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NATO at 75: Curb the Celebrations to Focus on Looming Security Challenges

On 3 April the very best of Alliance pomp and ceremony was on display at NATO headquarters for the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Washington Treaty. The celebrations are well-deserved but should be short-lived.

Little time to celebrate: NATO faces a wide array of challenges as it marks its 75th anniversary

NATO is often referred to as the ‘most successful military Alliance in history’. The world’s first-ever nuclear Alliance has provided effective deterrence and collective defence for its members since 1949. Membership has grown 167% over 10 enlargement rounds with other prospects eager to join, demonstrating the powerful demand for its protections. In its 75th year, its security umbrella covers 25 million square kilometres, a combined population of 967 million people – of which 3.5 million are in uniform – and its collective GDP is $45,933 trillion out of a total world GDP of approximately $100,562 trillion.

These metrics and longevity are inarguably impressive. They also demonstrate the growing collective might of NATO. However, too much self-congratulatory rhetoric can be harmful to NATO transformation, allowing complacency to set in. The same week as the anniversary, a senior US official shared the assessment that Russia had ‘almost completely’ reconstituted its war machine. In a more dangerous world, a more critical appraisal of NATO success, which looks behind the headlines, demonstrates the considerable amount of work still to be done.

Defining Success

Can NATO’s success over the past 75 years be definitively attributed to the organisation, rather than the US as the pre-eminent member? Most Cold War arms-control agreements were signed directly between the Soviet Union and the US, not NATO. This trend continues: on 17 December 2021, Moscow formally submitted its demands ahead of its reinvasion of Ukraine. It proposed two ‘draft treaties’, the first between Russia and the US, and then the second between Russia and NATO. The Kremlin clearly still views NATO as a European extension of US power.

The US has always led NATO. Today, despite measured increases from European members since 2014, the US still provides around two thirds of total NATO defence expenditure and almost all its nuclear weapons. The US commitment to NATO’s transatlantic reinforcement plan is critical to the survival of many European countries in times of war. Moreover, it is not just raw combat power that the US provides. Critical enablers, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and logistics, far exceed European capabilities. Under a pre-2022 scenario where the US has withdrawn from NATO, it was assessed that European NATO members might need to invest between $288 billion and £357 billion to be able to ‘defend every inch’ of NATO territory without the US, and getting ready might take up to 20 years.

Therefore, with NATO’s defence and deterrence credibility and posture almost wholly reliant on the US, the November 2024 presidential election is a seismic event. A second Donald Trump presidency is the most unstable outcome for Euro-Atlantic security. However, if President Joe Biden is re-elected, US engagement in Europe will still likely reduce as the US continues to look to Asia. This puts NATO in a perilous position. If the US withdraws its enablers, Europeans will spend huge sums of their money trying to plug the gaps. As a result, European combat power will not increase to meet the growing threat.

NATO Wrongly Read Russia

In 2010 NATO assessed that ‘the Euro-Atlantic area is at peace and the threat of a conventional attack against NATO territory is low’ and demonstrated a desire ‘to see a true strategic partnership between NATO and Russia’. After focusing on humanitarian intervention and counterterrorism since the end of the Cold War, the Alliance was totally unprepared for the swift Russian annexation of Crimea and hybrid operations in the Donbas in 2014. The weak response almost certainly emboldened Vladimir Putin to become more assertive in Syria in 2015 and, coupled with NATO’s ignominious withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, could have provided the confidence for his ‘special military operation’ in 2022.

There is a risk that NATO, in its deserved moment of glory, lets its foot off the gas and fails to meet its growing aspirations

NATO’s transformation since 2014 – including new military strategies, plans and deployments – has been reactive to Russian aggression, rather than proactive. Therefore, it is the Kremlin that is setting the agenda and pace of Euro-Atlantic security, not NATO as the premier Alliance.

NATO’s current position can also be attributed to luck. If President Putin had decided to immediately exploit his actions in Crimea with a full-scale invasion, as attempted in 2022, Russia would have likely succeeded. The impressive Ukrainian military transformation and societal resilience was largely built between 2016 and 2022. NATO has been both willing and able to provide extensive assistance to Ukraine since 2022, which would not have been politically or physically possible in 2014. In addition, despite poor planning and execution, Putin’s ‘special military operation’ could have succeeded had events unfolded differently. For example, the outcome might have been very different had the Ukrainian leadership fled, or had Russian airborne forces held Hostomel airport. This counterfactual scenario would put NATO in a much worse position than it is today as many of the weaknesses within the Russian military system would not have been exposed and the Baltic states would be directly threatened.

Out of Area and Out of Mind

Of greatest concern, the most successful military alliance in history is yet to have a resounding military victory in its 75-year history. In 1995, Operation Deliberate Force over Bosnia was a limited military operation and was not the decisive element that brought Serbia to the negotiating table. It was successful in limiting the violence on the ground, but only after some of the worst atrocities, such as the Srebrenica massacre, were committed. It also provided invaluable experience for Operation Allied Force in Kosovo between March and June 1999. Again, this was a limited operation and while tactically and operationally successful, it was plagued with political and strategic difficulties. Over a decade later, the 2011 NATO-led Operation Unified Protector over Libya similarly limited the violence on the ground but again had tactical and operational effects which could not be strategically or politically exploited. It also caused political disagreements within the Alliance as it was designed to be a European-led mission under the NATO framework. However, as soon as the US took a backseat it faltered. Thirteen years later, the country remains a source of instability and violence. These operations were all limited, did not involve major ground forces and were executed largely by the US, the UK and France, rather than the Alliance as a whole.

NATO’s most ambitious operation by far was the 2003–14 International Security Assistance Force mission in Afghanistan, followed from 2015–21 by the training-focused Resolute Support Mission. Over almost 20 years, the most powerful Alliance in history failed to degrade the Taliban or train the Afghan National Security Forces to a level to define mission success. A chaotic evacuation effort – which was a national endeavour, rather than a NATO operational withdrawal – was a visceral depiction of failure. The NATO ‘Afghanistan lessons learned process’ terms of reference covered political and ‘operational-military’ reviews over 20 years of activity. Over just two months and seven meetings of the Deputy Permanent Representative Committee, the conclusion was ‘Crisis management should … remain a core Alliance task’.

While the above missions were all designated crisis management operations, there are lessons and crossovers to warfighting – working as one, burden sharing, planning, execution and exit strategies. NATO warfighting in Europe will be quantitively and qualitatively unlike anything that it has experienced before. It will severely test its political and military leadership, the NATO command structure and civil–military integration.

Avoiding Complacency

There is a risk that NATO, in its deserved moment of glory, lets its foot off the gas and fails to meet its growing aspirations. There are several priorities that NATO should focus on this year to increase its chances of success and best insulate it from the transatlantic political weather.

NATO must urgently capitalise on the increased interest in the Alliance and communicate its benefits to the public

First, it must maintain the unity that has grown since 2022. Specifically, Europeans will need to come together to mitigate against the risks posed by a second Trump presidency. In addition, the Alliance must prepare for a long-term confrontation with Russia and develop a collective understanding of what that might mean and what victory could look like.

Second, European NATO must improve defence spending and burden sharing. In 2024, at least 18 of 31 NATO members will meet the 2 % GDP target for defence spending, representing an additional €600 billion for non-US allies – an 11 % increase – since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. This is solid progress but not nearly enough. Moreover, the 20% target for major new equipment must be met. The US is way ahead of Europe on both R&D and science and technology. The gap is so wide that the US fighting under NATO’s command system might actually slow down the US and make the Alliance less effective. Instead, the US might fight alongside NATO, instead of within it. Europeans must catch up and NATO should be more prepared to be prescriptive, rather than descriptive, towards national defence policies and collective requirements to ensure value for money. NATO’s new regional plans make this explicit link between national and Alliance defence plans and should be the framework for success.

Third, the Ukraine war has demonstrated the power of societal resilience within a national defence framework. NATO should explicitly make resilience an Alliance core task as an extension of Article 3. Special consideration should then be made to removing duplication with the EU resilience agenda.

Fourth, the Alliance must prepare its societies for war. It is worrying that almost two years on from the Madrid Summit, NATO Chiefs of Defence are still occupied by the ‘executability’ of its defence plans, and that for an Alliance that has 11 Corps headquarters, brigades are a stretch target for most non-US members. Time is not on NATO’s side, and the ongoing Exercise Steadfast Defender – its largest since the end of the Cold War and involving 90,000 troops – took over five years to plan. NATO’s new force model requires 300,000 at between 10 and 30 days’ notice with a further 500,000 at 180 days.

Readiness is not just about the physical and conceptual components of warfare – it is also about the morale component and fostering a will to fight. There are very few soldiers within NATO’s pool of 3.1 million that have ever operated without air supremacy, withstood an artillery barrage, assaulted a tank column, or had to deal with the proliferation of drones on the battlefield – all the while being worried for their families back home who are in range of Russian aggression.

Finally, NATO must urgently capitalise on the increased interest in the Alliance and communicate its benefits to the public. The post-Cold War generation – whose views on NATO have been clouded by failed operations in Afghanistan and Libya – need to understand what NATO is and does for their security and prosperity each and every day. But it is not just the public that needs a better understanding of NATO. Politicians also need to understand the strengths and limitations of NATO, especially the specific wording of Article 5, so that they can best guide the Alliance through the dark days ahead.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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