NATO turns 75: Past achievements and future challenges

Set up after World War II with ten members, there are now 32 nations seeking a consensus as they deal with an aggressive Russia and a rising China alongside terrorism, cyber war and budget controversy

Eduardo Ramon

NATO turns 75: Past achievements and future challenges

NATO is about to turn 75 years old. It will pass the milestone in a global security environment as distressed now as it was when the West’s main defence alliance began in 1949. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation started out in the rubble of World War II, with the Soviet Union looking ready to swallow Europe's shattered and weary countries. Ten of them—alongside the United States and Canada—joined the alliance by signing the treaty in Washington on 4 April.

Its next summit will be held where NATO began, but it will have far more attendees as the alliance has dramatically grown over the span of its lifetime. Over the span of three days, beginning on 9 July, heads of state and government from 32 members will gather in the US capital.

From NATO’s early days, President Harry Truman outlined the bloc’s purpose in straightforward terms: “In this pact, we hope to create a shield against aggression and the fear of aggression—a bulwark which will permit us to get on with the real business of government and society, the business of achieving a fuller and happier life for all our citizens.”

The main purpose of NATO is to provide deterrence through collective defence, with an attack on one member seen as an attack on all its countries. Article 5 of the treaty sets that out and makes the consequences clear: “An armed attack against one or more of them shall be considered an attack against them all, and necessary action will be taken, including the use of armed force.”

That mission has attracted more nations throughout its history. Turkey and Greece joined in 1952. Then came West Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic in 1999, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, North Macedonia in 2020, Finland in 2023, and Sweden, which was the latest nation to join in March of this year.

Diana Estefanía Rubio

Article 5 has been invoked only once—after the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Centre twin towers in New York—as an act of solidarity towards the United States.

NATO is seen as the winner of the Cold War. Its adversaries—the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact—were consigned to history, while NATO remained. The alliance witnessed three Baltic Republics regaining their independence, Soviet forces pulling out of eastern and central Europe, and Germany’s reunification.

Immediately after the Cold War, there were questions about whether the alliance was needed in the emerging security environment. Events have since shown that, with so many wars and security threats, the last one being Russia's invasion of Ukraine, NATO is still very relevant and has a major role.

But there have also been moments of strain even within the alliance. When Donald Trump was US president, he threatened to pull out, which would have removed the only superpower from the alliance. For his part, President Emmanuel Macron of France has called NATO “brain dead.”

Revision and resilience

But throughout its history, NATO has proved resilient, helped by the periodic revision of its "strategic concepts," which outline its purpose and principles every 8 to 10 years. The strategic concepts of 1991 and 1999—the first two of the post-Cold War era—identified new risks and challenges, including ethnic rivalries and territorial disputes, terrorism, political instability, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It sought to bolster security through partnerships and cooperation with former adversaries.

Russia regards NATO enlargement with former Warsaw Pact nations as proof of its intention to encircle and weaken it.

NATO developed cooperation models such as the Partnership for Peace Programme, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. It engaged with around 40 partner nations from all over the globe with dialogue and practical cooperation on a range of political and security-related issues.

Crisis management was a key pillar of this model. NATO launched 'peace support' operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and North Macedonia, assistance missions in Iraq, counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, and missions in Afghanistan and Libya. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the ensuing conflict was a major test. The alliance engaged in direct military action and played a major role in ending the conflict. It also helped implement the Dayton Peace Agreement by deploying troops under UN mandate.

In the aftermath of 9/11, NATO—along with the self-styled 'coalition of the willing', undertook military action against the Al-Qaeda terror group based in Afghanistan. The alliance's forces remained there within the framework of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) until it pulled out on 12 July 2021.

Pivot to Russia

Since then, NATO's major focus has shifted to Russia. The latest Strategic Concept adopted at the Madrid Summit in June 2022 describes it as "the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security and peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area." This also shows how times have changed. Relations between NATO and Russia after the end of the Cold War haven't always been hostile. At first, the two sides engaged with the intent of building a stable relationship, and the NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002.

However, Russia was unable to overcome its suspicion of NATO's intentions. It regarded the alliance's enlargement with former Warsaw Pact nations as proof of a real intention to encircle and weaken Russia. For its part, NATO has had concerns over how Russia sees its own relations with former Warsaw Pact countries and Moscow's view of what the Kremlin sees as its "near abroad".

Russian soldiers patrol in Sevastopol on 5 March 2014, just a week after Russian special forces took over the peninsula.

Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 seriously strained relations. They were totally severed following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Since then, NATO has been helping Ukraine to defend itself, and high-level Kremlin officials have said that Russia and NATO are now practically engaged in direct confrontation.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has described the alliance's support for Ukraine as an investment in European security rather than an act of charity. It provides only what it calls "humanitarian and non-lethal aid" to Ukraine. The weaponry and ammunition granted to Kyiv comes from individual member states, which also train Ukrainian troops.

Despite Kyiv's wish—and Washington's vow—that Ukraine will join NATO at some point in the future, it is highly unlikely this will happen amidst an active conflict with Russia because it would trigger Article 5. The circumstances under which Ukraine may become a member are much less clear than the alliance's public declarations of support.

Russia's return to aggression has meant NATO has increased the number and readiness levels of its battle groups and developed new structures for its forces. It has bolstered its presence along its eastern flank—from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south. And its NATO Response Force—an advanced series of multinational, highly prepared battle groups deployed in the Baltic states and Poland—has tripled in size. Additionally, it has sent more battle groups to central and eastern Europe.

Nuclear weapons and expansion

Apart from its conventional power, NATO countries have nuclear weapons, which are viewed as "the ultimate and supreme guarantee of the Allies' security", meaning that they can be used if needed. These are all highly contentious issues, and it is not easy to reach compromise decisions in a structure composed of 32 member nations, where each has an equal vote and decisions are made by consensus.

National policies on a range of issues can differ sharply, including over sensitive matters like the war in Ukraine and relations with China. There are also longstanding rivalries and disputes between some of the allies, such as Turkey and Greece, and between North Macedonia and Greece.

NATO's fault lines were revealed clearly by the recent accession of its two newest members, Finland and Sweden. At first, Hungary and Turkey vetoed their entry. It took months of negotiations and political dealmaking to get them in. Nonetheless, their arrival within the alliance also reveals member states' ability to address internal differences and move forward.

Diana Estefanía Rubio

Disputes over funding

There are also frequent disagreements over finances. They peaked during Trump's presidency when he threatened to pull the US out if other allies failed to up their defence spending. Member nations pledged to honour agreements to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product, a measure of the size of their economies, on defence. So far, 23 members have met the commitment. This is an important development, not least after the war in Ukraine strained resources. When the pledge of over 2% of GDP was first made in 2014, only three member states made good on their promises.

Nonetheless, wrangling over money persists. Secretary General Stoltenberg has proposed a $100bn dollar fund to aid Ukraine over five years but had to backtrack because of disagreements among allies. He then drew up a new proposal to spend at least $40bn a year on aid for Kyiv. This issue is hoped to be agreed upon and finalised at the Washington Summit

China's ascent

As NATO's security outlook has changed over the years, China has become a bigger presence on its radar. The alliance has declared: "China's ambitions and assertive behaviour present systematic challenges to the rules-based international order and areas relevant to Alliance security."

NATO is also concerned about China's cyber warfare and disinformation operations. It worries about attempts to control important industries and supply chains, a worry laid out in the final communiqué issued at its 2023 Vilnius summit. China's and Russia's deepening strategic partnership has unsettled NATO—especially Beijing's support for Russia's war effort in Ukraine and helping offset the impact of Western sanctions on Moscow. This is part of what NATO calls "convergence" between global authoritarian states, including Iran and North Korea, as well as China and Russia.

China does not pose a direct military threat to NATO, but developments in the Indo-Pacific can directly affect Euro-Atlantic security. To this end, NATO has formed new regional partnerships with countries such as Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea. These countries have now become routine participants in various NATO meetings, including at its last two summits in Madrid and Vilnius. The increased cooperation can be viewed as a precaution against increased military, diplomatic and economic actions, which are viewed as "hostile". Cyber defence and hybrid threats are at the forefront.

NATO Summit in Vilnius on July 12, 2023.

Summit agenda

At the upcoming Washington summit, allies will reiterate NATO's major role in contributing to and maintaining global peace and security and restate their commitment and resolve to jointly confront threats. The Ukraine war will take centre stage. The summit is expected to announce more military assistance packages for Kyiv in its fight against Russia. Its NATO membership bid will also be discussed, but it will likely remain lip-service at this point.

Other pressing issues set to be discussed are a fair distribution of funding for the alliance amongst its members, how to balance member states' relations with China without alienating it, keeping the threat of terrorism and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in check, energy security and defence against hybrid threats. It will also address NATO's engagement in the Middle East, Africa and the Black Sea.

The Washington summit will be the first for Mark Rutte, NATO's new secretary-general and former Prime Minister of the Netherlands. He is due to take up the job in October.

Read more: Mark Rutte: Meet NATO's new secretary-general

US election

The summit will take place just months before November's US presidential election. As the leading nation in NATO, US policies are always of utmost relevance, especially as one of the candidates—Donald Trump—has unorthodox ideas on NATO and a range of international policy issues. He has called on Europeans to stop relying on the US for their security and take more responsibility for their defence. There is concern that, if elected, Trump could also try to reduce US support for the war in Ukraine. For his part, the incumbent, President Joe Biden, believes in NATO and wants to bolster the alliance.

Whatever else, NATO is mission-driven. Over its 75 years, it has been clear in setting out its objectives. It will continue to face—and deal with—multi-layered threats and challenges while working to find agreement on strategy within its own well-structured and complex ranks.

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