Shaping Way Ahead for NATO After its 70th Anniversary

By Peter Rough

The West is in the beginning stages of the most profound societal change since the end of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century. New technologies are disrupting established social and economic patterns while generating unprecedented opportunities. These trends, enabled by information technology in particular, will only accelerate, perhaps even exponentially, in the coming decades. At a minimum, the pace of change in society has increased markedly.

These breakthroughs have also spawned the rise of new transnational epistemic communities. In 2011, Chrystia Freeland, now Canada’s minister for foreign affairs, described a “21st-century plutocracy” of globe-trotting conferees, operating largely unmoored from their local communities. Joining them today is a new category of social media mavens to form “a global community,” as Freeland put it, whose “ties to one another are increasingly closer than their ties to hoi polloi back home.” The ethos that unites them is a decidedly cosmopolitan, globalist worldview.

In large parts of the West, citizens searching for meaning, grounding, tradition, and identity in an era of globalization have rejected these elites and their consensus. Instead, they have turned to new nationalisms that define the West as a mosaic of cultural and historical entities rather than an interwoven community of cosmopolitan ideals. The 2016 election of Donald Trump as president of the United States stands as the most obvious rebuke of cosmopolitanism. For transatlantic observers who had grown complacent on the assumption of ever greater economic and political integration, this setback has come as a bitter shock. At present, nationalism and cosmopolitanism are battling over the future of the West—and with it, over the political foundations of NATO.

This is not the first time that NATO has experienced acute political differences in its ranks. After the military coup in Greece in 1967, for example, relations between the so-called colonels and the alliance were strained. But that challenge, and others since, constituted discrete episodes rather than a general shift in the politics of the West. From Turkish nationalists to American progressives and all points in between, NATO features a growing diversity of political actors with varying preferences. How these politics will evolve no one knows, but there is a clear sense in Western capitals that change is afoot.

Issues at Stake

For a political-military alliance like NATO to function properly, its members must maintain two areas: first, their political commitment to the alliance and, second, the large-scale military investments to back it up. Cosmopolitans have long understood their countries as part of a larger order; in fact, it is rare to hear them make anything other than earnest commitments to the alliance. However, many of them, in Western Europe in particular, have neglected their national military capabilities. Germany, for instance, is scheduled to take as long to reach its target of investing the equivalent of 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product in defense—already a downward revision from the goal of 2 percent on which allies agreed at their 2014 summit in Wales—as the country took to fight World Wars I and II combined. In large parts of Europe, the United States is expected to pick up the slack, if military force is considered important at all.

By contrast, the new nationalists of the West seem to carry a certain martial vigor and esprit de corps. But these nationalisms also run the risk of devolving into narrow, even ugly parochialisms. In several NATOcountries, self-proclaimed nationalists have questioned the wisdom of containing Russia—to name one alliance objective—despite the Kremlin’s obvious hostility to the West. Like France’s former president Charles de Gaulle, the leader of the country’s far-right National Rally, Marine Le Pen, has pressed for France to leave NATO’s integrated command structure. She has also called for an end to sanctions over Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

But what about the United States? It remains the center of gravity of the alliance as its largest and most powerful state, but it, too, seems divided between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. To sustain U.S. support for the alliance in the coming decades, NATO must not rest on its laurels. Principally, allies need to address the imbalance in the distribution of the military burden. The United States accounts for two-thirds of all defense spending in the twenty-nine-member alliance, despite the near economic parity between the United States and Europe. This makes it too easy for U.S. administrations of all stripes to cast the Europeans as de facto free riders. Burden sharing constitutes the most serious U.S. objection to NATO. In combination with the new temptation of parochialism in Washington, it risks hollowing out the U.S. commitment to the alliance altogether.

As a treaty-based alliance of sovereign states, NATO is the international organization that most easily traverses the cosmopolitan-nationalist divide in the United States. To date, the American people and their representatives remain broadly supportive of the alliance, evidenced by polling and the applause for NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s April 2019 address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress. So long as the United States stays supportive, NATO will remain a strong military force.

The alliance features prominently in the United States’ most important strategy documents, from the National Security Strategy to the National Defense Strategy and the National Military Strategy. For almost every major operation abroad, Washington looks to its primary European allies first for support and assistance. In that sense, the alliance also performs a valuable psychological function. The United States is most confident when it receives the support of its democratic partners, whose endorsement serves as a form of validation for especially thorny decisions.

The European Deterrence Initiative is an example of the best that NATO has to offer. It seeks to protect the alliance’s Eastern flank against potential Russian aggression through a battalion-sized group of multinational forces in the Baltic, with a brigade-sized force of U.S. troops in neighboring Poland. Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom lead the deployments in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, respectively. Farther abroad, NATO is leading a mission in Afghanistan. By virtually any metric, the alliance is a net benefit to U.S. national security. But it requires shared sacrifice lest it decay to the point of losing meaning.


As an international, rather than supra- or transnational organization, NATO has largely managed to sidestep the political divisions roiling the West. In the preamble of its founding charter, the alliance commits its members “to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” NATO should remain focused on that core mission—one that allies of all hues should be able to embrace.

In the post–Cold War era, the West lost the binding force of a common enemy in the Soviet Union. Instead, it turned inward and focused on the important task of extending democracy to the countries of the former Warsaw Pact. Of late, however, this internal focus has served more to highlight differences between cosmopolitans and nationalists in the alliance than to develop a common front against external actors. Now is the time to turn NATO’s spotlight back on its core mission of deterring the West’s strategic challengers, a process that began after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The external threat to the alliance from authoritarians has increased markedly. In addition to direct military action, Russia has used energy, corruption, and information operations to undermine NATO members and countries on the alliance’s periphery. In Turkey and the Baltic, Russia has tested NATO borders directly. For its part, China has used debt financing as a lever over some NATO members such as Montenegro and employed unscrupulous practices to capture cutting-edge companies in key European industries. Today, China controls approximately one-tenth of Europe’s container-port capacity.

As NATO’s largest member, the United States has a special role in directing the focus of the alliance on a revanchist Russia and an authoritarian China. It should be able to count on all members to reciprocate in supporting the West against its challengers. These external responsibilities, rather than internal political standard setting, are the proper focus of a military alliance. And by distributing responsibilities for great-power competition across the alliance, NATO’s popularity would only increase in the United States, which has grown weary of the organization’s long combat missions in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Great-power rivalry is bound to spill across multiple areas of competition, too. NATO must shore up its vulnerabilities in the Arctic, where Russia and, to a lesser extent, China have intensified their military operations after decades of calm and in the target countries of NATO itself, where Russia has pioneered new modes of hybrid warfare. The creation of the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats in Helsinki in 2017 was a good step in this direction.

Relatedly, NATO can increase its public appeal by addressing new areas of concern that are of obvious importance to member states and their publics. From the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea, the alliance should consider freedom of navigation operations that ensure the unencumbered movement of energy and goods. Similarly, although there is little consensus on assigning NATO a role in stemming illegal immigration and the trafficking of humans and weapons that often accompanies it, such an effort would demonstrate in clear and unmistakable terms the value of the alliance to its citizens. Earlier this decade, NATO engaged in a broad-based antipiracy operation that could serve as a template for a similar mission to tackle human trafficking.

Finally, NATO members should guard against any attempts to create an EU military rival to the alliance. Such a development would lead to the unraveling of U.S. support for NATO. While EU defense consolidation could achieve some efficiencies of scale, the resulting savings are unlikely to be reinvested in new capabilities. Instead, it would lead simply to a new bureaucracy that duplicates NATO functions. Moreover, any moves toward defense protectionism would undermine the industrial defense integration that developed across the Atlantic over decades.

Ultimately, for NATO to maintain its military edge, the West cannot neglect the foundations of power, from economic innovation and military strength to demographic growth and a sense of national purpose. These are matters for individual governments to address, but without healthy foundations, NATO will lose its ability to act.

As the West sorts through these questions, and as the duel between cosmopolitans and nationalists unfolds, the alliance must continue to provide the apolitical, militarily capable backbone that respects the diversity of its members and guards against external competitors. Member states can also add to NATO’s popularity by making it fit to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow, from migration to hybrid war, rather than solely those of yesterday. The alliance can and should serve as a steel vessel protecting its members from those on the outside who wish to do it harm. In the years to come, reinforcing that hull will require shared sacrifice.

Read the full article with footnotes included in Carnegie Europe