overcome the perplexities in Congress).

NATO’s entire role is about the concept of deterrence and collective defense. The most powerful assurance against a new war in Europe is the iconic norm of the Atlantic Treaty, Article 5, whose credibility has ensured 70 years of peace and prosperity: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.”

At the heart of it all lie our values, the choice of sides in a world that, after the war, was divided between liberal societies and communist totalitarianism. In the preamble of the Washington Treaty the founders consider themselves as “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”.

This “ideological” profile of the Alliance is just as important as Article 5. The strength of the Alliance lies in its common heartfelt values (not imposed as it was the case in the 20th century with the Warsaw Pact or the Holy Alliance in the 19th century), built up from a collective defense commitment and made just as credible from integrated military commands, that provide up-to-speed forces to challenges.



For over 40 years Europe was divided by an “Iron Curtain” in a climate of non-warfare war, the Cold War. Those were the years when NATO was forged: the Alliance became a structured organization and collective defense enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty became so credible that it turned into the ironclad guarantee for the security of Western countries.

And this evolution highlights another key factor of the Alliance’s success: its increasing organizational capacity in political and military terms. The Atlantic Treaty dates back to 1949, but only in 1952 the necessity to have a Secretary General became evident and only in 1951 the first Supreme Allied Commander of Europe, Gen. Eisenhower, was appointed. Since then, the increasingly complex organization of the allied commands, that has reached unprecedented levels in the history of military coalitions, has contributed to the remarkable capacity of deterrence of NATO and to its internal cohesion (crucial factors of victory during the Cold War, without a shot being fired).

The structural aspects of solidity and flexibility were not enough: NATO’s key to resilience during the Cold War was its political nature. A success that can be effectively summarized, again, looking at the values enshrined in the preamble of the Atlantic Treaty. The determination underlined in such a document became a tenacious commitment in front of internal perplexities (strong political opposition that has been overcome over the years) and historical events that triggered divisions among Allies (such as the Suez crisis), as well as toward the ideological and military pressure of the Soviet Union, to which we have responded with courage and wisdom, as happened with the decisions on euro-missiles when Italy found itself at the forefront. This was the perseverance of a united community, based on shared values.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, one could have thought that the end of the Alliance was close given the absence of enemies, but the need for security for a community that was born to defend its own values and not to fight a specific enemy, had not disappeared. The mission was not accomplished.



As facts proved, history was not over yet. The age of the Aquarius was not established, but history started to accelerate its pace. The Balkan conflicts threatened our security and shook our conscience. NATO missions aimed at managing conflicts took off. New operational commitments were added to the deterrence and defense mission for which the Alliance had been imagined. Both in Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO acted with the other international organizations pivotal for Italian foreign policy: the United Nations and the European Union.

If the fall of the Berlin wall on 11/9,1989 did not mark the end of history, then 9/11 was the day that marked us the most. The attacks were directed against what we are, the values we believe in: an attack on America and on our civilization. For the first time in history, Article 5 of the Washington Treaty was invoked.

The consequence was the launch of the most challenging NATO mission: the one in Afghanistan. A country still plagued with problems, but one that has profoundly changed for the better since then. Our militaries are not there to occupy or impose a political system – as it used to be during the 19th century with colonial adventures, or with the Soviet invasion in 1979 – but to defend us from the attacks coming from terrorists settled in a country where the most basic human rights were denied. Nowadays the progress in life conditions for millions of Afghans is undeniable, and thanks to the training of our mission the Afghan Army is becoming more and more self-sufficient in facing the terrorist threat.



Since then, the world has become smaller and more complex. The “Butterfly effect” – a concept that was coined in dystopian literature as well as in mathematical physics – can describe the complexity of a system of international relations becoming more and more dynamic, interconnected and fragmented. The development of events is accelerated by external factors that unfold in different and independent contexts, and whose unintentional effects resonate in distant domains.

In the era of uncertainty, a gravity center is missing: a clearly dominant power, a more efficient power concertation or even a solid multilateral system. The number of nuclear countries is growing, and threats of any kind are increasing in number: “the first-world” is today further away from a great traditional war, but it is not safe. NATO seems to be capable of providing stability and security even in an “era of oxymorons”, in which globalization and fragmentation live together. We have lived through the longest period of absence of a general war in Europe (not considering the Balkan wars two decades ago), yet we still crave for security and stability.

The application of complex systems physics could be envisaged in the social context. NATO as a “system of systems” is called upon to face the complexity of changes in international relations within a context of technological developments characterized by big data management. On top of that, complexity coming from security challenges connected to the production and supply chains adds up. Here is the new twofold challenge: on the one hand, the complexity of international relations and organizational systems; on the other hand revolutionary, disruptive technologies. Once again, adaptability against changes in policy making and military capabilities is key to the success of the Alliance.

Artificial Intelligence is the real opportunity/challenge. All new military technologies will imply A.I. components, and this poses a challenge to the democratic nature of an Alliance based on political control. New technologies accelerate the pace for crucial decision making, or even question the possibility for political decision-making, in favor of automatisms that imply preventive choices on issues of the utmost relevance. This is the case of autonomous weapons. The Israeli historian Yuval Harari made the example of a duel between drones; the one disconnected from any human control (man out of the loop) will prevail over the one requiring the intervention of a human being in the decisive moment.

It is a bit science fiction, but still, not totally. In the meantime, not too far away from us, “traditional” bloodshed is still taking place, with our adversaries willing to bring them to our cities through terrorism. We need to be ready for everything: from rudimental attacks to the use of sophisticated, but still accessible, technologies. This implies a growing role for scientists, and NATO is strengthening its structures, in order to be able to understand and anticipate technological trends. But this process encompasses a response to ethical challenges.

New challenges, but also new opportunities. We are faced with a Sputnik moment: Americans and Europeans together (and only together it will be possible) will be able to win challenges that question our values, keeping the guiding role on technological and scientific progress and our capacity of deterrence and defense, aiming at new technologies – starting with Artificial Intelligence – in compliance with our principles. In such context, we need to take advantage of chances for positive consequences, even on the long-standing issue of burden sharing. It will be a way to overcome a contrast between European and Atlantic defense policy.

NATO is the thermometer of transatlantic relations and it is becoming more and more a barometer of the relations between the Western countries and the rest of the world. Meanwhile, NATO Heads of State and Government are gathering in London to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Alliance. The focus is on NATO’s future and its relationship with the EU (especially after the November interview of President Macron for The Economist) in a world where China becomes a fundamental factor.

The barometer does not forecast a “global NATO”: ours remains a regional Alliance, but one with partners all over the world, which needs to commit more to global issues relevant for our region. Among them, the impact of climate change on security, as well as the impact of military activities on the environment, should be more and more a cause of concern.

We cannot deny that the focus is not only on the external challenges of the Alliance, but also, on the internal ones. It is not the first time that this happens, and it will not be the last. NATO history is punctuated by internal debate. NATO is not the Warsaw Pact: it is an Alliance of free nations. If one says that “the Emperor has no clothes”, it should not weaken a community that exists because of its common values and its commitment to the same challenges, a stronger community in its capacity to adapt thanks to its critical thinking, that is indispensable within democracies.

New challenges demand more European capacity to ensure our own defense, but such an objective is only achievable if it is complementary with NATO, as our main military and, first of all, security policy platform. This has a great political importance. It is relevant to our society: if we, Europeans, wanted to do everything on our own (and act the right way, of course) we should more than double our defense expenses.

Can we afford that? As always, together we can do it better, on both shores of the Atlantic.