Why NATO is a long way from being obsolete
Seven decades since it was founded, NATO is the world’s oldest and most successful military alliance, and the largest contributor to long-term global stability. However, it has come under intense criticism, particularly as the US seeks to spread the risks and costs of global security and overseas interventions.
The alliance’s traditional adversaries have evolved their tactics away from mass military deployments on foreign soil toward more asymmetric warfare — cyber-attacks, influence trafficking and destabilizing operations. Their alarming effectiveness has not only led to greater public mistrust in crucial democratic processes such as elections, it also appears to have caught the world’s most powerful military alliance flat footed.
However, while US President Donald Trump’s refusal to reaffirm NATO’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defense and his threats of America’s actual withdrawal may make for eye-catching headlines and punditry about discord and disarray, there is simply no political will or public clamor for any NATO member to pull out, let alone the US. In fact, most Americans believe NATO does too little — suggesting that the argument is not that the alliance is obsolete, but that more could be done, just with less American money.
NATO’s importance extends far beyond merely deterring to the aggressive expansionism of decades past. Moreover, too much attention is paid to individual entities, instead of the symbiotic group of organizations that have been instrumental in maintaining a semblance of global peace.
The stability that NATO guarantees is crucial to the work of the Bretton Woods institutions, which in turn are responsible for securing global economic stability and growth. This should make it possible for member states to comfortably set aside at least 2 per cent of their GDP for defense without de-funding crucial domestic programs. NATO also generates myriad benefits beyond just mutual defense; it has come to define long-term stability and generational assurance for governments to balance military readiness with the other needs of the state.
What is apparent is the need for an “evolved” NATO; evolved in the sense that traditional confrontation and deterrence will simply not work in the face of increasingly complex threats to global stability.
Some of the criticism levelled against the alliance is warranted — and fractious summits such as the most recent one in London do not inspire confidence in its determination to confront challenges posed by Russia and China, or mount an effective defense against what the organization calls “hybrid threats” — but none of it takes away from NATO’s enormous potential to carry more of the traditional American burden of being the world’s policeman.
What is apparent is the need for an “evolved” NATO; evolved in the sense that traditional confrontation and deterrence will simply not work in the face of increasingly complex threats to global stability. There is little incentive these days for adversaries to amass troops and weaponry for full-scale invasions when the cost of doing so is far greater than any value that may be obtained from the capture of new territory. Russia is still reeling from a raft of sanctions imposed after its occupation of Crimea, and the US-China trade war has revealed that even the East Asian juggernaut has a soft underbelly.
An evolved strategy would employ non-military hard power (with soft power overtures), while maintaining the lethal capability to fight a hot war if necessary. An increase in expenditure by $130 billion would address the latter. For the former, there must be consensus and an unshakeable resolve within NATO and its partners, from Asia and Oceania to South America, to employ sanctions, trade embargoes and the global isolation of offenders. In this way, a simple rebuke by NATO, given the potential economic cost, would be enough to deter most aggressors.
It would also give teeth to digital initiatives aimed at curbing trafficking, money laundering, terrorism financing and global crime using cryptocurrencies on the “dark web.” There has been a failure to monitor and police these activities, despite the availability of resources, funding and capabilities to do so.
In the end, there are far more justifications for NATO’s existence than there are credible arguments for its termination; it is impossible to envision a safe world without it. However, the West’s traditional adversaries have evolved. Instead of nuclear weapons and regime change, we now have disinformation, mailed fists and support for insurgent elements. NATO will survive the Trump administration, but there are valid points to the White House’s criticisms, which should spur the organization toward an evolution in its capabilities, building on 70 years of successes and crucial lessons from failures. The world would be far better off if more nations took responsibility for its collective stability, rather than relying solely on America’s shoulders — which, while broad, are not invulnerable to corrosive influence.
- Hafed Al-Ghwell is a non-resident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Institute at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He is also senior adviser at the international economic consultancy Maxwell Stamp and at the geopolitical risk advisory firm Oxford Analytica, a member of the Strategic Advisory Solutions International Group in Washington DC and a former adviser to the board of the World Bank Group. Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell