Can NATO withstand the onerous 21st century challenges?

Jens Stoltenberg and Joe Biden
Bilateral meeting between NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and US next President Joe Biden. Photo credits: NATO archive.

As geopolitical realities are changing and digital warfare is on the rise NATO has to adopt once again. Its success depends heavily  on its organizational flexibility and its strength to keep all Allies aligned.

The North Atlantic Treaty origins trace back to April 1949 when the Allies agreed on Article 5 which stated “an armed attack against one or more of them… shall be considered an attack against them all” and that following such an attack, each Ally would take “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force” in response. Simply put, this meant that all members had the guarantee that they would be supported by a large group of allies in case of war. Specifically the nuclear protection of the United States.  

For European countries, this was absolutely crucial as the newly established Western Union (ancestor of the European Union) in 1948 was still in its early stages and these European countries needed confidence for their own security before they would begin talking and trading with each other. With the benefit of aid and a security umbrella, political stability was gradually restored to Western Europe and the post-war economic miracle began.

Learning curve of NATO

Much of NATO’s following history is centred around the muscle politics between the Soviet Union and NATO led by the U.S. However, as NATO matured it grew from an essential defence organization towards an organization of détente.

During its campaigns in Afghanistan, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO learned that military power is no longer enough to ensure peace and stability. Peacekeeping has become at least as difficult as peacemaking. This included growing efforts in protecting individuals’ freedom from the violent extremism bred by instability and nation-state failure. As NATO played crucial roles in the Libya crisis, Syrian conflict, the rise of ISIL and anti-terrorism efforts, it showed that it has the ability to adopt in line with new threats.

Geopolitical realities

However, in today’s world, NATO’s biggest challenge may not be the ability to adapt to new (military) threats, but to keep all its allies aligned. The geopolitical realities are ever-changing. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States reviewed its role as leader of military coalitions, Turkey’s growing number of conflicts with other NATO members, and the European Union launched new initiatives such as PESCO, which may cause fragmentation.

These challenges are daunting and these long-terms shifts may show that NATO’s traditional tool box is of little use. It can be said that in the end NATO’s sustainability depends on the terms of a new partnership with the United States under the upcoming presidency of Biden. It thus remains a question for now if NATO is able to cope with the onerous 21st century challenges.