NATO’s next act

  • Themes: NATO

NATO's 75th anniversary comes at a difficult time for the alliance, but if it can learn from its past, adapt to the present, and plan for the future, NATO will endure.

Latvian soldiers with the Latvian and the NATO flag.
Latvian soldiers with the Latvian and the NATO flag. Credit: Flickr/NATO

Deterring Armageddon: A Biography of NATO, Peter Apps, Wildfire, £25

NATO: From Cold War to Ukraine, a History of the World’s Most Powerful Alliance, Sten Rynning, Yale University Press, £20

The 75th anniversary of NATO this year comes at an anxious time for the alliance. With a belligerent Russia waging a brutal war on NATO’s eastern borders and an aggressive China looking to remake the international order, the alliance has fresh meaning and interest for many – and two welcome new members in Sweden and Finland. The pressures that NATO faces, however, have also raised questions about what utility it would bring in the event of open conflict involving its members, and whether those members can commit the necessary military and diplomatic resources to see the alliance through to its centenary. At such a time, one would look for the publication of a good in-depth history of NATO to learn much-needed lessons. We are lucky to have two.

With Deterring Armageddon: A Biography of NATO, Peter Apps takes us on a journey through NATO’s history with the kind of storytelling flair that one would expect from someone steeped in the art of journalism – and an eye for the kind of anecdote that brings engagingly to life what could too easily be a dry bureaucratic subject. Reaching its 75th anniversary means that NATO has outlasted the previous longest-standing military alliance in history, the Delian League of fifth-century BC Greece, and Apps asks how an imperfect institution ‘perpetually beset by divisions and where decision-making by consensus can sometimes lead to choices not being made at all’ has survived for so long – and, indeed, succeeded in its basic goal of its member nations not having to face the kind of conflict on their own soil that tore apart so many lives during the world wars. The answer, for Apps, is twofold: leadership and vision.

The creation story of NATO begins in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the shadow of the Soviet Union looming to the east. The great figures who feature in the story, from Eisenhower to Churchill to Bevin, all had specific shared goals in mind for the future of the free world: preventing the Soviet Union from eroding the freedom of European peoples not yet under its sway; establishing a strong and lasting security framework for the continent; and overcoming America’s historical reluctance toward permanent foreign alliances. The forging of the alliance is a tale of determination, pushing through European distrust and American isolationism to create something that has lasted to this day – and a tale that Apps tells well, through the complex backroom deals and the big personalities that both helped and hindered the conception of a new future for the allies.

Since the successful forging of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, NATO has weathered significant headwinds, and Apps takes us through them in turn – weaving a thread through the Cold War, the Balkans, the war on terror, and Putin’s escalating aggression. While the Cold War would have been expected to have provided an unarguable basis for the alliance’s existence, it nevertheless faced both anti-NATO sentiment among European populations and sidelining during important moments. Indeed, its formal military command structures were bypassed entirely during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with unilateral actions from the militaries of key member states. It is perhaps ironic that NATO never engaged in direct military action until the end of the Cold War, given that its purpose was to face up to the Soviet Union – but this may be a signal that it achieved precisely what it was intended to, deterring the Soviet Union from setting foot on alliance soil.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, NATO began to act – first in the Balkans, and then in the Middle East. The success of NATO intervention in the former was not replicated in the latter. NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan, precipitated by the first time that the much-heralded Article Five collective defence clause was invoked following the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, heralded both rivalry and confusion between the various national military contingents sent to assist on the ground. Apps also skilfully shows how Russia remained a looming presence during this period following its post-Soviet rebirth, through Yeltsin’s vague hints at Russia joining the alliance to Putin’s use of NATO expansion as a justification to frame his increasing aggression, from Georgia to Ukraine.

The second NATO history to appear this year is a more theoretical approach from the Danish academic Sten Rynning. His book NATO: From Cold War to Ukraine, a History of the World’s Most Powerful Alliance draws upon his own extensive experience in tracing what he convincingly argues is a repeating cycle within the alliance, between periods of ambition and disillusionment.

The first period of ambition is NATO’s creation – in itself a deeply bold prospect of a transatlantic collective security structure based on cooperation and shared values. However, the consistent infighting of the early Cold War meant that this ambition had rather faded by the 1970s, when many of the original ideals of transforming the political landscape of Europe had receded into the more conservative focus on the military deterrence of the Soviet Union. Ambition returned following the end of the Cold War with hopes that Russia could be somehow integrated into a peaceful Europe, but this was shattered by the ambivalence of Yeltsin and the open aggression of Putin.

While it may be disheartening to conclude that this means NATO is in a period of disillusionment, or perhaps heartening to deduce that a period of ambition may likely therefore follow shortly, Rynning’s intention in highlighting this cycle is in fact to argue that it cannot continue – NATO should instead correct its path to avoid such a boom-and-bust pattern. He offers three lessons that should be drawn by the alliance in order to achieve this.

First, he argues that NATO should maintain its focus on the Euro-Atlantic and not be distracted from this mission by a rising China on the other side of the world. While he does not mean that NATO should ignore China, particularly where it has a presence in Europe, he is adamant that NATO is ultimately meant to build a peaceful and free Europe, wherein Russia is the primary challenger. Second, Rynning pushes for stronger European leadership in NATO rather than over-reliance on American leadership, around both political influence and military resourcing, to pre-empt the metastasising of resentments – for the United States, at being asked to bear the burden, and for the Europeans, at always being told what to do. Third, he recommends a renewed focus on long-term planning – NATO should set a vision and stick to it, rather than being distracted by the short-termism and policy sprawl that too easily flows from the alliance’s dependence on summitry.

Each of the periods that Apps and Rynning skilfully cover in their histories of the alliance contains its specific lessons and fascinating historical vignettes, but common themes emerge that carry through to NATO today. The alliance is once again confronting disputes between its members about their level of involvement and what resources they are expected to contribute, while the threat from Russia looms to the east. The ever-present connection between a myriad of global crises makes for a tempting distraction from the central mission of European security, with the potential for NATO’s leaders to decide to do a lot of things badly rather than one thing well. And the isolationist tendency in the United States is rearing its head more forcefully, with the possibility of the election of a reckless president who will decide to take his country out of NATO altogether.

While both authors are careful not to make firm predictions about NATO’s future – probably a wise move – the message of both books is ultimately one of hope. For 75 years, NATO has ultimately achieved the fundamentals of what it was set up to do: its members have maintained relative peace without losing any of their territory to foreign powers. The alliance has always been, to some, about to collapse – and yet it never has. Even though NATO has considerable flaws and appears to be permanently beset by internal division, it has nonetheless endured through every crisis and kept the peace for its members. Most promisingly, members still want to join. Finland and Sweden had both worked closely with NATO for decades without formal membership, and yet both saw the value of joining the alliance nonetheless. Three others have expressed their desire to join: Georgia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Ukraine. Indeed, many in Ukraine view NATO membership as the only real way to guarantee their security after the end of the current war with Russia, whenever and however that comes – a clear vote of confidence in the alliance.

Multilateral alliances are complicated beasts, and NATO is never going to be simple – but it does its job and it is better to be a member than not. NATO membership offers enhanced security and collective defence, which acts as a significant deterrent against Russian aggression. It facilitates access to advanced military technology and expertise, as member nations benefit from shared intelligence, joint training exercises, and interoperability standards to enhance their military capabilities – a particularly advantageous benefit for smaller nations to bolster their defence infrastructure and strategic planning. Membership fosters closer political ties too, offering a forum for cooperation on common issues and the promotion of shared values. Although the next 25 years look rather more complicated than the previous 75 in many ways, an alliance that can learn from its past, adapt to the present, and plan for the future will survive and thrive.


Emma Salisbury