international analysis and commentary

What priorities for NATO?


On 4 April 1949, twelve Western states met in Washington to give birth to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization whose purpose was to prevent a return of war in Europe. As they celebrate the Alliance’s 70th birthday this year, its current 29 member states are also, to a considerable extent, honouring its success.

NATO has, indeed, contributed to maintaining peace in Europe; by deterring the Soviet Union during the Cold War, by furthering the end of conflicts in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s and, since 2014, by kitting itself out again for collective defense to counter a newly aggressive Russia. With the imminent membership of the Republic of North Macedonia, the successive waves of enlargement bear witness to the success of this model for the soon-to-be 30 member-strong Alliance.

Of course, difficulties have arisen, beginning with Afghanistan and Libya, where there was a disconnect between operations on the ground and the politico-strategic levels, but generally NATO has been able to adapt to fast-moving developments in the security arena, whereas all other major institutions (the UN and the EU) are struggling.

Current members of NATO (Wikipedia)


Yet the time for rejoicing or for retirement has not yet come. The challenges are enormous.  Added to the strategic environment which morphs constantly, making Europe more fragile overall, the shifting nature of the threats challenge NATO as a military organization. In Russia’s case, threats are of a territorial nature but there are also hybrid, cyber and terrorist threats.

In view of this situation, the Atlantic Alliance must set itself five priorities.

First, it must continue to deter and to defend itself against Russia. To achieve this, NATO must send a strong message of cohesion with regard to the notion of collective defence, embodied by Article 5 of the Treaty, whereby an attack against one of its members constitutes an attack against all, and must be understood as such. Further, the decisions taken at the three summit meetings in Wales (2014), in Warsaw (2016), and in Brussels (2018) must be implemented. In Wales, member states committed to spending 2% of their GDP on defence, a pledge respected by only four countries in 2018. Another decision was to strengthen deterrence, in particular by deploying troops to the Baltic States and to Poland, but also by supporting the countries around the Black Sea, as well as by the recent  “Readiness Initiative”, whereby to counter a potential Russian incursion into Allied territory, the Allies commit to supplying extra assets to the Alliance within 30 days. Financially and operationally, the effort required is massive and its feasibility often uncertain.

Second, the Alliance must give substance to its ambition to contribute to stability on its periphery, through support, training, and capacity-building. The “Projecting stability” concept was officially introduced in 2016, but in fact, it combines the longstanding activities of crisis management and cooperative security using a less intrusive approach. It entails working more closely with local partners and better coordinating with other organizations. Projecting stability must also include the fight against terrorism which operationally is a complex task, and whose relevance for NATO is not always shared by member states. The task is enormous, it stretches from North Africa to the Middle East, where NATO is not always welcome – the Libyan affair having left its mark – and where NATO’s added value is unclear.

Third, if acting alone NATO cannot succeed in achieving a strategic result, hence the need for partnerships. The European Union must be the priority partner. Both institutions have understood this by setting up, from 2016 on, a number of concrete activities in the fields of fighting hybrid threats, cyber-security or military mobility (the transfer of troops on European soil). But the scale of the challenges will require a qualitative leap forward, which is impossible today because of two types of obstruction: first, the issue of Cyprus, which pits Turkey against Cyprus in regard to the status of the northern part of the island, with each of the two countries blocking any rapprochement with the institution it does not belong to. And second, the obstruction caused by the state of competition that exists between NATO and the EU, that partly stems from the EU’s desire to become involved in the defence sector, at a time when the transatlantic link is unravelling.

Fourth, the Alliance must enlist in the cultural revolution which will enable it to enter the digital era of artificial intelligence, big data and biotechnology, thus empowering the organization to effectively deal with future threats, which will be different from today’s and require new doctrines and different capacities.

Fifth, no lasting impact in the previously-mentioned priorities can be attained if NATO is unable to ensure its own cohesion. A cohesion which has been severely tested by the American administration’s wavering commitment to the Alliance and to the defence of its members, in spite of its still significant presence on the ground. There are also divergent views on the organization’s agenda: to look East and to Russia, or to the South with its cross-cutting threats? The Alliance has developed its 360ᵒ vision, but a number of states want their own specific problems to be taken more into account, sometimes to the detriment of solidarity. Our values are also at stake. NATO is not purely a military alliance built around cold interests, it is also a community of values, such as democracy, individual freedoms and the rule of law. In some NATO member states these values are under attack, and their illiberal policies or politics, are a threat to NATO’s credibility.

At age 70, NATO must constantly reinvent itself, in a world where a good number of states and citizens too, have limited confidence in the virtues of multilateralism. The Organization is still relevant today; because the world around it is unstable; and because NATO aspires to creating stability. Obsolescence is not on today’s agenda.