Why NATO at 70 is as young as ever

The alliance’s anniversary summit had lively disputes but ended with a unity around shared ideals that make NATO more than a guardian of territory.

NATO heads of state attend a ceremony during their summit in Watford, England, Dec. 4.

Ever since losing its original purpose in 1991 – the collective defense of the West against Soviet aggression – NATO has somehow survived as a military alliance. At a 70th anniversary summit this week, this club of democracies showed why.

Despite serious squabbles and huffy encounters, its renewal of purpose and its workable compromises proved that NATO is more than a guardian of territory. It also serves as a reminder that the best binding agent among countries is a guiding set of principles that help them rise above base national self-interests.

To the 29 states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, those principles seem obvious: free elections, civilian control of the military, individual rights, rule of law, and so on. Yet to Russia and China, dictators, or Islamic terrorists, such universal principles are seen as threats to their exercise of raw power or their intolerant ideology. NATO’s beacon of ideals is also the reason for its continuing collective defense. Threats may change but core purpose does not.

Other regional bodies, such as those in Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, still have far to go to emulate NATO’s success.

The summit’s biggest concern was whether the United States, starting with the Obama administration, has been drifting away from NATO. President Donald Trump, despite his former skepticism about the bloc and his upsets during the gathering in England, seemed to allay much of that concern. He helped resolve a NATO dispute with Turkey. He expressed gratitude for increased defense spending by European allies to relieve the burden on the U.S. And much to the delight of Washington, the transatlantic alliance acknowledged for the first time the “challenge” posed by China’s security encroachments in various parts of the world.

In a statement, NATO leaders said: “To stay secure we must look to the future together.” Much of that future relies on NATO’s ability to reach a democratic consensus on new threats and then be agile enough to devote resources to them. The bloc, for example, decided to shore up its military presence in the Baltic States and Poland after Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine.

NATO’s European members need not worry about U.S. support for the alliance. In a 2019 survey of Americans by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the largest majority yet (73%) said that NATO is essential to U.S. security. Such sentiments seem long-lasting. The bloc is built on self-reinforcing ideals. They inspire a solidarity across borders.

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