Is NATO obsolete?

Numéro 1

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What is NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a political-military organization reuniting 30 countries. Founded in April 1949, it originally gathered Belgium, Canada, Denmark, the United States of America, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands, and Portugal. The Alliance had been created during the Cold War to face the threat of the Soviet Bloc, prevent a come-back of nationalist militarism in Europe, and encourage European political integration.

What’s its purpose?

Today, NATO’s main purpose is to upkeep the preservation of the liberty and security of all its members through political and military means. NATO also embodies the transatlantic connexion which interlinks North American security to that of Europe. According to article 5 of the Treaty, if a NATO State is under armed attack, each member of the Alliance must consider this act of violence as an armed attack directed against the entirety of NATO’s members and take any action it deems necessary to assist the attacked State.

Why is NATO a matter of debate?

During the celebration of NATO’s 70th anniversary in April 2019, the French President declared, in an interview with the weekly newspapers The Economist, that NATO was in a state of “brain death”. The unilateral withdrawal of the American troops from Northern Syria and the subsequent Turkish offensive were, according to him, revealing the great difficulties the organization is facing. On Friday October 2nd, 2020, Emmanuel Macron called it upon NATO to “face the facts” when it comes to Turkey’s actions in the conflict opposing Armenia to Azerbaijan.

Numéro 2

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NATO – An outdated organization

Pascal Boniface

Founder and Director of the Institute for International Relations and Strategy (IRIS)

In a November 2019 interview given to The Economist, Emmanuel Macron rocked the boat when he declared that NATO was in a state of brain death. He was aiming at the fact that the Turkish army, under the command of President Erdogan, was fighting Kurdish troops in Syria, in spite of their participation in the struggle against ISIS, a designated NATO enemy. 

Donald Trump, for his part, would not stop bullying his European allies and has demonstrated the greatest disinterest for the alliance of which the United States have been the boss. But is NATO truly obsolete?

It is, because the alliance’s historic mission was to defend European countries against the Soviet threat. However, that threat does not exist anymore and, logically-speaking, no alliance should survive the threat that justified its very creation. 

Indeed, Russia still poses a strategic challenge, yet the country cannot launch its tanks against Western Europe the way it was feared back in the USSR era. Russian military spending amounts to 60 billion dollars, against 260 billion dollars for European NATO members alone. Therefore, there is no real Russian military threat, simply due to the imbalance of the means available.

There is a strategic dependency towards the United States which entered our ways, and it is very difficult to end an addiction, whatever it may be.

NATO, above all, enabled the United States to maintain its political influence in Europe. European countries, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, still feel that American protection is essential against Russia. Moreover, in spite of Trump’s rants, there is no way the United States will withdraw from the alliance anytime soon. The US President’s threats to do so mainly serve the purpose of fearmongering among the European allies to push them to increase their military spending and purchase more US weapons.

France has been defending these ideas since De Gaulle and Mitterand. However, Poland and the Baltic countries, due to their history, still live in the existential fear of Moscow. Other European countries are hesitant when it comes to take the plunge and leap into the unknown. There is a strategic dependency towards the United States which entered our ways, and it is very difficult to end an addiction, whatever it may be. NATO is thus not truly useful, but it remains robust, as most European countries are not yet ready to venture into strategic autonomy. 


NATO remains more precious now than ever

Michael John Williams

Director of the International Relations program, Syracuse University

The transatlantic relationship forged in the late 1940s and early 1950s between the United States and the states of Europe is not to be taken for granted. There is nothing preordained about a positive and productive transatlantic relationship. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the physical manifestation of this relationship, and if dissolved, would be sorely missed. 

In a world defined by multiple great powers, it is more important than ever that the United States, Canada and Europe maintain close defense ties, open lines of communication and engage in consultation and planning together via NATO. 

Throughout the Cold War NATO provided a three-fold impact for peace and stability in Europe. The presence of US troops provided a deterrent effect against a Soviet invasion because any Soviet attack was bound to drag the US into the war. 

The presence of these troops also allowed Europe to chart a different path from the 1920s in the 1950s. Following the war Germany could be integrated into Europe and eventually even rearm, because US troops were there to pacify the concerns of neighboring states. Finally, it helped to tie the US into European politics and to cement a liberal world order that has greatly benefited the world write large. 

It is more important than ever that the US and Europe cultivate strong lines of communication and work together to advance international security.  

Following four years of Donald Trump, to say that transatlantic relations are strained, would be an understatement. But the NATO alliance has been here before and it is more important than ever that the US and Europe cultivate strong lines of communication and work together to advance international security.  

At a time when illiberal states like China and Russia are out up-end a rules-based order, the united front that NATO presents, one based on consensus and compromise, is invaluable. The alliance is after all a political-military organization – in the Cold War the emphasis was on the military side of that equation, but for younger NATO advocates like myself, the emphasis today should be on the political side of that equation. 

Naturally, NATO will continue to undertake the routine military training that it has done for decades. This cooperation has made NATO militaries a potent fighting force and the gold standard of civil-military relations. 

But in an era when cyber threats undermine Article 5 and many of the pre-eminent challenges are not conventional military threats, the greater utility of NATO comes from the Heads of State and the Foreign Ministers meetings where allies can hash out their views in formal and informal setting. This transatlantic cooperation is the heart of NATO and it is why NATO remains more valuable today than at any time in the past. 

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