To Remain Relevant, NATO Must Adapt to 21st Century Threats, Concludes New CFR Report

May 4, 2007

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A new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) report warns that the United States will "lose interest" in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), if the organization "fails to accept a growing global role." In order to remain relevant, "NATO must expand its traditional understanding of collective defense to confront the twenty-first-century threats of terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to both states and nonstate actors, and cyberwarfare."

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In November 2010, NATO will release a new strategic concept-its first since 1999. The Council Special Report, The Future of NATO, provides recommendations for the ongoing review. As NATO enters a new decade, it faces challenges both to the security of its members and to the relevance of the alliance itself. The report’s author, James M. Goldgeier, CFR’s Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations, notes that NATO was created in 1949 to fend off a potential armed attack by the Soviet Union, but that today the threat to Europe is far different. He underscores that "the Europeans must signal that they understand the new threat environment and what it takes to meet that threat."

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Some question the value of the alliance in a world of transnational threats emanating beyond Europe; the report acknowledges that if NATO did not exist today, there would be no push to create it. However, the alliance does exist, and it can and should be preserved and made stronger. "For all its faults, NATO enables the United States to partner with close democratic allies in ways that would be difficult without a formal institution that provides a headquarters and ready venue for decision-making, as well as legitimacy and support for action that ad hoc U.S.-led coalitions do not." In addition, although the United States and European members have differences regarding Afghanistan, NATO provides important legitimacy and assistance to the mission there.

Goldgeier argues that the United States should not spend its time cajoling alliance members into spending more on defense. "Most alliance members are not going to make major military contributions. They never did and they never will," he writes. Instead, the United States and Europe need to deepen the partnership between NATO and the European Union, an institution that possesses significant resources to deal with the nonmilitary challenges facing alliance members.


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- NATO remains valuable to both the United States and Europe, and the member states should continue to invest in the alliance. It "provides the United States with legitimacy for action that does not accrue to coalitions of the willing, and it allows the Europeans to project power in a way that they cannot do on their own." The interpretation of Article V, which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all, must be broadened so that NATO members can better respond to threats that arise from outside Europe.

- NATO should strengthen its partnerships with the EU and with non-European democracies. Collaboration would make available the resources necessary for the wide variety of challenges that NATO now faces. "Given the varied nature and source of threats today, NATO can be successful only if the Europeans agree to stronger NATO- EU cooperation and to closer ties with major non-European democracies, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region." The opportunities for other democracies, such as Japan and Australia, to participate in NATO activities should be expanded, and coordination between NATO and the EU must be enhanced. It is clear that "other major non-European democracies have a huge potential role to play as the alliance retools itself to combat threats emanating from far-flung places."

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- The United States should foster greater collaboration between NATO and Russia. The alliance was first created to deter and defend against the Soviet Union, and Russia’s intentions continue to make member states nervous today-particularly in central and eastern Europe. NATO should reiterate that Article V remains the core of the alliance to provide reassurance to its members nearest to Russia. However, NATO must work to improve relations with Russia, and "ultimately, improved relations with Russia will do more to address eastern European fears than contingency planning and military exercises."

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James M. Goldgeier is the Whitney Shepardson senior fellow for transatlantic relations at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and coauthor of America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (PublicAffairs, 2008). He was previously an adjunct senior fellow for Europe studies at CFR and the Henry A. Kissinger scholar in foreign policy and international relations at the Library of Congress. He is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. From 2001-2005, he directed the Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.


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