NATO at 70—Shaping the Future for the Next 70 Years

For some, 70 is an age to begin to slow down and enjoy the fruits of a life well lived—but not for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As NATO prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding in April, it is working hard to keep pace with a changing environment as well as shifts from within.

One secret to NATO’s longevity is its ability to continually adapt. While NATO began as a political and military alliance designed to “restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area,” it has since expanded well beyond its original, geographically limited, collective defense guarantee of Article 5 (“an attack against one is an attack against all”). Since the 1990s, the extent and diversity of NATO operations and missions have increased significantly. NATO’s mandate now includes out-of-area crisis management operations; cooperative security partnerships with non-NATO partners across the globe; training and capacity building efforts in Africa and the Middle East; and strategies to manage threats such as cyber and disinformation, which deliberately fall below the level of armed conflict. While the core mission of collective defense remains the foundation, NATO’s adaptation in step with the changing international security environment and concerns of its member states has only enhanced its value.

Yet as NATO approaches its 70th birthday, external threats and internal pressures raise questions as to whether the alliance will endure, at least in its current form. Externally, the very objective of Russian foreign policy is to divide the alliance and to create instability in NATO member states as well as along its periphery. Internally, the rise of nationalist, anti-democratic governments in several member states threatens to undermine the values upon, which the alliance is based. Unless proponents of the transatlantic relationship take deliberate steps to shape the future NATO they wish to see, the alliance’s next round anniversary might see an alliance that is scaled back to a “NATO 1.0” that does only collective defense, or, worse yet, a NATO that is hollowed or even dissolved.

Given these possible alternative futures, how do we ensure the future NATO is robust, enduring, and relevant? The answer, once again, is further adaptation. Adaptation in the following four areas in particular can help realize that more positive future.

Protect the Core

Much like the engineering behind a German car, there are many fine-tuned machines within NATO that cannot easily be replicated. Among these are NATO’s integrated command structure, its force generation process, interoperability standards, and political and military decisionmaking structures. Their collective power is demonstrated each time the alliance takes the political decision to deploy forces, and these forces are able to operate seamlessly together according to an established military plan. While so-called “coalitions of the willing” and other multinational organizations can also deploy forces, such formations lack the advanced military planning, political legitimacy, and staying power of NATO operations. Moving forward, NATO must ensure these vital core tools remain “fit for purpose.” The recent adaptation of the NATO command structure establishing a new Joint Force Command for the Atlantic; new command to support logistics, reinforcement, and military mobility; and new cyber operations center at SHAPE are strong steps in this direction. To fine-tune this machinery, NATO must realize further progress in improving the speed of alliance decision making as well as in harmonization of national, regional, and alliance level plans. And as the European Union works to create a more robust defense capability that can also reinforce NATO, it would be well advised to draw on or expand upon these core functions rather than replicate them.

Equally at NATO’s core is Article 5 and collective defense. As all allies know, the best defense is a strong deterrent. Beginning with the launch of the Readiness Action Plan at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014, allies have taken a number of steps to reinforce deterrence and defense. These include the establishment of high readiness forces; an enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic States and Poland; measures to reinforce security in the south-east; and, most recently, the launch of the Readiness Initiative at the NATO Brussels summit in 2018. But there must also be coherence among deterrence efforts in the north-east and south-east, and implementing the Readiness Initiative targets ensures that national forces and NATO forces forward are backed by rapid reinforcements. Finally, NATO should formally expand its definition of deterrence beyond conventional and nuclear to include non-military, whole-of-government, and whole-of-society tools, an approach the United Kingdom has dubbed “modern deterrence.” This is needed both to address so-called “gray-zone” threats that fall below the level of armed conflict and to expand the toolkit to include diplomatic, economic, cyber, and information means that could be used in a conventional scenario.

Revitalize NATO as a Political Alliance

NATO’s role as a political alliance is often forgotten and arguably underutilized. Consultation is an integral part of NATO’s decisionmaking process but also a precursor to getting there. Even absent an impending decision, it allows members to consult and cooperate on defense and security-related issues in order to solve problems, build trust, and prevent conflict. Under Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty, members can bring any issue of concern to the North Atlantic Council for discussion, particularly those related to the security of member countries. The alliance has held a handful of Article 4 consultations but can and should hold more by doing away with the misperception that an Article 4 consultation is a stepping stone to an Article 5 commitment.

In this regard, NATO is well-suited to host discussions on the emerging challenge presented by China. To be clear, this would not be a discussion on military options. Rather, members would share their experiences working with China, particularly with regard to Chinese investments in critical infrastructure and telecommunications. They could then discuss what risk such investments might pose to their national security, intelligence sharing and political freedom of action. Finally, they might try to reach consensus on steps NATO, national governments, or other multinational organization such as the Europe Union might take to deter malign behavior and guard against any security risks.

Energize Partnerships

Much as in the corporate world, the international security environment has become more contested and interconnected. New state actors, such as China and India, are competing for influence, while others, like Russia, focus on undermining or rewriting international norms altogether. The balance of influence is also more dispersed with distant, often non-state actors exerting disproportionate power. Given this complexity, no single country or organization can master all challenges or build the tools to do so. A smarter method is to adopt a networked approach to security that supplements the organization’s strength by also leveraging those of other entities. In the case of NATO, its strong military and political capabilities in the areas of collective defense, crisis management, and crisis response would be well complemented by three forms of partnerships. The first is other international organizations. While NATO already works closely with the European Union, whose broader set of political, economic, and soft power tools reinforce its own, these need to be better integrated into NATO planning. The second is with individual countries across the globe. NATO has several partnership designations that enable it to work with non-member countries, but with the exception of the Enhanced Opportunities Partnerships, these are somewhat ad hoc and unfocused. A deliberate look at which countries are the key influencers or anchor states in each region could be used to prioritize partner relationships in a way that is more useful to NATO and partners alike. The third and most undeveloped partnership group NATO must cultivate is with the private sector. As disruptive technologies emerge, threats from cyber and space grow in sophistication, and information is increasingly weaponized, the ability for NATO to work closely with high technology companies will be vital to ensuring a credible deterrence and defense.

The Future of Interoperability

Intelligent interoperability is part of the glue that binds NATO and allows its 29 members to successfully conduct operations together. In recent years, the pace of development of emerging technologies has accelerated in complex combat environments, which might use these technologies to integrate factors such as weather data or probability-based assessment of an enemy’s location to improve accuracy. While the promise of these technologies would maximize the efficiency and value of existing capabilities and present an element of surprise to adversaries, it could also present challenges to interoperability among NATO members due to the uneven investment among members. Over reliance on data and information technology can also be a vulnerability. Here again, a NATO-led discussion on the potential impact of emerging technologies and consideration of ways to integrate it into NATO defense planning can help maximize efficiency and minimize risk.


Imagine for a moment a world without NATO. What borders might be challenged, and what ethnic conflicts might erupt in Europe absent the existence of NATO and a strong U.S. commitment to Europe? And how diminished would U.S. power and influence be globally without the supporting power of its allies? Would adversaries rush in to fill the space with their own brand of the rules-based order? For the past 70 years, NATO was an answer to these questions. To remain the answer for the next 70 years, it must remain fit for purpose.

Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

This work is presented within the
Security and Defense in Northern Europe research program, which is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and is a collaborative effort of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Rachel Ellehuus