NATO at 70: Much to celebrate with little time to do so

By Matthijs Olde

On the 5th of May, the Netherlands celebrates its liberation of Nazi occupation in 1945. Ever since the Second World War, western countries have known 70 years of peace. Instrumental to this has been the institutionalisation of global multilateral institutions, such as NATO. While the ride has not been smooth, the NATO alliance has been able to counter hostile threats during its 70 years of existence. Within the increasingly complicated and multipolar world order, the challenges and appeal of the transatlantic alliance have never been so significant, and NATO’s ability to find new solutions and answers will determine its success over the coming decades.

A new poll in The Netherlands last week showed that 73% of the Dutch public supports NATO’s existence. This positive view of NATO alliance is not limited to the Dutch. The alliance has grown from twelve original members in 1949 to 29 in 2019, with other countries, including some from the former Warsaw Pact, trying to join shortly. 

There are multiple reasons for this success. Nowadays, NATO is more than just an US-led military umbrella; it has shown to be a symbol of security as a shared interest in itself. Through its actions, NATO has been a driver for national reform and supporter of liberal democratic principles. The principles of equality and burden sharing in the NATO Council made the organisation robust, but also gave its members enough freedom to hold to their own identity and interest. 

A new era, new challenges

As such, NATO is more relevant than ever. Even though the traditional threat of the Soviet Union has gone long since, many of the new members feel the same pressures the founding members felt 70 years ago. Both the Eastern and Southern borders present challenges, from military and political aggression from Russia in the Baltics and Balkans to human trafficking and terrorism in the south. 

NATO has redefined its mission and purpose since the end of the Cold War, which has lad to more operations than ever before. NATO staff is currently active in Kosovo, Afghanistan, the Baltics and the Mediterranean with more than 20.000 personnel.

NATO’s involvement and role have not always been smooth and successful. Kosovo and the Gulf of Aden have seen significant benefits of NATO presence and operations, but Afghanistan has been a long and intense mission where actions led by NATO have been unable to bring the predicted stability or humanitarian advances. Similarly, Northern Africa has seen various upheavals of radical extremists groups and insurgents which NATO has not always been able to contain. For instance, the initial successes of operations in Libya helped people to get rid of the Ghaddafi regime, but also led to the current tribal chaos in the country. NATO is not a perfect organisation, and the alliance has made mistakes in the operational and political spectrum.

Future challenges of the alliance

At the operational level, many traditional topics –  including terrorism, human trafficking and the thread of Russia – remain. However, new challenges force NATO to reform to stay relevant in these decades after the cold war. What is the relation to China? How can it deal with new technologies, information warfare, hybrid threats, the new nuclear arms race and the proliferation of advanced weapon systems in unstable regions?

Besides, NATO also has internal political divisions to solve. Burden sharing has always been a significant issue, but the current US administration has accelerated European defense spending in order to avert US disengagement from NATO. Secondly, the question remains how member states respond to members who can no longer be classified as liberal democracies. Moreover, what is the role of the alliance besides the increasing military ambitions of the European Union? All these questions need answers in the near future.

The existence of the NATO alliance has been vital to western security and stability over the last 70 years. It has provided a robust framework for cooperation on a political and military level and has promoted essential values throughout the region. The transatlantic treaty organisation has transformed itself from an organisation with a singular mission into an alliance with many responsibilities on many different levels. NATO needs to keep redefining itself in order to successfully fulfill its mandate in the future.

About the author: Matthijs Olde is a regular writer for JASON and various other publications in the field of international security and defence. He holds a master’s degree from Leiden University and is a board member of YATA Netherlands. He writes on a personal note.

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