NATO: in need of an overhaul?

“Keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” – that was how NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay, famously characterised the purpose of the newly founded organisation. Roll on nearly seventy years and with a more introspective US administration running and a reunited Germany calling for a single European army, the objectives seem much less clear.


Since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, there have undeniably been times when NATO has seemed uncertain of its new role, but is President Trump right to label the most successful military alliance in history ‘obsolete’ and ‘irrelevant’?

In one respect, the answer has to be yes; NATO is ‘obsolete’, at least in so much as the threat it first arose to protect against is no more. The Soviet Union is long gone and while President Putin continues a policy of reasserting Russian influence, largely as a domestic distraction from economic woes, today’s Russia is often more of a regional player than a global one. Beyond a measure of posturing and teasing forays along the air and maritime borders of his Baltic and North Sea neighbours, Putin’s actions have been largely confined to the likes of the ‘old’ Russian territories of Georgia, Ukraine and Crimea, or ‘traditional’ spheres of influence such as Syria.

Existential threat

However, none of that negates the fact that Russia remains at the very least a potential strategic adversary to the West, if not the outright existential threat warned of by former NATO Deputy Supreme Allied Commander for Europe, General Sir Alexander Richard David Shirreff. He has accused the Kremlin of throwing away the rule book that has underpinned European security in the post Cold War era – and Western leaders of adhering to the outdated belief that any attack would involve massed Russian armour pouring across the German border.

"Today’s Russia is a much more subtle foe than the brute-force Soviet bear of old."

Today’s Russia is a much more subtle foe than the brute-force Soviet bear of old, master of an entirely new form of warfare that encompasses the cyber domain, elevates propaganda and misinformation to unprecedented levels and stretches ‘plausible deniability’ to breaking point by its use of sympathisers and separatists as state-sponsored proxies. It is a thoughtful, clever approach to undermine, pressurise and attack without ever going beyond the threshold of Article Five and triggering a NATO response.

Even the demonstrable absence of Russia’s recently rearmed and much upgraded military from the field of action can be spun in support of the stratagem. If, as some have suggested, Moscow were one day to turn its sights westwards to the Baltic, this new technique of war could conceivably see Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania fall before NATO could do anything to prevent it. Keeping the Russians out these days calls for a quite different style of thinking.

America in

Keeping the Americans in, however, may prove a little easier to do. A lot could be achieved in an instant by NATO, or more precisely the 23 of the 28 member states currently and habitually not paying their dues, simply putting their hands in their pockets and stumping up the cash. The ongoing refusal of mostly European nations to meet their 2% of GDP defence spending obligations has been a persistent annoyance to successive administrations in Washington, and the current inhabitant of the White House has not been slow to voice those concerns.

President Trump’s hints that America might no longer be quite so willing to come to the aid of a NATO member that does not pay its way may have sent shock waves through the parliaments and presidential palaces of Europe, but he makes a fair point. American tax payers cannot realistically be expected to pick up the bill for European peace in perpetuity.

It is not really about the money, however, nor is it very likely that the US would actually abandon a member state in the face of attack. Article Five of the treaty does, after all, hold a particularly dear place in American hearts; the first and only time that it has ever been invoked to date followed less than 24 hours after the events of 9/11. Nevertheless, it is NATO’s perceived lack of response to Islamic terrorism, sixteen years on, that has most strongly given the new US President cause to question the relevance of the alliance in the new global defence landscape. In the wake of the later Paris attacks, it is perhaps telling that despite calling them “an act of war”, President François Hollande did not opt to invoke Article Five.

While NATO was obviously never originally set up to address radical Islamism, that threat is no longer new; maybe now should be the time for the alliance to refocus. If it does not, there is always the danger that others could also begin to view it as increasingly irrelevant.

European dimensions

That may already have started in Europe. In an interview with German newspaper Welt am Sonntag in 2015, European Union President Jean-Claude Juncker argued that NATO alone did not provide sufficient protection for the EU. Admittedly at the time his call for a single European army arose in the wake of the Russian actions in Ukraine, but there have been more recent whispers that the events in Paris, Brussels and elsewhere have also bolstered support.

Political expediency aside, whichever bogeyman-of-the-hour is leveraged to justify it, there are many in the EU who view it as a good idea, and ironically considering Ismay’s original mission statement, it seems the Germans are playing a big part in driving it forward.

"last November the EU controversially resolved to establish a new European Defence Union."

Having proclaimed that “the European army is our long-term goal” in a speech in 2015, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen has set about achieving it, signing deals with her Dutch counterpart to integrate the two nations' navies and actually bringing some Dutch brigades into the German army. Going still further, last November the EU controversially resolved to establish a new European Defence Union, which, although non-combatant for now, could ultimately open the door to full military integration.

Such ambitions, however, risk undermining NATO. Geoffrey Van Orden, former executive secretary of International Military Staff at NATO HQ Brussels, and now a British MEP, warned in January that the EU’s “military pretensions” distract from the need to revitalise the alliance, and divert already scarce funds, resources and personnel. NATO has its “weaknesses”, he concedes, but he argues that the reason for them can largely be laid at the EU’s door.

If the EU is seeking to use the quest for a common army as a means to advance political objectives, then NATO now more than ever needs to look at the politics to ensure that important military ones do not get left by the wayside. The alliance needs to refocus away from Ismay’s deliberately jocular 20th century vision and into a form more suited to the defence environment of the 21st.

Time for change

NATO has been here before. In the 1990s, as the Cold War finally drew to a close, the alliance faced an uncertain future, and the possibility of being disbanded alongside the Warsaw Pact, before eventually reinventing itself in the role of a multi-national peacekeeper operating under UN mandate in the former Yugoslavia. The shape of the next renaissance is already there to be seen in Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s just released annual report.

Published on 13 March, it highlights the need to adapt to the changing times and the new global security environment, emphasising NATO’s initiatives to bolster collective defence and project stability beyond its borders. Traditional deterrence with a show of multinational strength in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland is to be supported by increased political dialogue with Russia, and joined by a new role training local forces to fight terrorism in Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia. Underpinning it all is a

new intelligence division charged with extending NATO’s understanding of the threats it faces and helping the alliance stay relevant into the future.  

As Secretary Stoltenberg himself put it, “in a dangerous world, NATO is as essential as ever.”