Will NATO still exist in 25 years?

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World leaders will descend on Washington next week to celebrate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s historic 75th anniversary. The occasion will doubtless feature endless reflections on NATO’s successes over the past three-quarters of a century, exceeded only by what we expect will be boundless expressions of faith in the future of the Alliance.

More than one participant will surely argue that NATO is indispensable and speak in glowing terms about all the good things NATO will accomplish over the next 75 years. And to a not-inconsiderable extent, of course, this back-patting is warranted. If we assess NATO’s performance since its inception in terms of the famous characterization of its raison d’etre (attributed to its first Secretary-General, Lord Ismay) — keeping the Russians out, the Germans down and the Americans in — there can be no gainsaying the fact that the Alliance has been successful.

The Soviet threat was contained, West Germany was integrated into the Western alliance system and the United States remained deeply engaged in European security.

However, as my colleague at the think tank Defense Priorities Jennifer Kavanagh argued at a recent webinar, NATO’s very success in achieving its initial goals has sown the seeds of its future decline.

The Soviet threat, which served as a unifying force for the Alliance, ended long ago. The European and Canadian members of NATO, having been on the team that “won” the Cold War, lost much of their resolve to maintain robust military capabilities and contribute their fair share to collective defense —even after Russia invaded Ukraine has.

Furthermore, the success in “keeping the Germans down” had unforeseen consequences. A demilitarized Germany was essential to preventing a resurgent German threat in post–World War II Europe. However, this also meant that one of the major European powers effectively disarmed. But since the end of the Cold War, Germany’s NATO membership gave it little incentive to spend on defense. This lack of robust military capabilities from a key power has created a gap in European NATO’s overall defense posture, one that has become glaringly obvious since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Finally, the strategy of “keeping the Americans in” has resulted in the U.S. shouldering a disproportionate share of NATO’s financial and military burden. While the U.S. has historically been willing to play this role, the rise of new global challenges may lead to a reevaluation of its security priorities. A continued imbalance in burden-sharing has long strained the relationship between the U.S. and its European allies and threatens to undermine America’s commitment to NATO.

Taken together, these challenges cast a long shadow over the future of the Atlantic Alliance. The U.S., the linchpin of NATO, is increasingly focused on the rise of China and the complex security challenges of the Indo-Pacific region. This shift in focus could lead to a decreased American commitment to European security, further straining the Alliance’s cohesion.

In and of themselves, these challenges could well prove fatal to NATO. But I would argue that the inevitable demise of the Alliance has even deeper roots — roots having to do with the shift in polarity over the past decade or so.

NATO was conceived in a bipolar world to address the reality of superpower competition. The rigid alliance structure and focus on collective defense were well-suited to deterring Soviet aggression.

With the demise of the USSR in 1991, NATO adapted to the new realities of the so-called “unipolar moment.” The absence of a major peer competitor allowed the U.S. to maintain its dominant position within the Alliance, and NATO morphed into an instrument of American primacy.

But the unipolar moment has definitively passed and we have entered a new geopolitical era — one defined fundamentally by multipolarity. The rise of China, a resurgent Russia, a more assertive India and the rise of other regional powers has created a more complex, chaotic and competitive security environment.

Here’s the problem for NATO and its cheerleaders: Adapting the Alliance to the new multipolar reality — reconstructing and repurposing it so that it is fit for purpose in an “unbalanced multipolar world”— is likely going to prove perhaps impossible, and certainly not worth the investment of time, money and energy it would require.

Why? Because, the rigid, consensus-based decision-making process of NATO, designed for a world with a singular threat, is ill-suited for the fast-paced, dynamic environment of a multipolar world. The rise of new powers with competing interests makes it difficult to forge consensus on a range of security issues. The focus on collective defense against a single adversary no longer reflects the diverse threats facing the Alliance.

A more nimble approach is needed. In contrast to the ossified structures of formal alliances, flexible working partnerships on specific issues offer greater promise. Such partnerships would enable the U.S. to maintain freedom of maneuver and build ad hoc coalitions tailored to address emerging threats. Examples like AUKUS, the Quad and various regional security organizations demonstrate the potential of states nimbly converging around shared interests on specific issues.

While established alliances may retain a marginal role in this new world order, their relevance will likely diminish. The question for the U.S. and its European allies is not whether NATO can be saved, but whether it should be.

The resources currently devoted to maintaining a cumbersome alliance structure could be better spent on building a more agile and responsive security architecture for the challenges of the 21st century. This may involve a more modular approach to security cooperation, with different countries taking the lead on different issues based on their capabilities and interests.

Does all of this mean that we won’t be celebrating NATO’s 80th anniversary in a few years? Probably not. Does it mean that it’s unlikely that we’ll be celebrating the Alliance’s centenary in 2049? Without a doubt.

Andrew Latham is a professor of international relations at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minn., a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy, and a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities in Washington, D.C.

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