Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Which NATO Do We Need?

| Sep. 14, 2022

Four possible futures for the trans-Atlantic alliance.

In a world of constant change, the endurance of the trans-Atlantic partnership stands out. NATO is older than I am, and I’m no youngster. It has been around even longer than Queen Elizabeth II reigned in Britain. Its original rationale—to "keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down"—is less relevant than it used to be (Russia's war in Ukraine notwithstanding), yet it still commands reflexive reverence on both sides of the Atlantic. If you're an aspiring policy wonk hoping to make your mark in Washington, Berlin, Paris, London, etc., learning to praise NATO's enduring virtues is still the smart career move.

This longevity is especially remarkable when one considers how much has changed since NATO was formed and the idea of a "trans-Atlantic community" began to take shape. The Warsaw Pact is gone, and the Soviet Union has collapsed. The United States has spent 20-plus years fighting costly and unsuccessful wars in the greater Middle East. China has risen from an impoverished nation with little global clout to the world's second-most-powerful country, and its leaders aspire to an even greater global role in the future. Europe itself has experienced profound shifts as well: changing demographics, repeated economic crises, civil wars in the Balkans, and, in 2022, a destructive war that seems likely to continue for some time.

To be sure, the "trans-Atlantic partnership" hasn't been entirely static. NATO has added new members throughout its history, beginning with Greece and Turkey in 1952, followed by Spain in 1982, then a flurry of former Soviet allies beginning in 1999, and most recently Sweden and Finland. The distribution of burdens within the alliance has fluctuated as well, with most of Europe cutting their defense contributions drastically after the end of the Cold War. NATO has also gone through various doctrinal shifts, some of them more consequential than others.

It is therefore worth asking what form the trans-Atlantic partnership should take in the future. How should it define its mission and distribute its responsibilities? As with a mutual fund, past success is no guarantee of future performance, which is why smart portfolio managers seeking the best returns will adjust a fund's assets as conditions change. Given past changes, current events, and likely future circumstances, what broad vision should shape the trans-Atlantic partnership in the future, assuming it continues to exist at all?

I can think of at least four distinct models going forward....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Which NATO Do We Need?.” Foreign Policy, September 14, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt