After 75? Wither NATO? – Analysis


By Nikolas K. Gvosdev

This July, leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will convene in Washington for a historic 75th anniversary summit—to take stock of the alliance’s work and to chart out its future. The decisions taken at this meeting will set the pace for the next chapter of the Euro-Atlantic partnership.

The agenda at this conclave will grapple with a set of issues that two contributors to Orbis—Ian Brzezinski and Elbridge Colby—discussed and debated in its pages four and a half years ago. In wake of the restart of major combat operations in Ukraine by the Russian Federation—precipitating the largest and deadliest period of fighting in Europe since the end of the Second World War—and the emergence of China as a major power with global reach—the points they raised still remain the principal questions that the alliance must settle as it looks to reinvent and reinvigorate itself for the mid-21st century.

These include:

  • How to properly weigh and address the challenges posed by Russia and China. How much focus should be devoted to checking Moscow’s ambitions given that Russia is the current problem? How much must be set aside today as a reserve for dealing with a future China contingency?
  • What is the nature of the Russia-China strategic entente? While all agree it is not a formal alliance, it is more than just a marriage of tactical convenience? Does it represent a level of strategic intimacy where an advantage (or setback) to one in one theater has repercussions for the plans of the other in another theater of operations? Is there a point where the national interests of Russia and China would diverge?
  • What is the best way to cope with a Russia-China joint challenge? Is the way forward for the European members of NATO to assume more responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security, starting with the containment of Russia, freeing the United States to pivot more attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific? Or should NATO begin to play a more active role in helping the United States construct a durable security architecture in the Pacific basin? If the latter, do the European members of NATO share a similar assessment of the China challenge as the United States?
  • While everyone agrees that European states should be spending more on defense, it is not simply the dollar or euro amount that matters, but what is actually being purchased. What capabilities should European militaries, individually and jointly, be investing in? How should investments in resilience and infrastructure which bolster the deterrent capability of the alliance, be weighted? And how should perennial tensions between NATO and European Union obligations be adjudicated?

In the original symposium, Ian Brzezinski noted the challenge would be “to forge this emergent transatlantic consensus on China into a comprehensive political, economic, and military strategy designed to both deter aggression from China and to foster a more cooperative relationship.” We have seen steps along the lines predicted by Elbridge Colby that we would see “a greater degree of collective action among the United States, Europe, and like-minded countries, such as Japan, India, and Australia.”

The upcoming summit will also grapple with some of the unfinished business both gentlemen identified in their commentary. Despite the narrowing of perspectives among US allies in assessing both Russia and China–Colby notes that the “degree of policy convergence between the United States and its Asian allies and partners on the one hand and Europe on the other is not a foregone conclusion.” And as a policy consensus emerges, it will still need concrete resourcing. Brzezinski highlighted that steps would be needed “to ensure more equitable burden sharing among allies, a more equitable trading relationship, and a recommitment to defend the values that distinguish this community of democracies.”

In 2020, Brzezinski and Colby laid out questions for NATO to consider as it sought to rejuvenate itself from the “brain-dead” condition French President Emmanuel Macron openly warned about in 2019. The 2024 summit allows us to take stock of progress–or lack thereof–in addressing these challenges.

  • About the author: Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a 2024 Templeton Fellow and the Director of the National Security Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is also a Senior Fellow in the Eurasia Program and Editor of Orbis: FPRI’s Journal of World Affairs.
  • Source: This article was published at FPRI


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