NATO survived its seventieth year — it was a rocky one. What’s next?
Multipolar interests within and against NATO are testing the limits of the alliance. As meetings this week reveal, if members agree on anything, it’s that the group needs a plan for the way forward.
Research analyst, NATO Association of Canada
With the end of the Cold War came a shift in the world’s balance of power, with the United States emerging as the undisputed hegemon on the global stage. Nearly three decades later, that era is coming to a close. This week, as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) met in London, it appears that the alliance is navigating that power shift. But what will it look like after the fallout?
Anytime fracture is brought up, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg turns to the alliance’s history of surviving. It bent but did not break during divisions over Suez in 1956 and Iraq in 2003, to name only two moments of tension; member states disagreed, sometimes loudly — for instance, over the fine line of what constitutes war crimes — but they still meet nearly annually and remain an otherwise strong group.
The gathering in London was not an official NATO summit, but important bilateral meetings were held. Last month both Germany and France proposed bringing together a “group of experts” to study what’s next for the political-military alliance; in what seems to be the first step towards that, Stoltenberg announced at a press conference on Wednesday that he will be personally leading “a reflection process… to further strengthen the political dimension of NATO.”
NATO has a history of tasking members with examining gaps and proposing remedies. In 1956, for example, Lester B. Pearson, at the time Canadian foreign minister, and his Norwegian and Italian counterparts, Halvard Lange and Gaetano Martino, put together the “Three Wise Men Report” advocating for non-military co-operation. As a result, the strictly military alliance transitioned into the political-military one we have today, a saving grace for the organization as threats have diversified beyond traditional theatres of war.
This week, the usual questions around funding dogged the meetings, with US President Donald Trump on Canada’s case about reaching the funding goal of two percent of GDP. A video of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau discussing Trump at a Tuesday night reception with French president Emmanual Macron, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has also garnered a lot of attention.
Despite Trump’s criticism of “delinquent” allies, when it comes to funding, NATO is increasingly financially secure, with a more technologically diverse fleet and increased spending across the board to meet the 2008 Wales Summit commitment of two percent of GDP on defence spending. The current debate is over how the alliance’s priorities and structure will need to adapt yet again in order to ensure its relevance.
In the past, with the United States viewed as the peace broker and leader of the free world, NATO’s main priority was reducing the threat of Russian expansion while expanding the NATO network. In its seventieth year, the question now is whether or not NATO will maintain the status quo or be transformed by a multipolar world — the latter with either several world leaders within the same alliance splitting the bill and the bragging rights, or several alliances forming within NATO’s core.
External threats to NATO are very real — from a resurging Russia to a viably threatening China to increasingly powerful India and Saudi Arabia. In such an uncertain climate, external threats also feed into internal divisions — Germany works closer with Russia, France with China, while the United States moves further inwards and away from allies.
During a joint panel held Tuesday, the prime ministers of Canada and the Netherlands both emphasized that NATO nations share the fundamentals of democracy. That may once have been enough — when it was that or communism, it made sense to split the world in black and white — but now that democracy is spread much further, that alone is likely no longer the qualifying factor for allyship.
Canada has been comparatively quiet throughout the wave in recent months of NATO debate, likely due to its October federal election. Despite Trudeau’s casual critique of Trump this week, Canada is still not likely to shake the boat, even with Trump at the helm — at least for now. Others are much more vocal in their dissatisfaction with American quasi-leadership.
In the 2019 Berlin Pulse, a report produced by the Körber-Foundation, more than half of Germans questioned said they would accept seeing Germany’s defence spending double if it meant more independence from the US, and over 80 percent were in favour of maintaining or increasing Germany’s defence spending without caveats. This comes as Germany proposes to match US contributions to NATO, with both reaching 16 percent of the total sum by 2021.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel — a longtime champion of NATO — has been seen as a foil for Trump’s chaotic style of politics. In her most recent speech to the Bundestag, she said that, “the preservation of NATO is in our fundamental interest, even more so than during the Cold War. For the time being, Europe can’t defend itself on its own — we are reliant on this transatlantic alliance.”
This came partly in response to Macron, who, weeks earlier, speaking with the Economist, said “the instability of our American partner and rising tensions have meant that the idea of European defence is gradually taking hold… I would add that we will at some stage have to take stock of NATO. To my mind, what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO. We have to be lucid.”
His remarks frame the argument for a European defence expansion rather than simply NATO revision or withdrawal. A report in Bloomberg suggests that Macron is acutely aware of new lines being drawn in the proverbial sand, and that “he wants Europe to be a player, not an object in that game.”
No country has left the alliance yet and there are no protocols to evict any members, either. How the alliance transitions into the next decade and beyond will depend on whether member nations continue to believe that they are best served by having one major world power at the centre (whether or not Trump earns a second term would certainly impact those discussions). They may also decide that it’s better to have power shared between several frontrunner nations — already, as noted, Germany is looking to match US spending — and figure out how to manage that successfully.
Or they may decide the bloated beast has outlived its purpose in a multipolar world — now at almost three times its original membership, and with several major political forces tugging members in different directions — and split the core to better cover respective regions.
The latter is not necessarily the end of the liberal world order. It just may be the start of a new one.