What is the future of NATO? As an election campaign with almost no discussion of security and defence raged across the UK the alliance met in London at the start of December to celebrate its 70th anniversary. Members put on a united front. NATO’s core mission of collective defence, where an attack against one is considered an attack against all, was reinforced in a new declaration. As was acknowledging space as a new operational domain; recognising the need to tackle a rising China; and committing to better financial burden sharing amongst members states.

But despite these announcements the summit was a reminder of the fault lines that run through the alliance, and of the identity crisis that shows little sign of being resolved any time soon.

NATO has certainly come a long way in 70 years. After the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union the alliance sought to redefine itself. It widened its remit and membership, took on the language of ‘crisis management’, and began to project a different kind of power; from no-fly zones over Bosnia and Herzegovina to counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa.

It was not until Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine that NATO’s original purpose — the territorial defence of Europe — returned to the agenda. The threat from Moscow has dominated alliance summits since. NATO has created task forces and rotational battalions, conducted its biggest military exercises since the Cold War, and set ambitious readiness targets. Moscow’s actions have ironically strengthened NATO, giving its members a common cause to rally around.

Yet even this has not be able to mask the disagreements, differences and unresolved questions about NATO’s identity that hang over its future.

Some of these questions were inevitable. NATO has grown into a complex organisation, broadening its goals and focus. It has gotten bigger, but not necessarily stronger. This has muddied the waters when it comes to defining its role. A recent YouGov poll found that while the majority of the British public support the alliance, most are confused about what it does. This sense of over-stretching has long concerned the United States. There, the defence community worry about ‘strategic insolvency’ and the widening of the alliance’s threat perception. Put simply, there is now more stuff for NATO to be tested on; physically (actual territory) and thematically (with space now a new domain, for example).

One way to address this has been the push to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defence. But while spending is now up, the figure is a limiting and increasingly outdated target to measure NATO readiness. With the parameters of war changing, counter-intelligence, cyber defences, even tools to investigate money laundering are just as important as shiny new tanks and jets. As is understanding how the non-kinetic can undermine national — and thus alliance — resilience.

Many of the issues facing the alliance, however, cannot be fixed by more spending. This is what President Emmanuel Macron meant when in a recent interview he said we were experiencing the “brain death of NATO”. The French leader’s comments were controversial but he insisted they were a necessary wake-up call to break the deadlock of strategic inertia. He has a point.

Indeed, to strengthen deterrence the challenge for NATO is to show its members share the same values and priorities. But it is increasingly difficult to see what unites Ankara, Paris, Berlin, London and Washington. Divisions within the alliance are more obvious than ever.

Take Turkey, which commands NATO’s second largest army. Its military action in northern Syria, purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, and the authoritarian turn of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government cannot but raise eyebrows.

Then we have Mr Macron. He may have diagnosed some of NATO’s ills but his prescription is provocative. The French president wants to dramatically shake-up alliance policy to focus on terrorism, seek rapprochement with Moscow, and for European members to reduce their reliance on Washington. It is not a popular vision, particularly across eastern Europe where Russia is regarded as NATO’s primary threat and US military support is seen as essential.

The transatlantic relationship is changing though, and the drift between the US and Europe will need to be managed carefully. This is not just about the behaviour of President Donald Trump. Tensions between both sides of the Atlantic go deeper than one leader. They have been growing since the 1990s as interests and attitudes towards international politics have diverged. For now there is no choice but to rely on Washington. But European countries, as part of NATO or not, will need to start thinking about a time when they are capable enough not to.

Finally there is NATO’s decision to address a rising China. This is already an area of tension between the US and Europe. Both Republicans and Democrats across Washington see Beijing as a long term existential threat, filling a Soviet Union shaped hole. So far Europe has rejected this approach, attempting to balance strategic and economic interests (Beijing has invested billions in projects across the continent, signing bilateral Belt and Road MoU with several states). NATO will have to navigate these competing, often incompatible, approaches as the US-China rivalry escalates.

In the wake of the London summit the alliance announced plans to undergo a review of its future direction. NATO has been tested before. It will no doubt muddle through. But should it wish to survive another 70 years there is a lot of work to do.

Published December 2019

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