75 years of NATO: Where We Stand

For 75 years, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has endured, shaped, and adapted to the tumultuous shifts in the global security environment, and helped define the environment itself. It remains a key cornerstone and essential provider of Euro-Atlantic security.

April 4th 2024 marks the 75th anniversary of NATO’s founding, and will see foreign ministers of the allied states convene to commemorate, ahead of larger commemorations at the 75th anniversary Summit in Washington DC in July. The meeting, and indeed July’s Summit, are crucial opportunities for allies and partners to reinforce the alliance’s unity, strength, and resolve for the years to come, as the world faces a new and unprecedented era of strategic competition.

The meeting of the foreign ministers on April 3 – 4 is unlikely to usher in many big surprises. However, rumours suggest the new Secretary-General may be agreed, which could have major consequences for NATO’s direction in the years to come. 

The meeting will include a gathering of the NATO-Ukraine Council – the body created last year to provide an official forum for Kyiv to hold meetings with Allies. The session’s outputs will undoubtedly include bolstered support for Ukraine – both in reinforcements against its Russian aggressors, and in meeting the conditions for NATO membership.

Last year’s Summit in Vilnius culminated in unanimous agreement that Ukraine’s future lies in NATO, but left a lot of uncertainty around timelines. While Ukraine’s invitation to join NATO is expected to dominate debate again in this anniversary year, there is a danger this derails attention from more immediate challenges. In particular, more urgent attention is required on the need to dramatically scale up defence spending commitments and military industrial production across Europe, in order to meet Ukraine’s but also NATO’s wider security needs.

In that vein, verbal reinforcement of the 2% pledge by members is expected, as well as a focus on the Indo-Pacific, with a meeting with Indo-Pacific partners also scheduled for the 4th. 

But the main excitement of this meeting is that it will be Sweden’s first meeting as a full NATO ally.  The recent admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO represents a significant endorsement of the enduring nature and attraction of NATO. It will also bring additional military capability, being home to one of the largest defence industries in Europe, advanced technological competence, and a geographic advantage that will assist in limiting the potential Russian use of the Baltic Sea for intimidation or invasion.

Nevertheless, despite this excitement, the Summit and anniversary will come at a time where NATO faces a multitude of challenges. In many ways the Russian invasion of Ukraine reinvigorated the alliance – uniting around the purpose of collective defence –  at a time when doubts were growing about the United States’ commitment to the European security theatre. Yet we see this cohesion splintering once more.

While 19 out of 32 alliance members are now on track to hit the target of spending 2% of GDP on defence, the United States, continues to believe that the burden-sharing in the alliance is unequal, and that the United States has been left to foot the bill. Former (and potential future) President Donald Trump’s recent inflammatory remarks – encouraging aggressors ‘to do whatever the hell they want’ to allies who don’t pay their way – reflect the extreme end of this mood. But Trump is not alone – the rhetoric of current President Biden increasingly reflects American frustration with the cost and perceived lack of burden sharing in NATO, as the United States also grapples with the costs of constraining China, and begins to look inward ahead of the election towards the end of the year. 

These debates lay bare just how dependent Europe is on the United States within the security bloc, as Europeans are faced with very real questions about the sustainability of the United States’ commitment to NATO, and the implications of a scaling back of long-term military support to European security, under any potential future US administrations. Atop of this, both sides of the Euro-Atlantic partnership are facing splintering domestic consensus, with a growing number of voters and politicians becoming increasingly concerned about the cost of supporting the war in Ukraine.

With limited capacity and resource, differing ideas on scope also afflict the alliance. Most pressing is how Russia’s immediate threat to European security competes with the longer-term challenge of China’s growing influence. Certainly, the West, and by extension NATO, finds itself in fierce competition with alternative, oft-China-led authoritarian, approaches to multilateral domains and world orders, for sway in parts of the world that are increasingly hesitant to Western influence. And as the global geopolitical centre of gravity shifts towards the so-called ‘Global South’, China’s particularly effective strategy of influence-building across these non-traditional partner states risks NATO allies and their liberal counterparts being alienated from increasingly critical partners. 

More fundamentally, the war in Ukraine has discredited the foundational assumptions about the post-Cold War European security theatre, and highlighted the failure of Western deterrence to both understand the nature of the threat from Russia, and forestall its aggression. The accession of previously neutral actors, Finland and Sweden, undoubtedly reflect a world that is increasingly turbulent and dangerous, and NATO must adapt to the increasingly erratic and unpredictable geopolitical order, all while addressing its own failures and mitigating internal disagreements.

Clear consistent values and the ability to flex as political circumstances change, have ensured NATO’s role insofar. The next few decades however, will test both of these, more than any time in its history. It is increasingly clear that allies must take the threats to NATO, and the values that it represents, more seriously than ever. The historic 75th anniversary Washington Summit will be a pivotal moment for allies to come together in unity, and present to their domestic populations, international partners,  and strategic rivals, NATO’s continued role as an indispensable guarantor of security and prosperity.

Eliza Keogh

Eliza is a Researcher and Programmes Manager at BFPG