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Seventy Years On, Does NATO Still Matter?

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The flag of NATO.

April 4 marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, or Washington Treaty, which underpins the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Taken for granted for many years as stable and virtually unassailable, NATO has, in recent years, taken repeated verbal insults and attacks from President Donald Trump, who frequently has questioned whether or not the alliance provides anything of value to the US. As the 70th anniversary arrives, we asked SIS professors if NATO still matters, and why.

Professor Aaron Boesenecker

NATO started as a radical experiment in collective security, and the enduring transatlantic security community embodied in NATO is in and of itself one of the world's most important post-WWII political-military innovations. Yet, NATO became far more than a collective security arrangement as it evolved into a powerful force for peaceful transitions to democracy as the Soviet Union crumbled. In this sense, perhaps NATO’s greatest achievement was in inspiring democratic reforms as the Central and Eastern European countries broke away from the Soviet Union. Although never intended as a force for democratization, the draw of NATO membership was a powerful force in the post-Soviet transitions, allowing the transatlantic alliance leverage over the transitions that, were it not present, might have resulted in a far less peaceful and organized transition for many of these states. Despite current debates among NATO members, the alliance’s ability to endure through dramatic political shifts bodes well for its continued role in helping to promote transatlantic peace and security.

Professor Audrey Kurth Cronin

NATO is probably the most important stabilizing factor in the world since the end of the Second World War. And if we forget that, we’re going to face the same issues we faced in the 20th century, only with much less capability to meet them with allies. It’s an extremely important organization, and I think ignoring it or neglecting it is a very foolish mistake. I think we need to stop thinking of NATO as being old-fashioned because the issues have not gone away.

Professor Keith Trisko Darden

NATO is very useful for preventing war between historic centers of power in Europe. By intertwining and specializing the military capabilities of European member-states and by sustaining their reliance on the United States for any significant operations, we guarantee that European countries do not pose significant threats to one another or to the US. 

Professor Michelle Egan

NATO is a military institution, but, on the other hand, I think there are two poles of attraction in Europe: one is joining NATO, and the other is joining the EU. And they both, in some ways, have very different rationales. We founded the EU as a way to get away from the perils of nationalism, and we founded NATO as a security framework against aggression from the Soviets. States have wanted to join both. From that point of view, NATO is about stability. I think looking at the past and looking at the rationale for why this institution was formed is important.

Professor and former dean Jim Goldgeier

NATO connects the United States, Canada, and 27 (soon to be 28) European partners in an integrated military structure to defend the member nations from external security threats. While not all members at all times have maintained their commitment to democracy and the rule of law, NATO is an alliance based on the defense of those values. Working together in the field and at NATO headquarters, the alliance members have developed habits of cooperation that enable the United States, Canada, and Europe to work together to address common threats and challenges.

Professor Garret Martin

Seventy years after the foundational Washington Treaty, NATO remains as relevant and significant as ever as a political and military alliance. Despite the recent turbulence, it is still the key and resilient forum bringing together transatlantic leaders. And as an enduring and tested military alliance, NATO possesses an unrivaled set of skills to fulfill its three core tasks: first, collective defense to deter a resurgent Russia and defend its member states; second, crisis management to bring stability to areas of conflict in and outside of the North Atlantic area; and third, cooperative security, whereby NATO has played a vital role in raising the capabilities of the many states and organizations that are part of its vibrant network of partnerships.

SIS PhD student Balazs Martonffy

Europe, whole, free, and at peace, remains the underlying purpose of NATO. The value of the North Atlantic Alliance rests with its provision of three indispensable transatlantic public goods: the demonstration of an indefatigable political will behind the alliance's mutual defense clause, its symbolism of a set of core values shared across the Atlantic, and its provision of an institutionalized forum for discussions and deliberations. At 70, the Alliance is still critical in today's world: a resurgent Russia, increasing geopolitical competition between the United States and China; hybrid and unconventional threats rising globally; and nationalism gaining a larger foothold within the transatlantic political arena all demand NATO's continued success. 

Distinguished Diplomat-in-Residence Sally Shelton-Colby

“Principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” These words are not drawn from a US Government foreign policy declaration nor from an academic treatise. Rather, they are drawn from the North Atlantic Treaty that created NATO, obviously a critical tool for ensuring Western security. Whether NATO should react to the rollback of democratic freedoms in a growing number of its member states poses yet another challenge for its members.

Professor Jordan Tama

Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first secretary general, famously said that NATO was created to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Today, the world benefits more from a strong Germany than a weak one, but deterring Russian aggression and cementing US-European ties remain central purposes of NATO. The institution also conducts important military training and support missions in places ranging from Afghanistan to Kosovo. More fundamentally, NATO embodies the key idea that countries can cooperate to address security threats and that such cooperation is more effective than ‘going it alone.’

Professor Eric Terzuolo

NATO is the setting in which the United States decides, in conjunction with most of its closest allies, how to deal with major political and security challenges on the world scale. There is simply no replacement for NATO when it comes to that vital role. This indispensability is why NATO survived, indeed thrived, even after the demise of its historic adversaries, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.