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The Cold War may be long over but when the leaders of NATO member states gathered in London on December 3 and 4, the environment was no less cold. Instead of a bipolar world of the Soviet Union versus the West, this time the rifts were internal.

NATO Burden-Sharing Tensions

US President Donald Trump has frequently emphasized that EU member states should share more of the NATO defense burden by allocating more funds in their budgets and paying more of their GDP toward defense, as well as maintaining larger military forces. The United States currently pays around 22 percent of NATO’s costs. The frustration does not only rest with Trump, either, with France’s Macron commenting that the alliance was “brain dead.” Indeed, the latest meeting was marked by awkwardness before it even officially began. 

Is NATO Still Necessary?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed between Western nations in 1949 to protect allies from Soviet aggression. In addition to the recent questions regarding its efficiency its also been confronted by questions of purpose. Since the Cold War ended almost three decades ago, a defense agreement revolving around concerns and military realities of that era needs to rapidly update its scope and approach in order to be truly relevant in today’s world.

China Is The New Number One Adversary

Since the turn of the 21st century, Washington’s biggest arch-nemesis has been China, whose spectacular economic rise has threatened American dominance of the global market and whose growing military power has raised some eyebrows in Washington. Meanwhile, the primary theater of war has moved away from eastern Europe and communist-involved violence to the Middle East.

The Nature Of War Has Shifted In Many Ways

Where once it was the constant risk of nuclear devastation on the minds of western leaders, now the number one preoccupation is the hybrid warfare that extends into every dimension, be it disinformation manipulating electoral outcomes or cyber-attacks on state institutions. Hybrid warfare mixes political conflict with conventional armed struggle, seeking to electorally, culturally and diplomatically subvert a foreign adversary through covert means, fake news, cyber war and a mixture of economic and political pressures.

Eastern Europe Is No Longer The Locus Point Of Conflict

As a result of the rapidly-increasing importance of hybrid warfare, having a military buffer in eastern Europe against Russia fails to hold the same importance to the US as it once did. On the other hand, NATO’s EU members have often failed to meet their defense commitments in terms of spending levels, with notable offenders like Germany and France. However, this is without surprise, given an internal European divergence of interests based on geography and other factors such as seeking more stable relations with Russia in order to maintain a reliable energy flow and economic relationship.

While smaller states like Estonia, Latvia, Poland and Ukraine are vulnerable to any Russian advances given their geographical location and thus do need NATO and outside assistance for their physical defense, larger countries towards the west of Europe do not experience a similar degree of risk and have relatively lesser interest in the alliance’s upkeep or in devoting more of their GDP to its sustenance. 

NATO’s Post-9/11 Broadening Of Scope And Mission

To think of NATO purely from a viewpoint of deterring Russia is to miss the body’s evolution over the years. In the wake of 9/11, for example, it concluded that terrorism is a trans-national threat that must be directly fought and sent troops to Afghanistan. Now once again, the alliance is showing agility and adaptability to the changing world, seen this year for the first time when allies took up the case of rising China on the agenda. 

As NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg noted this year, China is important for the alliance to think about and come to terms with, presenting both “opportunities” and “obvious challenges.” As Stoltenberg outlined, “China has the second-largest defense budget in the world. They recently displayed a lot of new, modern capabilities, including long-range missiles capable of reaching Europe and the United States, hyper-sonic missiles, gliders.” While he acknowledged that NATO has no purview in the South China Sea, they must recognize that China is coming closer to NATO “in the Arctic, in Africa, investing heavily in our infrastructure, in Europe, in cyberspace. So, we just have to understand that this has implications for NATO.” Stoltenberg was quick to point out that NATO does not seek to “create a new adversary” but should nonetheless be united in its approach to China in order to “respond in a balanced way.”

Another Challenge For NATO: Turkey

Another pressing matter troubling the alliance of late has been what some would call Turkey’s belligerence. Ever since its offensive in northeast Syria, Ankara has sought to label the Kurdish YPG as a terrorist organization and to strengthen support for its assaults against Kurdish forces with Western allies. Turkey has also threatened to block a military buffer for the Baltics and Poland and to shut down the key US airbase at Incirlik, which houses nuclear weapons. However, both Trump and Stoltenberg, when questioned, put their weight behind Turkey at the recent summit. 

This Year’s Meeting Shows NATO Is Updating Itself

Though not too many were optimistic about this year’s meeting, statements during and declaration made at the end give a somewhat hopeful picture. There has been a recognition of changing threats, such as China and the issue of hybrid warfare, which is the first step towards any future strategy on the matters. 

Going forward, the biggest issue facing the alliance will not be Russia, China or anyone else, but the internal rifts and divergences of views between the members. That’s hardly exclusive to NATO, though, and is part and parcel of any multilateral forum where nation-states often have competing, or at the very least diverging interests. Finding common ground and establishing consensus on key matters is essential to any alliance and that’s a front where NATO has done fairly well over the past 70 years. 

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