Oct 11th, 2021, 04:08 PM

What Does the Future of NATO Look Like?

By L'Oreal Threat
Image Credit: Pixabay
As the United States assesses global threats from China and Russia, the purpose and role of NATO are increasingly under scrutiny.

The end of World War II sparked international awakening and changes after the devastation of global conflict and the atrocities of the Holocaust. The threat of totalitarianism on the European continent crippled by war, and America's new superpower influence, dramatically altered the international system through the creation of the Marshall Plan and NATO.

As the war drew to an end, the U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall created an economic aid program officially known as the European Recovery Program — or Marshall Plan. It boosted economic recovery and promoted democracy in war-torn Europe through massive American funds flowing to the continent. The communist Soviet Union regarded the Marshall Plan as a threat — not surprisingly, as the Marshall Plan was aimed at stopping the spread of communism in post-war Europe. 

Two years later, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization military alliance — or NATO — was set up by the United States, Western Europe and Canada as a collective security pact against the Soviet Union. Today, NATO's interworking commitments continue to build on its original foundation. However, tensions and questions about the cohesiveness of the 30-country alliance have emerged over new threats posed by communist China and post-Soviet Russia.  

Photo by Pixabay


NATO's biggest funder and influencer continues to be the United States. Questions about NATO's continued validity emerged in 2017, however, when former President Donald Trump stated that NATO was "obsolete". His statement sent shock waves throughout the world, especially NATO allies. Trump's remark broke with NATO's image and purpose as one of unconditional support and collective solidarity amongst its member-countries. Nevertheless, Trump's statement closely echoed sentiment from nearly half of Americans as is evidenced in a study by the Pew Research Center in 2019, when only 53% of Americans held favorable views of NATO. This decline of support can partially be attributed to the responsibilities of funding NATO.  

The United States is estimated to spend 3.52% of GDP towards NATO's defense spending in 2021 in contrast to most other NATO member countries that spend below 2% GDP. The frustration in the difference of spending has provoked the ire of American isolationists for many years. Many Americans continue to balk at the validity of the alliance as mutually beneficial since most member countries do not adhere to financial responsibilities promised such as the 2% GDP commitment at the 2014 Wales Summit.

In response to spending backlash, Germany has increased its contributions to 1.5% GDP in 2021, up from 1.2% GDP in 2018, making it the third highest spending member country in the NATO alliance. Much like the United States, German citizens are divided on NATO with 57% supporting it. With the United States and Germany divided on NATO support, the $811 billion and $61 billion that each country contributed this year, respectively,  may serve as a domestic powder keg for both countries during political elections.  Such ambivalence within such powerful and influential member countries must be abated if NATO is to have a consistently supported future that is validated by two of the largest economies in the world.  

Photo by Pixabay


Another issue putting pressure on NATO is the growing power of China, which is on track to become the world's largest economy. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, China has increased its presence in Africa, India, and the Indo-Pacific; spread its technological footprint to every continent; and established the largest navy in the world.  As a result of these and other factors, including accusations of Chinese cyber-surveillance and attacks on private American businesses, the U.S government views its relationship with China through a frame of "strategic competition" as it works with it allies to defend its interests and values. 

Meanwhile, NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a Norwegian, denied that China was an adversary to NATO in a recent interview with Politico. Stoltenberg instead talked about the importance of working together with China in an effort to respect China's emerging superpower status that rest upon its military, technology, economy, and climate change strength.

Such a divided stance between the United States and NATO against China underscores the importance of NATO's ability to perfect a balancing act where it gives preferential political and economic treatment to one superpower in the U.S, while not angering another in China. NATO is effectually stuck in between the two largest superpowers on the planet.

Fortunately, although President Biden has not signaled a shift in U.S strategy against China from competition to engagement, he has stated a desire to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping as a first step to thaw U.S.-Chinese relations. As a result, Biden and Xi Jinping have agreed to a virtual summit scheduled for late 2021 when they will discuss mutual boundaries such as military escalation, trade, and climate change.

Photo by Unsplash

Lastly yet most concerning, is the reality that NATO's conventional guide to military operations may be unable to efficiently combat Russia and its new-age military strategies that bank on cyber and biological warfare.  NATO uses a broadly analogue playbook of planning, command structure, troop deployment, and more often than not, long negotiations as military solutions. NATO's response to the Salisbury Attack, which left a British double agent and Russian military officer poisoned, demonstrates the difficulty that NATO has in responding to unorthodox attacks.

As NATO scrambles, Russia continues to use unconventional tactics against targets such as Ukraine and Georgia that include the use of chemical-grade weapons for assassinations, cyber attacks, disinformation and election meddling. If NATO is to remain effective, relevant, and thus valid, it must improve its response by adjusting to an increasingly digitized and chemical-grade battlefield. Therefore, NATO's biggest threat to its validity is not so much of its favorability ratings, funding quarrels, and political disputes that transpire within its alliance, as it is in redesigning its military responses to digitized, biological warfare savvy adversaries outside of it.  

Ultimately, NATO will always have internal disagreements amongst its member countries because each country holds respective political, economic, and social desires that correspond to the unique needs and requests of their sovereign nations. The key to any alliance is diplomacy. Although citizens within the most influential member nations of NATO are split on favoring the alliance, the strongest call-to-action that will sustain NATO is in its purpose of surveilling and defending its member nations against physical and economic attacks.

As long as adversarial nations are deemed as dangerous enemies who aim to destroy democracy, NATO will play a valid role that eases fear and generates cooperation within citizens of its member countries and the alliance at large. The largest weakness for NATO instead rests on the ability of its military to assert validity through technological advances that hold adversaries accountable.