It is received wisdom that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO demonstrating that the alliance is still fit for purpose in the twenty first century. However one assessment of open source reporting is that NATO is basking in the reflected glory of member nations efforts. There is no doubt that NATO is performing a coordinating role for the supply of materiel and the Secretary General is running shuttle diplomacy to keep the war at the forefront of the news agenda in Europe. However would the response to the invasion be dramatically different if NATO did not exist?
NATO remains a US led, or dominated, alliance that is configured to prosecute the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century. Whilst it may not have felt like it at the time the Cold War was a static confrontation across well defined lines of engagement. Whilst the USA was the key guarantor of European security European nation member states, with the Second World War fresh in their minds, were fully committed to confronting the Soviet threat and saw meeting their contributions to NATO as a fundamental element of national strategy. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of the Soviet Union NATO appears to have transitioned to become more of a political symbol rather than a balanced military alliance made up of fully committed members. Over the last three decades European nations have reduced commitments to defence based on the assumption that the threat of war in Europe had dissipated. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Covid 19 pandemic demonstrated assumptions are the other side of the coin to risks and those risks that have potentially massive impact should be managed and mitigated no matter what is the assumed probability of occurrence. In the same three decades the USA cemented its position as the world hegemon by sustaining a significant commitment to its military power. Even that military capability is now being stretched in areas such as ammunition supply by the demands of the Ukrainian military.
Until February 2022 the NATO members appeared to be comfortable with a world where the USA provides security guarantees for Europe whilst the European nations went about their business of trading with Russia and China. The USA shift to focus on China in the Pacific region started by President Obama, expanded by President Trump’s trade war with China and continued by President Biden’s disengagement, started to change the geo political landscape. However Europe and NATO failed to respond. Key nations like the UK and Germany are unable to provide land forces in the form of a Division to support NATO, something that will not change for many years to come. The outcome of the war in Ukraine depends first and foremost on the courage and strength of the people of Ukraine. However their success is also dependent on support from the USA. Should this support falter as the 2024 USA election campaign unfolds the chance of a positive outcome diminish markedly.
In the meantime the EU has got into defence. It is providing funds for procurement of materiel and there is a pathway opening towards a more coordinated approach to defence under the auspices of the EU. Surely now is the time for the nations of Europe to develop a strategic approach to their own defence and how that burden is shared with the USA. This could also encompass a framework for how the NATO nations will address the threat from China, which is entirely more complex and therefore more dangerous in all sorts of known and unknown ways than the threat from Russia.
The abolition of NATO is unthinkable, however whilst there are public plaudits for the role the alliance is playing in supporting Ukraine, it would be good to know that serious minds are considering how to reform the alliance, ensure European commitments enhance its capability and such commitments are fulfilled and aligned with other efforts such as EU initiatives. The risk is that no one wants to address this task for fear of disturbing the status quo and the public image of the alliance.