Will NATO survive the current political and strategic pressures it faces? Should it? Both questions may have the same answer: NATO should survive, but to do so it will have to adapt to face new internal pressures and external threats.

Facing challenges

The president-elect of the United States has not clarified his view of the transatlantic alliance and he recently called it “obsolete”. Elections this coming year in Germany, France, and the Netherlands could bring to power governments that question the European project, whose stability is fundamental to NATO. At the same time, cyber intrusions, violent extremism and instability in many of Europe’s Middle Eastern and African neighbours pose challenges that the alliance is not confronting effectively enough. The alliance might be at a tipping point. If it fails either to hold together or to defend its member states and their values vigorously, it would be a tragic mistake.

Better together

The transatlantic alliance has held together for more than 70 years. The countries that form it share values, and the alliance has helped provide peace and prosperity for its members. Whether in the fight against cybercrime and ISIS, or in the attempt to increase stability in Afghanistan and the Middle East, or simply to have a strong negotiating position with China or Russia, NATO’s member countries are better together than apart.

“Don’t sound the death knell of the transatlantic alliance so soon,” Frederick Kempe, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Atlantic Council, USA, said. President-elect Trump’s security team is far more conventional than his populist rhetoric, so even if his approach to NATO is uncertain for now, there are promising signs of engagement with Europe.

Recent populist movements have questioned many multinational institutions, but NATO itself is proof that countries can cooperate closely without giving up too much national sovereignty.

Sharing burdens and strategies

Donald Trump has called for Europe to increase its defence spending to better share the burden and Europe needs to respond. “Europe has to take on its fair share of the burden. We have to spend more on defence,” Ursula von der Leyen, Federal Minister of Defence of Germany, said. Germany’s defence budget is already rising faster than its overall budget, she said. She added that Europe should also do more to handle European problems, such as instability in its neighbour Africa, on its own. But even with a stronger military, Europe cannot do it all alone. “The world continues to need American leadership. It continues to need a strong transatlantic alliance,” Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, Minister of Defence of the Netherlands, said.

To be most effective, the alliance has to apply a mix of hard and soft power: military action against violent extremists, and efforts to rebuild, educate, communicate and offer opportunities in countries that are security threats. The alliance is capable of getting this combination right, as its intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s shows. The recent reconquest of large parts of Iraq from ISIS may prove to be another example of success. Different from the initial invasion of Iraq, the alliance is now offering rebuilding and humanitarian assistance after military action.