An old mission helps aging NATO find new purpose

Why We Wrote This

NATO faces increasing questions about its relevance as it marks its 70th anniversary. Adaptability – in addressing old threats and new challenges – will be key to its survival.

Evan Vucci/AP
President Donald Trump speaks during an expanded bilateral meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (far l.) in the Cabinet Room of the White House, April 2, 2019, in Washington.

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Can NATO thank Russian President Vladimir Putin for changing its image as potentially “obsolete”?

NATO, which is marking its 70th anniversary, has looked like an old alliance groping for a new defining mission. The alliance’s internal strains are real. And they’re serious. But an old mission – containment of Russian expansionism and deterrence against potential Russian aggression – has refocused the organization. Depending on how successfully it can cope with that role and adapt to new shared challenges like a rising China, the alliance might even emerge reinvigorated.

Even before President Donald Trump’s election, America’s focus was shifting toward Asia. As evidenced by a fraught trans-Atlantic debate on the involvement of the technology company Huawei in the next 5G iteration of the internet, the U.S. and its NATO partners have yet to find a common approach to the potential security implications of China’s expanding economic and geopolitical role.

China lies outside the founding remit of NATO – an acronym for a North Atlantic alliance. But it has emerged as the main international rival of the U.S. A fundamental difference in approach between Washington and its European partners would inevitably strain NATO’s cohesion.

NATO, the post-World War II alliance between America and western Europe, is marking its 70th anniversary amid daunting internal tensions. Yet, to slightly misquote Mark Twain, reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

And in an irony Twain himself might have appreciated, it has none other to thank for that than Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

In recent years, NATO had begun to show its age. It wasn’t yet “obsolete,” to use the word favored by candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail. But having been founded to bond together the United States and the battered postwar democracies of Europe against the emerging power of Soviet Russia, it looked like an old alliance groping for a new defining mission.

Now an old mission – containment of Russian expansionism and deterrence against potential Russian aggression – has refocused NATO. Depending on how successfully it can cope with that role, and crucially, how it adapts to new shared challenges like a rising China, the alliance might even emerge reinvigorated.

Mr. Putin didn’t set out to help NATO. He has long made it clear he views the end of the Soviet Union – and the collapse of Moscow’s Warsaw Pact alliance with its former East European satellites – as the defining tragedy of his lifetime.

He has been moving with increasing assertiveness to reassert influence in Russia’s neighboring states, and in 2014 backed separatist forces in Ukraine, and annexed Crimea. In the Middle East, his military intervention swayed the Syrian civil war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor, giving Russia a key voice in that country’s future and a Mideast presence last seen in the days of the USSR.

Yet Mr. Putin’s Soviet-vintage view of Russia’s security interests and its geostrategic reach has also helped reinforce NATO.

Francisco Seco/AP
Britain's defense minister Gavin Williamson, (far r.), and Turkey's defense minister Hulusi Akar, (far l.), check papers during a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Feb. 13, 2019.

The strains are real

The alliance’s internal strains are real. And they’re serious, if only because they involve two main military contributors: the U.S. and Turkey, on NATO’s southern flank, bordering Syria. 

President Trump, escalating previous presidents’ bids to secure fairer “burden-sharing,” has accused NATO’s European members of using the alliance simply to cadge American taxpayers into footing most of the bill for their own defense. There have even been multiple accounts of the president raising with aides the idea of the U.S. walking away.

Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, meanwhile, has been at odds with Washington over the presence in Syria of Kurdish fighters, key U.S. allies against Islamic State. Potentially even more worrisome, he has so far shrugged off warnings of repercussions from the U.S. and negotiated a multibillion-dollar deal to buy a missile defense system from Russia.

At least for now, all sides – the U.S., Turkey, and NATO itself – have good reasons to find some sort of compromise. Turkey is the one potential counterweight to Russian and Iranian influence in postwar Syria. Mr. Erdoğan knows that Turkey’s historic rival, Greece, would remain in NATO even if he left.

And despite Mr. Trump’s skepticism, both major U.S. political parties in Congress have continued to stand foursquare behind NATO, not least out of concern over potential Russian moves in other former Soviet states.

Still, none of that means NATO will necessarily survive for anything like another seven decades. That will mean adapting to new security concerns, not just the Cold War variety. Where Mr. Putin is concerned, for instance, the alliance has yet to put in place a credible response to Russian cybermeddling and use of social media, whether in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or in European states.

Plus there’s a greater, long-term challenge. If only because of its vulnerable economic base, Russia is a superpower on the wane. Even before Mr. Trump’s election, America’s focus was shifting toward Asia and a far more powerful rival: China. 

As evidenced by a fraught trans-Atlantic debate on the involvement of the technology company Huawei in the next 5G iteration of the internet, the U.S. and its NATO partners have yet to find a common approach to the potential security implications of China’s expanding economic and geopolitical role.

China lies outside the founding remit of NATO – an acronym for a North Atlantic alliance. But it has emerged as the main international rival of the U.S. A fundamental difference in approach between Washington and its European partners would inevitably strain NATO’s cohesion.

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