Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


Other than marking its anniversary NATO does not have much to celebrate.

There was a time when it was legitimate to wonder what NATO’s future role would be. Not anymore. Is the Atlantic Alliance facing too many missions? Russia, China and terrorism are not the only problems: there is unfinished business in the Balkans, in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the migration challenge.

NATO has entered the fourth phase of its history. The first was the Cold War; the second, peace enforcement in the Balkans; the third was the long and painful experience of Afghanistan; the fourth has seen NATO mobilised simultaneously 'in the East' and 'in the South'.

NATO's approach has moved away from strictly geopolitical towards wider interpretations of security. But is NATO a coherent alliance at present or is it, instead, a collection of states heavily dependant on the US, the NATO main shareholder, for security guarantees?

Historical background

The West quite too often forgets that the reunification of Germany was achieved thanks to the “gentlemen agreement” between George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. Such agreement envisaged that NATO and the European Union (EU) would never be bordering Russia's territory.

After losing the Cold War, Putin has seen NATO and the EU incorporate all of Eastern Europe that Russia had vacated, and three former republics of the USSR itself. Russia is now witnessing a further attempt to bring three more former Soviet republics – Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine – into NATO and, consequently, into the EU.

The US quite too often forget that they did not enter World War I in 1915 after the sinking of Lusitania but only in 1917, following the German proposal to Mexico to ally itself with Germany. And what if Russia were to propose today a similar agreement to Mexico, Cuba, and most of South America? So, why Putin should see NATO's inexorable eastward march as an extended “hand of partnership”?

Current situation

Reaching 70 is surely an achievement for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Russia’s pact with Nazi Germany survived for only two years. None of the seven coalitions of the Napoleonic wars lasted more than five years.

But the Alliance has to adapt to confront emerging threats: whether that’s Russian robust military posture, terrorism, uncontrolled migration, cyber attacks, threats to energy security, Chinese strategic competition, including technology and 5G, and many other issues.

Against the backdrop of Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine, the Alliance’s eastern flank has been the geopolitical epicenter of contention between NATO and Russia while the southern flank has taken a back seat, remainig an overshadowed flashpoint.

And while the migrant crisis has plagued the Euro-Mediterranean area, the Alliance faces two risk categories in the south. First, there is the rise of violent non-state actors, state failures, and human security issues. Second, NATO has to deal with Russia’s rising military posture in the eastern Mediterranean.

The Syrian jihad mobilized up to 40,000 foreign fighters, with some 7,000 of those being from NATO countries. In other words, the real fallout from the Syrian jihad remains to be seen in the coming decades. Failed and fragile states have become vectors for terrorism in the Euro-Mediterranean region.

NATO and Russia

The intervention in Syria has fostered Russian military combat readiness. The Syrian expedition has led to fundamental improvements in the Russian Armed Forces' operations . In brief, Moscow’s military gains in Syria inevitably affect the overall NATO–Russia balance.

Putin is maintaining that the US is trying to reorganize the world according to its own interests: but Washington, through NATO, is also responsible for the rise of Islamist terrorism as well as the conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Anyway, a stronger NATO posture in the Mediterranean should ensure maritime security, confronting human trafficking, preventing a foreign fighter influx into NATO territory, and counterbalancing Russia’s aspirations.

But NATO can only address human security problems and terrorism through a renewed cooperation model with its partners. NATO (according to the US) should be capable of deterring Russia from turning the eastern Mediterranean into its backyard. But, according to Moscow, NATO should be willing to cooperate with Russia to ensure a stable Syria that does not produce and export instability anymore.

NATO and China

China will have a greater impact on international relations in the 21st century than Russia. It is already pulling ahead in the defining technologies of artificial intelligence and bioengineering as well as in 5G connectivity. China is increasing its investments in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, and sending more of its troops to United Nations peacekeeping operations. Already, as Allies discuss the wisdom of allowing Huawei into their future IT networks, they see that China could divide them more than Russia.

As the Chinese model will be the main competitor to liberal democracy, a key question will be how NATO handle the rise of China. It is not a question of seeing China as the next military threat but how best to understand it and engage it. Perhaps the time has come to create a NATO-China Council or at least a regular strategic dialogue.

China and Russia

After jointly participating in Vostok 2018, a massive military exercise, involving more than 300,000 troops, 1,000 planes and several warships, China and Russia are publicly heralding a new age of diplomacy between the two countries, at a time when both are being targeted by the US with punitive measures.

Furthermore, Putin and Xi discussed the implementation of agreements reached in the areas of energy, aerospace, and nuclear power, as well as the interface between China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Russia's Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).

As for Vostok 2018, such exercises are significant to the People Liberation Army (PLA): only large-scale exercises can truly reveal the capacity of a military in terms of strategic planning, power projection, command, control and communication. Since the PLA has not been involved in wars since 1980, its capacity building and operational readiness can only be verified through military drills. Russian Military Doctrine and Lessons Learned from wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria can be useful to the PLA.

China and Russia did not just reap military rewards from Vostok 2018. If Carl Von Clausewitz is right in saying that “war is but the continuation of politics by different means”, then a joint military exercise looks like a natural extension of the political rapprochement of the countries involved.

Putin wants a new Russia's global role by limiting America's world leadership role, by curbing the US attempt for a regime change in Russia, and by showing that Russia too can use military force to achieve foreign policy goals. In order to demonstrate this Moscow is aligning with China to support Beijing’s aspirations for dominance in the South China Sea and in the Pacific Ocean at the expense of the US.

The Russian and Chinese governments both understand that their existence is threatened by US hegemonic ambitions. In order to defeat US plans to marginalize them, Russia and China, the Bear and the Dragon, could decide to unify their economies into one and possibly join their military commands, moving together on the economic and military fronts.

Should that happen, the starting point could be the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), comprehensive of Russia, China, India and Pakistan (with Iran likely to follow up soon). SCO, emerged as an anti-US bulwark in Central Asia, is already achieving economic cooperation, intelligence sharing, military and counter-terrorism cooperation.

NATO and Trump

Probably, the secret to getting Trump to stop bothering you is not to beg or change your behaviour. It is to give him credit for something he can claim as a win in US domestic politics. After previously maintaining that NATO is obsolete, last April Trump complained about Europeans needing to pay more for their defense.

It is time, anyway, to start challenging conversations about what on both sides of the Atlantic NATO needs to do. Is it more important for NATO to defend democracy or more important to keep major security actors like Turkey inside the Alliance? Is it worth sustaining active pressure on Russia when members like Italy take pro-Putin stances? Is still an attack on one an attack on all?

Is it preferred to cloak actual commitments in wreaths of WW II rhetoric or is it better to prevent WW III?

NATO at 70: an inward look

Engaged in more places than ever before, churning out initiatives at a faster pace than ever and in ever-longer Summit declarations, the Alliance is divided between those who play up the factors that divide, while others stress the factors that unite. Some will argue that the days when Europe could rely on North America for its defence are over. Others will insist on partners pulling together, as they represent a diminishing slice of world population and economic power.

The 21st century is the century of turbulence with NATO being challenged from within and without its borders and from multiple directions at the same time. Besides the East and South fronts, NATO has to tackle also the home front, with the polarisation of many western societies as they struggle to control the dependencies created by globalisation. The risk is that NATO risks becoming unmanageable.

NATO and Europe

Simply put, Europeans need to increase their defence budgets to two per cent of GDP. The Alliance needs to get to grips with the issue of European defence. From the very beginning of NATO, a fault line has run through the Alliance as to whether it should encourage or discourage a specifically European (and now EU) defence identity.

For many decades, this effort has been thwarted by the inconsistent attitude of the United States and divisions among the Europeans themselves. But today we are at a critical juncture. The European Union has launched a series of initiatives with the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) having 34 multinational projects and a European Intervention Initiative to foster a common strategic culture on power projection and mission planning.

Of course, unnecessary duplication should be avoided. Essentially, NATO will need to hammer out a new transatlantic bargain: one in which the United States accepts the reality of EU defence integration and ceases to see it as a competitor or threat to NATO; and one in which the EU countries deliver on their capability promises and pursue their efforts in a way that strengthens NATO’s overall capacity to address the challenges to the East and South as well as other threats.

NATO criticism

The prospective end of the NATO presence in Afghanistan will accelerate the return to territorial defense. But many core NATO countries in Western Europe are more concerned about risks emanating from North Africa, the Sahel, and the Levant than about Russia.

Today, in different ways, developments in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland raise questions about democratic cohesion and NATO’s future as a values-based alliance. Nationalism, populism, and identity politics are on the rise, and these forces will inevitably complicate alliance relations.

Also to be considered are the steady rise of China as a strategic competitor and looming risks in the Indo-Pacific region. Thus, despite deepening friction with Russia, the Euro-Atlantic space is unlikely to remain the center of gravity for global security indefinitely. There will be more consequential animating conflicts elsewhere.

At a minimum, the alliance will need to think much harder about how to bring Asian security issues on to the NATO agenda.

NATO members

When looking at the United States, Europeans are increasingly divided, with France aiming for strategic autonomy, Germany for strategic patience, and Poland currently choosing a strong strategic embrace. And where would the leadership for a possible new division of labour come from? NATO’s big players are all distracted: America by the Trump show, Britain by Brexit, France by protests, Italy by populists, Germany by the end of the Merkel era and Turkey by its temptations to wander away from Europe. In such circumstances, just staying together as allies looks like a heroic task. On its 70th anniversary, NATO is not doing well enough as a political alliance.

NATO members are today worried about basic assumptions. Yet today, an U.S. armored brigade combat team— comprised of 3,500 personnel and 87 tanks—is deployed to Poland with NATO’s availability of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.

It is not just Russia that poses such challenges; so does China, whose rising political-military threat is only starting to garner greater attention among European countries. Other challenges include emerging cyber and hybrid threats, which evolve at a rate faster than NATO’s ability to respond.

Many critics have claimed NATO is a relic of the past. Will NATO manage to adapt to the changing environment among its members and outside of it? Some experts have argued that the United States have been both losing interest and patience with keeping it relevant to its transforming international role. Others have claimed that the Alliance made a grave mistake by enlarging itself, overextending its reach and provoking Moscow’s aggressive stance in Eastern Europe, increasing the Russian sense of encirclement and paranoia.


Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has seemed to adopt a reactive rather than proactive strategy in the face of serious changes in the international security environment. This approach resulted in NATO’s engagement in Bosnia and Kosovo missions and, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in Afghanistan. Finally, as a response to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, NATO forces were sent to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.

But, although NATO is committed to collective defence, crisis management and projecting regional security, it lacks a new strategic concept that would jointly address the challenges of current and future threats.

Last but no least, a “known unknown” is the question of how the United States-China rivalry evolves and how it will influence other NATO members in the coming years. It can be argued that the more Washington is preoccupied in Asia, the less it is focused on its European allies.


The world is moving into a more multipolar future, featuring a mix of competition and conflict. To adapt, NATO must fundamentally change. It will be a long and bumpy ride, but a necessary one.

In a world in which illiberal, or at least non-liberal powers will play a more salient role, Europeans and Americans will need to stand closer together to protect the liberal values underpinning their political and economic systems.

To survive, NATO needs to ask itself a difficult question: “What role will I play in the new global power struggle?”

The United States will be increasingly consumed by its competition with China. Russia, its nuclear competitor, will also stay high on Washington's agenda. NATO will have to determine where it fits into this new power dynamic.

Both sides have a great deal to lose from a breakdown in relations: without Europe, the U.S. would be much weaker, and without the U.S. nuclear umbrella, Europe wouldn’t be able to withstand Russian pressure.

Bottom line: the US needs foreign-policy leadership willing to set priorities, able to distinguish between vital and minor interests and willing to acknowledge the US limitations.

The EU must help the US (and NATO) to avoid schizophrenic, contradictory initiatives by considering pros and cons and warning about collateral effects or damages. The EU, thanks to its millenium-old historical, cultural and civilizational legacy, is surely in the position to act as a tutor, as a mentor to a younger and less experienced America. But to be able to help NATO the EU needs to become more federal and united.

Putin and Xi, having a long term program, are not playing checkers but chess. And President Trump, notwithstanding the neo-con pressure, should avoid failures in foreign policy by ruling out any possible and dangerous military confrontation.

Europe, Russia, China, the US and NATO must therefore cooperate, by design or by default, by choice or by necessity, and agree on how to proceed in identifying a future world order where they have to play a key role so as to increase global governance and security.