One year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron claimed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was experiencing “brain death.” For many, that comment conjured an image of a zombie organization — one that had run out of ideas and outlived its usefulness.
Yet, NATO today is far from being outmoded. Transatlantic security hinges more on the alliance now than at any time since the end of the Cold War. A weakened or unfocused NATO — one lacking strong American leadership — would be a true horror story. American policymakers must do everything in their power to prevent this.
Macron’s candor helped set off a consequential undertaking few have heard of but is still ongoing: NATO’s “period of reflection.” The reflection is concentrated in a group of 10 men and women who are charting a path for the organization’s future. Their conclusions will be unveiled at NATO's 2021 Summit.
As NATO’s leader, the United States must ensure that the reflection outcome firmly moors a future alliance to both sides of the Atlantic, refocuses the allies on the raison d’être of collective defense, and ensures NATO’s readiness to address a range of growing challenges. The latter, of course, requires robust defense spending and vigorous capabilities in increasingly active arenas such as cyber- and information warfare.
The last time the alliance conducted a comprehensive review was in 2010, with NATO’s Strategic Concept. A decade later, the world looks drastically different. Russia’s malign behavior has metastasized, from its invasion of Ukraine to its illegal annexation of Crimea, and from its attacks on Western democratic institutions to its brazen political assassinations on European soil. At the same time, the alliance faces emerging challenges including the rise of China, disinformation attacks, global pandemics, and threats from terrorism.
NATO's core mission
The reflection process should start with the bedrock principle that transatlantic security (which encompasses American security) is rooted in a strong NATO, with robust U.S. participation and continued leadership. A strong NATO requires defense investment, openness to future alliance enlargement, and political willingness to commit to collective defense.
Those taking part in the reflection should be guided by 10 principles, the most important of which is that NATO’s number one mission is collective defense. Everything else the alliance does is secondary to that mission.
In the 21st century, NATO needs to return to basics, with territorial defense as its primary goal. NATO cannot try to be everywhere in the world doing everything all the time. It should think long and hard before leading and conducting additional out-of-area military interventions. If the member states believe that an out-of-area military operation is needed, it should probably be led by a coalition of the willing outside the formal NATO command structure.
The alliance should not seek out problems elsewhere in the world when there is so much for NATO to do in its area of responsibility: “the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.”
For instance, four regions in the Euro-Atlantic region need constant NATO attention to deter Russian aggression: the Arctic, the Balkans, the Baltic Sea, and the Black Sea. A fifth, the Middle East-North Africa region, requires NATO’s focus and attention to increase local capacity building, improve interoperability, and strengthen relations. There are a host of ways in which NATO can bolster collective defense in these regions. The strategic review should give full consideration to each and every one of them.
Finally, while collective defense must remain NATO’s core focus, the alliance does have a role to play in meeting other growing challenges. Ensuring NATO’s readiness to address these challenges requires an understanding of where the alliance has been, where it is now, and where it is headed.
For 70 years, NATO has underpinned European and North American security and economic prosperity. While Macron’s comments may have been ill-advised and out of touch, they have ignited a vital process by which the alliance can recommit itself to its most important task: territorial defense of the member states; enabling collective defense; and understanding NATO’s proper role in responding to growing challenges, as well as the tools it has to address them.
U.S. leadership has the opportunity and responsibility to ensure that the strategic reflection process guarantees this vital alliance remains vibrant and able to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Forget about the nightmare of a zombie alliance. The ongoing period of reflection gives NATO the chance to reaffirm, “It’s alive. It’s alive!”
A Heritage Foundation Vice President, James Jay Carafano heads the think tank’s research on matters of national security and foreign policy. Luke Coffey directs Heritage’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, and Daniel Kochis is a senior policy analyst in Heritage’s Thatcher Center for Freedom. The views expressed are the author's own.