NATO on Its 70th Anniversary: A Birthday Party or a Wake?

Military officers from NATO and other countries parade during the opening ceremony of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)
Military officers from NATO and other countries parade during the opening ceremony of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit, at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, July 11, 2018. (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is 70 years old. It has been the most successful military alliance in history and remains a central pillar of Euro-American military cooperation.

The 29-member alliance has provided an umbrella that has protected almost a billion people and the two largest economies in the world, the U.S. and the European Union, from the threat of conventional and nuclear warfare. More significantly, it has been critical to protecting the 100 million people who live in Eastern Europe and the fledgling democracies that emerged there after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states from Russian aggression and intimidation.

NATO was born in 1949. It began as a political alliance of 12 nations in Europe and North America. With the onset of the Cold War, and the outbreak of conflict in Korea, it rapidly transformed itself into a military alliance designed to protect Western Europe from the threat of Soviet invasion.

Italy, although not an Atlantic nation, had a large, Soviet-controlled Communist Party and was added to protect its fledgling democracy from the threat of a communist takeover from within.

Greece and Turkey, also not Atlantic powers, joined in 1952, and Germany joined in 1955. From the very beginning, NATO was more than a North Atlantic Alliance. It steadily expanded from almost the moment that it was created.

At the height of the Cold War, NATO was at the center of a chain of interlocking alliance structures that the U.S. built to ring and contain the Soviet Union. Most of those alliances have since been dismantled. NATO has persevered -- at least until now.

This month, NATO celebrates its 70th anniversary. This milestone comes at a time when the organization is riven by conflicts and uncertainty about its mission, and amidst widespread ambivalence about the commitment of many of its members to meet their shared goals and obligations.

NATO was always more than just an anti-Soviet military alliance. Lord Ismay, the organization's first secretary general, defined NATO's objectives as "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down." For the first 40 years, those three goals largely defined NATO's mission. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, the first two of these objectives have been increasingly in doubt and the last has grown largely irrelevant.

As NATO moves beyond its 70th anniversary, there are four issues that it needs to address: Washington's commitment to the organization, the changing nature of the Russian threat, the organization's willingness and ability to share the burdens of its mutual defense, and the nature of the security threats that Europe and North America now face.

Washington's Commitment to NATO

At the heart of the NATO agreement is Article 5, the mutual defense clause that states that an attack on any one member is an attack on all. The clause was meant to ensure that a Soviet invasion of Western Europe would precipitate a U.S. response. For further insurance, U.S. troops in Europe, especially those deployed forward along the West German border with East Germany, would act as a tripwire, ensuring U.S. involvement in the event of a conflict.

The dependability of the American commitment has always been subject to question. French President Charles de Gaulle, often and rhetorically, questioned whether the U.S. would risk the nuclear annihilation of an American city to protect a European one. Successive U.S. governments have wrestled with the costs associated with America's NATO commitments, weighting the very real costs of U.S. troop deployment in Europe, and the possibility of reducing it, against the political repercussions of symbolically abandoning its commitment to European defense.

For the U.S., of course, European defense was never a selfless act. The Soviet Union certainly had the wherewithal to attack Western Europe and to defeat Europe's national armies. The prospect of joining European manpower and technology, along with its industrial base, to the already formidable Soviet military-industrial complex would have altered the balance of power between the two Cold War rivals decidedly in favor of Moscow.

There has always been an element in U.S. politics that questioned American internationalism in general and the U.S. role in European defense in particular. Those views gained new traction after the collapse of the Soviet Union. NATO's future role and its relevance was hotly debated during the Clinton administration.

Ultimately, Washington pushed to expand the organization eastward, offering membership to the newly independent, former satellite states of the Soviet bloc. In doing so, it fundamentally transformed the organization, in Russian eyes, from a purely defensive one to a more aggressive one, infringing on a region that Moscow had long believed was critical to its own security and obligating itself to the defense and independence of countries that historically had often, albeit unwillingly, accommodated Russian interests.

In expanding eastward, NATO accepted new obligations that were not central to its own security at a time when the Russian domination of Western Europe was no longer a viable threat while, at the same time, ensuring that its new commitments would be a source of perpetual conflict with Russia.

The Trump administration has questioned the strategic value of NATO for the U.S., pointing out that the U.S. bears a disproportionate share of the costs and that many NATO members are failing to meet the agreed-upon target of spending 2% of gross national product on defense. On numerous occasions, U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from NATO altogether, arguing that NATO members are getting a "free ride" and are taking advantage of the U.S. He has even threatened to send bills, amounting to tens of billions of dollars to NATO members, most notably Germany, for the cost of their defense borne by the U.S.

Significantly, Trump did not play a prominent role in the celebrations surrounding NATO's 70th anniversary. NATO officials purposely kept him out of the limelight for fear he might use the occasion to again publicly question NATO's value to the U.S.

The U.S. is central to NATO. The organization cannot exist without the U.S. and its military capabilities. While there has been discussion within the EU of an integrated Europe-wide defense force, the reality is that a "European Army" is simply not realistic in an environment of rising populist and nationalist sentiment. Moreover, European governments are simply not willing to fund the defense expenditures necessary to make such an army a reality and, even if they were, they lack the depth and the logistical and technological capabilities that the U.S. military brings to NATO.

In short, there is no replacement or European alternative for NATO. While the organization will undoubtedly change and evolve to reflect the geopolitical realities of Europe, a central U.S. role is fundamental. Without it, the organization cannot exist. As long as the Trump administration keeps questioning whether it's in the U.S. interest to stay in NATO, its future will be clouded by uncertainty.

The Nature of Russian Threats

The Pentagon has formally labeled Russia a revisionist power. The military reach of the Russian bear's arm, however, has grown considerably shorter than it was at the height of the Cold War.

Russia can no longer threaten to invade Western Europe. That doesn't mean that it can't use energy exports as an important source of political leverage or that it won't attempt to interfere in European elections, use social media to manipulate public opinion or engage in cyberattacks, or other non-traditional forms of warfare. It can and does all of these things.

Such actions represent security threats to Western European nations that have to be addressed. On the other hand, the prospect of massed armies of Russian troops pouring through the Fulda Gap into Germany in a mad rush to the channel seems ludicrous and exists only in the Kremlin's wildest fantasies.

Although its military capabilities are significantly reduced, they are still significant, especially when compared to the military capabilities of most East European countries. In those states, especially in the smaller, former states of the Soviet Union, such as Georgia or the Baltic republics, the prospect of Russian military intervention is both real and acute.

De Gaulle famously asked whether the U.S. would risk Chicago to defend Hamburg. Today, one could legitimately ask whether Berlin would risk Hamburg to defend Tallinn. The answer is probably not, a reality not lost in the Baltic states.

The fact that many of the former Soviet republics also have significant Russian minorities adds a further security threat. Take the Estonian city of Narva, just across the border from Russia, whose population is 80% ethnic Russian. Most of its inhabitants carry dual passports, Estonian and Russian, listen to Russian language broadcasts and use Russian social media platforms. In a Crimean-style plebiscite, a majority would undoubtedly vote to be part of Russia.

Russia's little green men could accomplish a Russian takeover of the city and the surrounding region long before NATO could respond. Narva lacks the strategic significance of Crimea, and there would be significant consequences to Moscow of such an action, so it is not a decision that the Kremlin would take lightly.

Still, Eastern Europe is full of Narva-type situations. Russia no longer poses a military threat to NATO's Western European members, but still poses a very real military threat to its East European ones. That dichotomy is a major source of tension within NATO, and a major reason why Eastern European members are willing to raise their defense spending and Western European members are not.

Burden Sharing Within NATO

Successive U.S. administrations have pushed NATO's members to increase their defense spending to a target of 2% of GDP. Currently, only six countries, in addition to the U.S., are meeting that commitment. The U.S. spends 3.4% of GDP on defense. It is followed by Greece and the United Kingdom, each at 2.2%; Estonia at 2.1%; Poland at 2.1%; Latvia at 2%; and Lithuania at 2%.

Collectively, NATO members spent around $1 trillion on defense in 2018, and that amount is expected to increase by an additional $100 billion from Europe's, mostly East European, NATO members. The U.S. represent 70% of that expenditure, even though the combined economies of the EU are larger than the U.S. economy. However, a significant portion of U.S. defense spending is earmarked for theaters outside of NATO.

Most EU NATO members, already struggling to meet budgetary guidelines imposed by Brussels, simply do not have the ability to spend 2% of GDP on defense. A decade of lackluster economic growth, a rapidly aging population and a lack of political support make it unlikely that they will hit this target anytime soon.

The one exception is Germany. Berlin spends about 1.23% of GDP on defense. it certainly has the financial ability to increase that spending level to 2% but lacks the political consensus to do so.

At the end of the Cold War, the German Bundeswehr could field 12 divisions and had a strength of around 495,000 military personnel. In 2018, the Bundeswehr had a strength of 182,000, of which only about 62,000 were considered readily deployable. At the moment, according to German news magazine Der Spiegel, "not a single German division could be deployed without first having to scrape together materials from other units."

Seeing less of a direct threat from Russia, lacking the economic ability to increase spending, and also a political consensus to do so, it is unlikely that any Western European countries, other than the United Kingdom, will meet the 2% of GDP target. That will continue to create friction within NATO between the U.S. and its other members.

NATO's Security Threats

Finally, the nature of the security threats faced by Europe and the U.S. are changing, both those posed by Russia and those posed by other actors.

Moscow's emphasis on non-conventional warfare spans both the military and legal/criminal realm. As a purely military organization, NATO doesn't necessarily have the structure or the ability to respond to all of those threats.

Cyberattacks are now considered an act of war and can trigger an Article 5 declaration, but cyber defense of key infrastructure or essential government services is still primarily a domestic matter subject to the supervision of national governments. Other activities, like manipulation of social media or violation of campaign laws, are legal and criminal matters that fall outside of NATO's mandate. What role NATO can or should play in these matters or how its structure should change to deal with these kinds of threats is unclear.

Moreover, both Europe and the U.S. face additional security challenges from transnational terrorism networks and illegal migration, as well as cyber espionage, cyberattacks and cyber-related financial crime against individuals and non-governmental organizations from unspecified actors. NATO has played a role in trying to stem illegal migration across the Mediterranean but, on the whole, these type of security threats often fall outside of its purview or capabilities.

Fundamentally, the challenge for NATO is to reaffirm the importance of the alliance to the U.S., while at the same time coming to a consensus on the nature of the security risks the organization faces, how to respond to those threats, and how to share the financial burden of meeting those challenges.

While increasing defense spending to 2% of GDP is laudable, many of the threats that NATO faces will not be resolved with larger armies or newer equipment, but will require new structures and organizations within the legal and criminal space as well.

More than anything, however, it will require a commitment on both sides of the Atlantic to maintaining the viability of the organization. At the moment, that commitment is sorely lacking on both shores.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to for consideration.

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