As Nato turns 75, what's next for the alliance?

In a world of great power competition and deteriorating global security, the lessons and benefits of the Nato model are clear

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington on April 4, 1949. The challenges faced by the organisation in the 21st century are a mix of the familiar and the new. AFP
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It is a time of great change for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as it marks its 75th anniversary. With new members come some new, if somewhat familiar, challenges. Nato’s relevance has never been more obvious in the face of a destabilised global security environment that is unlike anything since the darkest days of the Cold War.

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington on April 4, 1949 by 12 democracies that sought to stand together against the imminent threat posed by the massive army and aggressive posturing of the Soviet Union. Those nations created Nato together with one purpose: to ensure that “an armed attack against one” “shall be considered an attack against them all”, and therefore deter attack on any. These famous phrases from Article 5 of the Treaty are further embedded within Article 51 of the UN Charter on the right of states to “individual or collective self-defence”, locating Nato firmly within the rules-based order.

The threats faced by Nato today are familiar. In the alliance’s members’ view, those threats include a revisionist Russia seeking to expand its borders, joined by an increasingly active China, and other disruptive regional powers such as North Korea and Iran feeding non-state actors with advanced weapons, while also seeking technological and military capabilities to disrupt regional and international peace.

Nato also faces new threats as wars spread across new domains, and the effects of climate change mix with conflicts to feed a seemingly endless cycle of resource competition, extremism and terrorism that drives population displacement – all resulting in increased instability, poverty and misery.

Nato has adapted to respond to regional and global threats, enlarging its membership and partnerships, and expanding its focus on how it can contribute to peace. Its membership now includes 32 members – the addition of Finland and Sweden making clear the desire for Euro-Atlantic democracies to stand together, with less and less room for states to stand idly by and watch as Russia threatens and attacks its neighbours.

But while Russia poses an immediate challenge, China may pose more long-term and global challenges. Thus, Nato continues to deepen its dialogue and co-operation with global partners, strengthening ties with the countries of the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East, including its traditional partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the countries of the Istanbul Co-operation Initiative, as well as dialogue with the GCC.

Nato will continue to focus on traditional defence issues – many allies neglected their national defences in the hope that the end of the Cold War would usher in a period of global peace and stability. They need to rebuild their defence capabilities and relearn the habits of national resilience that have been lost over the past few decades.

These habits were lost as the global order suffered through the 1990s and 2000s, especially with the ruinous War on Terror dividing and distracting nations from longer-term threats and wreaking terrible chaos and disruption on the Middle East.

Therefore, it is essential that Nato works closely with its partners in the region and the Asia-Pacific to find common ground and co-operate together, whether on traditional military issues such as defences against the threat posed by proliferating missiles and armed drones, or on non-traditional defence issues such as cyberwar, information warfare and the adaptation of new technologies by state and non-state actors that can threaten peace and security.

Ultimately, the future of Nato’s co-operation with allies in other regions is in the hands of those states themselves – as is the future of their own security

The threat posed by missile and drone proliferation straddles these two domains – traditional and non-traditional security issues – as Iran continues to supply non-state actors in the Middle East with ever-more destructive military capabilities, alongside economic and material support. Nato can still play a positive role on these issues in the Middle East, serving both as a model in terms of compatibility, interoperability and co-operation, and through direct co-operation to increase national defences and resilience in the region.

Nato is adapting to the increased pace of technological change, with the establishment of the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic, or Diana – similar to the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency – and the 2023 Defence Production Action Plan to strengthen engagement with industry and increase military industrial capacity across the alliance.

Diana itself will create more than 200 world-class centres of technological innovation to address current and future security issues, including the threats posed by artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, advanced missile technologies, lethal autonomous systems, biotechnology innovation and increased contestation in outer space. Diana is further supported by the Nato Science and Technology Organisation, which brings together more than 5,000 scientists and engineers from across 40 allies and partner nations to understand evolving future threats and apply science to increase global security.

Ultimately, the future of Nato’s co-operation with allies in other regions is in the hands of those states themselves – as is the future of their own security. The chief lesson from 75 years of Nato is that its member states have a shared and unignorable interest in their own security. They cannot ignore or outsource the defence, security and resilience of their own nations, territories and populations – and they cannot provide true security on their own. No country can.

The states of the Nato alliance can, by working together, provide common defence that can deter attacks by other nations and bring about a lasting peace. In a world of great power competition and deteriorating global security, the lessons and benefits of that model are clear.

Published: April 03, 2024, 7:00 AM
Updated: April 04, 2024, 2:28 PM