NATO is the most powerful and successful alliance in the history of the world. There are no challengers, neither in terms of military capability, breadth of multinational membership and partners, nor sustainability based on the consent of the member states’ own populations. NATO is without peer.
NATO is greater than the mere sum of its parts. The United States is strong on its own, but benefits enormously from the political, economic, and military capacity of Europe. Europe is more cohesive, and more able to preserve its own interests and identity, because of the alliance with the United States. The rock-solid commitment that an attack on any NATO member will be met with a response by all NATO members has deterred aggression for over 70 years.
How NATO fares in the future, therefore, is entirely up to the members of NATO themselves. Put another way, the biggest threat to NATO is itself. To keep their alliance strong, NATO members must overcome deepening political divisions and ambivalence that risk undermining NATO’s willingness to act as one. The threat comes from both sides, as well as from the nature of democracy itself.
In Europe, “NATO” means “the United States.” But in the United States, when someone says “NATO,” that is synonymous with Europe. The danger is that no one takes ownership – and that when frictions arise between the United States and Europe, NATO suffers from the broader transatlantic discontent.
That is the situation today. Many Europeans look in horror at the political direction of the United States – and feel the US either disregards European concerns, such as on Iran, or is actively hostile to Europe on issues such as EU integration and trade. Many in the United States look at Europe as unwilling to carry its share of the burdens in the world, while still expecting the United States to do so.
These are not new attitudes and challenges, but they are severely inflamed today.
In addition to this transatlantic rift, divisions have grown within Europe itself – between West and Central Europe, North and South, and the UK and the continent. Likewise, these are not new concerns, but they are especially strong today, inflamed by issues such as preserving national identity, maintaining traditional values versus liberalism, and controlling immigration.
The nature of democratic societies also poses a challenge. Deterrence depends upon unquestionable military capability and will. Yet democracies – responding to the demands of their populations – are reluctant to devote resources to defense, slow in making decisions, and worried about putting themselves at risk in order to defend others. Seeing this compounded by political divisions can cause adversaries to doubt NATO’s collective will.
Yet despite all this, NATO has done tremendous good in the world. Over 900 million people in Europe and North America are safe, living in democratic, prosperous societies. Countries such as Georgia and Ukraine are clamoring for membership. NATO has helped former communist states transform, ended wars in the Balkans, and contributed to stabilization in Afghanistan.
The glue that holds NATO together – the belief in core democratic values – is strong. NATO has gone through difficult times in the past, from the Vietnam War to nuclear missile deployments to the Iraq War. Indeed, the idea of some past golden age of NATO is a myth. NATO is resilient because of the knowledge that protecting the freedom and security of all NATO members is crucial to the protection of each individual nation. NATO faces deep divisions today, but it will get through these challenges as well, because the alternative is always worse.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.