Where does NATO go from here?

7 June 2022

This article was originally posted on the Rethinking Security website here and is reposted under Creative Commons license.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine appears to have bolstered NATO’s unity, purpose and expenditure, with Finland and Sweden hoping to join the club soon. But what, asks Steven Chisnall, is its endgame? Where is its strategy? And what if it could not count on the United States?

On the surface it seems to make obvious sense to invest heavily in NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. After all, how else will we stop Putin marching into other European countries?

But maybe it would be wise to question the narratives being spun around what we should and should not do about Putin. After all, the past two decades have been a dismal failure in how the West has dealt with Putin and other conflicts. Moreover, the midst of a dangerous crisis is not the best time to be making long-term, consequential decisions.

It must be heady days for many working within NATO. With the invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s survival appears guaranteed for years, perhaps decades to come. Even more exciting, the organisation looks set to expand and receive increased military support from many member states. Meanwhile, numerous weapons systems are being battle tested by Ukrainian troops, providing invaluable feedback to the supplier companies and nations for improving effectiveness and doctrine. Most European states appear to have widespread public support for the actions being taken so far.

Among this ‘good news’ there lie at least two worms which could eat the ripening fruit. The first is the continuing overwhelming dominance of the United States within NATO, which remains a legacy of the organisation’s founding in 1949. The second, which cannot be dissociated from the first, is the long-standing lack of a coherent strategy.

Recent books by Vladislav M. Zubok and M.E. Sarotte have made clear that the rapid expansions of NATO under the Bush senior and Clinton presidencies were not the result of any well-developed long-term strategies, but strongly driven by the personal emotions and decisions of these two US leaders.

In the current crisis it is clear that the US is pulling NATO’s strings. President Biden’s administration has received deserved praise for corralling NATO members before the invasion and keeping the momentum to support Ukraine in defending itself and, hopefully, in pushing Russia back. For now, at least from the West’s perspective, supporting Ukraine is viewed as a ‘good war’. This was a term that was once applied to the war in Afghanistan.

The US, of course, has always been overwhelmingly dominant in NATO and there have been no shortage of warnings about this vulnerability. Bush junior and Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on his final visit to NATO HQ in Brussels in June 2011, put it starkly, warning about “the very real possibility of military irrelevance” if NATO did not address its oversized dependence on the US for funding and equipment. This reality almost became manifest in the guise of President Trump, but NATO escaped this time. It may not escape next time and, with the fracturing political landscape in Europe, it is difficult to see any leader being able to pull the reluctant members together. According to NATO’s own figures, in 2021 the US was still providing almost 70% of NATO’s funding.

Recognising the need to rearticulate NATO’s relevance to a much wider audience, NATO leaders attended a number of highly choreographed road shows during 2018-19 called ‘NATO Engages’. These were part of the commemorations of the Alliance’s 70th anniversary, culminating in London in December 2019 with a major outreach event and a summit meeting. Unfortunately, the gathering exposed the almost school-boyish divisions and lack of sensible engagement between a number of NATO leaders.

What we have not seen so far is the emergence of a strategy for the longer term. There is no question that we should do all we can now to help Ukraine. But this is not the same as creating an effective and sustainable strategy for how to deal with Russia after the war has ended, and into the future. The warning signs about Putin and the threats posed to Ukraine have been well known for years, also well covered by Zubok and Sarotte.

For now, the war has simplified the picture for NATO, generating levels of cohesion that are unlikely to survive the messy return of politics after the war ends. An opportunity may come with the Madrid Summit at the end of June when NATO leaders are gathering to agree a new Strategic Concept. This will be the fourth Strategic Concept since the end of the Cold War; the last one was agreed at Lisbon in 2010. According to NATO, the Concept “reaffirms NATO’s values and purpose, and provides a collective assessment of the security environment. It also drives NATO’s strategic adaptation and guides its future political and military development”.

No doubt this will be an occasion for rousing speeches, but whether the 30 member states can agree on what the core threats and risks are seems doubtful.

A key issue is how the war will end, if ever. It is highly possible that the West will be divided over any settlement and the eventual fall out. Given the scales of uncertainties at present, this does not look a propitious moment for NATO to agree a new strategic concept, unless it is so bland as to be meaningless. Crisis management is one thing, strategy is something else. Perhaps Hungary and Turkey’s reluctance to oppose Putin can be managed away, but NATO’s structural fault lines look set to continue. Let us hope that NATO can rise to the occasion.

Steve Chisnall currently teaches at the University of Southampton on security and strategy. He runs a Master’s programme on International Security and Risk. Prior to this he worked in the private sector after retiring from a career in the Royal Air Force, which included posts in the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Defence.