In 1948, some of the brightest minds in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe got together to create a novel transatlantic defense pact. Their goal was to draft a treaty so simple and clear that even “a milkman in Omaha” would understand it. The diplomats succeeded. The Washington Treaty, signed on April 4, 1949, required only 14 articles to outline a transatlantic defense community that was entirely different from the short-lived alliances of convenience that had been the curse of European history. The Treaty, which soon turned into a fully fledged organization called NATO, described a community of destiny between two continents — a community that would last much longer than its founding fathers ever dared to dream.
However, 70 years of successful transatlantic security cooperation say little about NATO’s future viability. True, the number of NATO member states has almost tripled since the Alliance was founded. Moreover, NATO’s roles have grown far beyond its original task of collective defense, and are now encompassing crisis operations such as in Afghanistan and a training mission in Iraq. Yet in today’s globalized environment, the Atlantic Alliance faces completely new challenges. Given an assertive Russia to its east, instability to its south, and the accelerating pace of technological progress, NATO’s job of providing security for more than 900 million citizens can no longer be measured by a 1949 yardstick.
What is to be done? Three areas will be crucial:
The Alliance must maintain a sound balance between collective defense and deterrence vis-à-vis Russia and addressing the security challenges at its southern and southeastern borders. After Russia’s illegal annexation of Ukraine, NATO successfully stepped up its military presence in Eastern Europe, providing an effective appetite suppressant for Moscow’s adventurist temptations. However, in today’s globalized environment, focusing on deterring Russia is not enough. For NATO’s Mediterranean members, massive instability in their southern neighborhood is a more immediate security problem than a resurgent Russia. Hence, NATO must also devise a strategy for the south. Implementing a true 360-degree approach to security also requires spending more on defense. After many years of neglect, the defense budgets of all NATO members are finally pointing upward again.
Today, most attacks happen in cyberspace. Through social media campaigns, adversaries seek to destabilize entire societies without a single soldier crossing a single border; and the “hybrid” combination of military and nonmilitary tools creates ambiguity that makes decision-taking by consensus much harder. Responding to such unconventional threats does not require more tanks or missiles. Instead, it requires closer intelligence cooperation, strengthening national resilience against hybrid warfare, and enhancing cyber defense. Close cooperation with other institutions, notably the European Union, and the private sector, will be crucial. Only through such wider partnerships will allies have all the tools available to protect their critical infrastructure or counter malign influence campaigns. As the saying goes, “it takes a network to defeat a network.” NATO must be a trusted part of this network.
Artificial intelligence, “big data” analysis, or blockchain technologies may offer huge security benefits, yet they can also empower adversaries, enabling them to orchestrate smarter and stealthier attacks. Such technologies also raise legal and moral issues that need to be understood. Fully comprehending these developments will require a far greater effort by allies to generate subject matter expertise and encourage long-term thinking. As technological innovation is invalidating traditional arms control approaches, and given the difficulty of setting new norms of behavior in new “virtual” domains such as cyberspace, NATO needs to be prepared for a world in which conflicts will be fought in radically different ways.
NATO was born at a time when the “Omaha milkman” delivered his bottles in a small van from door to door. Soon, however, the refrigerator will order the milk autonomously via the internet, and the product may be delivered by a drone. Such a world has little in common with the world of 1949. Neither can its security challenges be met with the means of the past. If all allies understand and embrace this fundamental fact, they will be able to transform their alliance into a true 21st-century security provider. NATO’s founding fathers surely would approve of this.