As NATO commemorates its 70th anniversary, it’s vital to think about the alliance’s future while celebrating its past and present. Last week, I had the opportunity to attend an event on the future of NATO in Washington DC, organized by the Hudson Institute, in partnership with NATO’s Public Diplomacy and Policy Planning Unit with the Office of the Secretary-General. The event, titled “New Perspectives on Shared Security: NATO’s Next 70 Years” brought together panelists from DC think tanks to discuss important issues facing NATO and strategies on how to approach these issues. My main takeaways from the panel are detailed below.
The European Union Is at a Turning Point
The recent European Parliament elections clearly exposed the dichotomous view regarding the future of the EU: continuing and supporting continentalism and European integration versus shifting to a more sovereignty-based and transactional alliance. Although pro-EU parties will control two-thirds of the newly elected parliament, it is impossible to ignore that the EU is grappling with questions about its identity and purpose. This will certainly affect NATO since 22 EU Member States are also members of the North Atlantic alliance. The divergences between EU members have already resulted in debates about the union’s approach to foreign policy and security; members’ different stances towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative is just one recent example of this.
Another major continental change that will affect the EU-NATO relationship and EU security is Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Although Brexit will probably increase the UK’s participation in NATO, a no-deal Brexit risks harming European security by taking Britain out of Europol, intelligence sharing arrangements and other non-NATO shared security arrangements like the Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative. Thus, Brexit will likely be followed by a major re-assessment of the future of European security and EU-NATO relations.
US Policy Towards NATO Matters – A Lot
The United States is a military superpower that is a major contributor to NATO’s budget and missions. As such, it plays an important role in determining the future direction of the alliance. The United States has consistently demanded more reciprocity from its NATO allies, through successive administrations have expressed this demand differently. For instance, compared to its predecessor, the Trump administration has approached NATO much more transactionally and has focused its efforts on promoting a 2% target in defense spending, rather than alliance capabilities. On the topic of demands, the United States needs to make up its mind about European strategic autonomy, which is bound to affect the capabilities and priorities of the alliance going forward.
The United States also has the capacity to affect the legitimacy of the alliance. Just last year, President Trump inflamed NATO leaders by stating that the United States would not come to NATO ally Montenegro’s defense. His statement completely undermined the mutual defense clause (Article 5), the cornerstone of NATO. Since the United States is a weighty player on the world stage, any signs of it backing out of its alliance commitments places the future of NATO in jeopardy. NATO allies need to start thinking about how the outcome of the 2020 election will affect the organization.
NATO Needs to Address Internal Challenges and Emerging Ones
Although NATO tends to be known as a military alliance, it is both a military and political alliance; in fact, one of its central goals is the promotion and protection of democratic values. In order to join the alliance, prospective members need to demonstrate that they have stable democracies and that they are committed to the rule of law and human rights, among other things. Unfortunately, NATO lacks an effective mechanism for upholding these requirements once a country has joined the alliance. As such, it has struggled to respond to democratic backsliding in some of its members, like Hungary. Luckily, the EU has been more active in this area. Going forward, NATO needs to be more active in promoting and enforcing its political values.
Another internal challenge is enlargement. North Macedonia’s impending accession to the alliance has been celebrated widely; however, there is little agreement about the potential accession of Georgia and Ukraine. It will be interesting to see if either of those countries receives a Membership Action Plan in the next few years.
Last but not least, NATO needs to confront emerging security challenges. In order to be an effective military alliance, NATO needs to be at the forefront of responding to constantly evolving threats, like hybrid warfare. Fortunately, the alliance has taken many steps in that area, especially regarding cyber defense.
NATO has had an incredible 70 years; the alliance has played a crucial role in the promotion of peace, democracy, and security around the world. The successes of the past will allow NATO to face its future with hope and strength, while the failures will serve as useful lessons.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in articles are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the NATO Association of Canada.