from International Institutions and Global Governance Program

The Future of NATO

Council Special Report
Concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contributions to current policy dilemmas.


When NATO's founding members signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949, they declared themselves "resolved to unite their efforts for collective defense and for the preservation of peace and security." The greatest threat to these objectives was a military attack by a hostile power—a prospect that led to the treaty's most famous provision, Article V, which states, "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all."

James M. Goldgeier

Visiting Senior Fellow

Today, more than sixty years later, the threats facing the alliance's members have changed considerably. An attack in North America or Europe by the regular army of an outside state is highly unlikely. Instead, the alliance must confront an array of more diffuse challenges, ranging from terrorism and nuclear proliferation to piracy, cyberattacks, and the disruption of energy supplies.

If NATO is unable to confront dangers wherever they arise, American interest in the alliance will wane.

In this Council Special Report, James M. Goldgeier takes on the question of how NATO, having successfully kept the peace in Europe in the twentieth century, can adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first. Goldgeier contends that NATO retains value for the United States and Europe. He writes, though, that it must expand its vision of collective defense in order to remain relevant and effective. This means recognizing the full range of threats that confront NATO members today and affirming that the alliance will respond collectively to an act (whether by an outside state or a nonstate entity) that imperils the political or economic security or territorial integrity of a member state.

More on:

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

Security Alliances

Treaties and Agreements

A central part of this debate concerns NATO's involvement in conflicts outside of Europe, including today in Afghanistan. Analyzing the questions surrounding this involvement, Goldgeier rejects any distinction between traditional Article V threats and those to be found outside the North Atlantic treaty area. Instead, he argues, these threats can be one and the same. If NATO is unable to recognize this reality and confront dangers wherever they arise, Goldgeier contends, American interest in the alliance will wane.

Examining a range of other issues, the report argues that NATO should expand its cooperation with non-European democracies, such as Australia and Japan; outlines steps to improve NATO's relations with Russia; and urges greater cooperation between NATO and the European Union. Finally, on the issue of enlargement, the report supports the current policy of keeping the door open to Georgia and Ukraine while recognizing that they will not join the alliance anytime soon.

NATO has been a cornerstone of security in Europe—and of U.S. foreign policy—for six decades. But its ability to continue playing such a central role is unclear. The Future of NATO takes a sober look at what the alliance and its members must do to maintain NATO's relevance in the face of today's strategic environment. The result is an important work that combines useful analysis and practical recommendations for policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Educators: Access the Teaching Module for The Future of NATO.

More on:

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

Security Alliances

Treaties and Agreements

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