The US, NATO, and the Path Forward: Celebrating 75 Years of Partnership

As NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary, the alliance reflects on its enduring partnership with the United States, its evolution through diverse geopolitical challenges, and its readiness to address future threats

by Sededin Dedovic
The US, NATO, and the Path Forward: Celebrating 75 Years of Partnership
© Sean Gallup / Getty Images

When the leaders of NATO member states meet in Washington in July to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the alliance's founding, they will celebrate the fact that the alliance has lasted so long, writes Christopher S. Chivvis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for Foreign Policy, adding that the Alliance must do more than just survive to be truly successful.

It also needs to serve the interests of its members. The history of NATO is a story of the struggle to achieve this – despite the significant differences between American and European military power, an increasing number of allies, differing interests, and expanding geographical scope.

Today, the allies are united in the face of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. But unless adjustments are made for a much larger alliance to adapt to a more complex geopolitical environment, history suggests this unity is fleeting.

NATO has had four main phases in its history. The first began after World War II, when 12 countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty. That early alliance had three goals: to secure Germany by including it; to defend against the growing Soviet threat; and to bind the United States to Europe, at a time when it seemed likely to withdraw.

By the 1960s, military conflict with the Soviet Union had stabilized, and over the next two decades, the alliance continued to serve its founders' three goals. But internal friction within the alliance was serious. Annoyed by the dominant role of the United States, French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew from NATO's military structures in 1966.

American President Richard Nixon pursued superpower détente with the Soviets over the heads of other allies. President Ronald Reagan deployed intermediate-range missiles to Europe in the 1980s, sparking massive protests in the streets.

However, in the end, the superior strength of western free-market economies triumphed when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 – a peaceful victory that was extraordinary in the history of great power competition. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many scholars expected the alliance to disband now that it had completed its mission.

Instead, NATO found a new raison d’être by transforming from a defensive military alliance into a force for broad political change in Europe. Thus began the second phase in its history. In the decade after the end of the Cold War, the alliance tried to stop the bloody wars in the former Yugoslavia.

It was moderately successful, helping to contain those conflicts but not always resolving them. The costs were sometimes high – for example, when NATO planes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 during the Kosovo war.

U S Army Mps From The 630Th Military Police Company Man A Checkpoint Near Vitina Kosovo© DOD / Getty Images

NATO also embarked on a controversial process of expansion aimed at rooting democratic and free-market institutions in European countries where communism had retreated.

At the 1999 Washington summit celebrating NATO's 50th anniversary, the alliance welcomed the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary as new members. The number of allies grew to 19. The pomp and circumstances of that 50th-anniversary summit buried the real conflicts that arose from the gap between American and European military power.

This gap became evident before and after the summit, as the United States had to bear most of the burden for military operations in Kosovo. As one observer put it, it seemed that Americans were from Mars, and Europeans from Venus.

Meanwhile, European allies distanced themselves from NATO. France and Britain aimed for deeper European integration and an independent European army. This created more friction with Washington, which feared losing control over the alliance.

The rifts within the alliance were already evident when Al Qaeda struck the United States on September 11, but these attacks helped revive it. In the third phase of its history, counterterrorism became NATO’s new call to action, animating the allies and pushing back their dividing lines.

In the global war on terror, NATO’s focus shifted away from Europe. The allies invoked Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, declaring that the Al Qaeda attack on the United States was seen as an attack on all of them.

They joined Washington in hunting down Al Qaeda and fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. But the alliance soon split over the war in Iraq, with major allies like France and Germany protesting the US invasion as unrelated to the fight against terrorists.

U.S. Troops Search For Weapons And Enemy In Afghanistan 2003© Pool / getty Images

In this phase, Europe tried to retool its military for a new form of warfare among distant nations.

With limited budgets and political support, this was difficult to achieve. The Pentagon became frustrated with the complexity of leading dozens of allies in Afghanistan, each operating under different constraints. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there was often mocked among American ranks.

But Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama wanted the allies involved – however nominally – in America’s long wars because allies added political legitimacy to US military force on a global scale. NATO also continued to expand its membership in this third phase, increasing the alliance to 28 members by 2009.

New members Poland and Estonia brought new perspectives on European security that often clashed with those of the Western European founders. Central and Eastern European members, who once suffered under Soviet rule, saw NATO primarily as a means to tie the United States to their security.

They became ardent supporters of the US-led global war on terror, even though they did not feel an immediate threat from Al Qaeda. They built ties with American special operations and intelligence services. Some took the need for military spending more seriously than their Western European counterparts.

They became popular in Washington. In return, these new members wanted American troops on their soil, more attention to the Russian threat, and Washington’s support for further NATO expansion. That pressure peaked at the 2008 Bucharest summit, when Bush, ignoring the recommendations of his senior advisers, promised eventual NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.

Russia immediately invaded Georgia. Although Russia invaded Georgia, concern about its trajectory was suppressed during Obama’s first term in an attempt to reset relations with Moscow. However, they reemerged when Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014, opening the fourth and latest phase of NATO’s history.

Russia’s return as NATO’s main adversary refocused attention on the now long-standing power gap between American and European militaries. More than ever, it seemed that the United States was footing the bill for Europe’s defense.

It was one thing for Europe to spend less on defense when the alliance was fighting Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, terrorists whose primary target was the United States. It was another thing for Europe to invest so little now that it was directly threatened by Russia.

At the 2014 Wales summit, NATO leaders publicly committed to spending two percent of national income on defense. But most European allies procrastinated, a fact recognized by US President Donald Trump when he took office in 2017.

However, Trump was not the only NATO critic in those years. French President Emmanuel Macron said in 2019 that the alliance was “brain dead,” frustrated by the bickering among allies. This bickering was partly the result of democratic backsliding among some allies.

NATO aspires to be an alliance of free-market democracies, but not all allies always met the standard. Hungary, once an emerging democracy in central Europe, also became more illiberal under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Meanwhile, the focus of American national security strategy shifted from counterterrorism to a new era of great power competition.

For most Americans, this meant taking China seriously. But for Europeans, it meant refocusing on Russia. This created a significant new tension at the heart of the alliance, a tension highlighted by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

That war is now in its third year. The good news is that European allies, including major economies like Germany, are finally beginning to meet their promises to spend more seriously on their own defense.

Berlin, Germany Hosts Ukraine Recovery Conference© Pool / Getty Images

But it took more than a decade of US pressure, and many obstacles remain.

Moreover, the promises made in 2014 are insufficient for the future challenge, given that Russia has retooled its economy around its war efforts (as some frontline countries acknowledge). Furthermore, restoring the shattered peace in Europe will remain extremely difficult and very expensive.

Meanwhile, Europe’s weight in American strategic thinking will continue to decline. As NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary, the situation resembles the Cold War – but only through a fog. Russia is once again NATO’s main adversary, but the front lines have been pushed east, and a hot war is being fought in Europe itself.

NATO faces Russia with great economic and military strength, but Europe is no longer the center of US foreign and security policy, which has shifted to Asia. If NATO wants to survive the rifts of past phases in its history, Europe will have to take on a far greater challenge of confronting the Russian threat – diplomatically and militarily. The United States can help, but not as much as Europe is used to.

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