NATO and its Evolution into the 21st Century (and how it needs to change)

MIA Student Freddie Whitlow makes his case for the increased importance of NATO in an ever fragmented world. He argues that in the face of threats we should stand tall and meet them – not shy away, especially now when those constituting the threat are busy cementing what should be worrying the Western world.

In light of the milestone of NATO’s 70th anniversary, and the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we find ourselves in a time of rapid change, but most of the immediate post World War II world order is still intact (for now). Yet in an age of rising populism, decreasing trust among Western allies, and increasing multipolarity, the future of the alliance seems to be more in question than ever before. Not only is this dangerous, but it comes at a time when the unity of NATO should be stronger than ever.

Contrary to what naysayers may say, the need for the transatlantic partnership must be a security centre piece for both continents, based on mutual interest, shared values, and shared threats. The Trump Administration is not wrong to push Europe, especially Germany, to take the lead in the defending the continent. However, doing so in a way that questions the importance of our shared defence only emboldens Russia and undermines the entity that is the single biggest guarantor of global stability.

Why is NATO the single biggest guarantor of global stability? Because despite the issues at hand, when the West stands together on issues of global consequence there is no single force in the world that can counter its collective economic, military, and moral might. This is exactly why the common values and interests that have bound us together for 70 plus years must continue well into the 21st century. Mind you it’s also what won the Cold War.

Not only is it pivotal that we sustain it, but the time is coming for it to evolve beyond just a transatlantic partnership. China becomes more powerful each year and even more bellicose, Russia seeks to reinsert its influence in Europe and its former Soviet fiefdoms, states such as North Korea and Iran will continue to be potential threats, and the risk of Islamic extremism is ever present. Just as important, though, are the threats that will arise in the coming years and decades not known. In other words, we can’t merely just react to events as they happen, rather we must be prepared for all eventualities. 

For this very reason NATO should extend invitations to major democratic non-NATO allies like Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Israel, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, with the door open to states such as India, Chile, and Mexico, and others over time. It should also encourage other European countries such as Austria, Sweden, Finland, and Ireland to strongly consider joining an expanded alliance. Many of these states have historically considered themselves more “neutral,” but the reality is that we are increasingly living in an age where maintaining “neutrality” will be harder and harder.

Another thing to think about is the increasing possibility that Turkey is inching closer and closer to being kicked out of NATO, whether we want to accept it or not. This undoubtedly would be a huge blow to the alliance, but a way to stave of that loss is by adding the aforementioned countries as expeditiously as possible. In the event that Turkey is kicked out they should also make clear that as soon as Ankara switches track the possibility re-join will stand ready.

By expanding to a global democratic alliance we are not merely sitting around and reacting to whatever China, Russia and other despotic states are trying to do next. In essence we take the collective initiative to not merely become reactive but proactive in countering potential future threats. In particular Germany and Japan must take the lead in their regions as more than just economic powers. They both must become military powers in their own right.

This will put some allies at unease given the history of both nations, but just as NATO must evolve, our views on both Germany and Japan as natural world powers must evolve too. By having both of these nations take on leading roles in an expanded alliance, it will show Russia and China that they will have to deal with a fierce response from more than just the United States. This is especially true of China who is destined to become the next great global hegemon, and in some ways, already is.

It’s not as if Japan and Germany will expand their military might overnight. It will take time for them to reform their defence apparatuses, but the same can be said for Russia and China as they continue to enlarge their own militaries. This is about the long game in what the world will look like in 10, 20, 50 years down the road. It’s exactly why we should join in a common cause for current threats and whatever may come in the future.

This collective alliance should be based on the principles of protecting liberal democracies, promoting democratic values and human rights, and collective commitment to NATO’s original principle enshrined in Article 5, that an attack on one is an attack on all. By expanding the membership, the world’s liberal democracies will send a clear message to China, Russia, and others that we will always strive for peace but that we will always be prepared for war.

Freddie Whitlow is from the Mountain State of West Virginia, is an alumnus of West Virginia University, and is a current international affairs graduate student at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. His research interests include the US foreign policy, the transatlantic partnership, European security, the former USSR, Iran, and the Kurdish regions.