Very few Americans could find tiny Montenegro on a map. Fewer still could offer a cogent description of the differences between Slovenia and Slovakia.
Most can’t name the three Baltic countries. Yet thanks to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s charter, which was signed 70 years ago in Washington, every American is bound by law to defend with blood and treasure each of those nations, and 22 others to boot.
To many who lived through the Cold War, the alliance may seem like an obvious good deal. By binding Europe’s democracies together, NATO decreased the chances of the brutal conflicts that dominated the continent through the end of World War II. NATO provided a strong counterweight to Russia, and communism more broadly, helping defeat that ideology virtually without firing a shot. And when the U.S. went to war in Afghanistan after 9/11, the NATO allies went with us in their first and only exercise of Article 5.
Most of all, for decades NATO–the alliance for which I was Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013–was America’s forward operating base for democracy, embodying shared values that were worth defending and even dying for.
But the Cold War is long over, and new challenges require clear thinking, not nostalgia. Originally conceived, as its first leader, Lord “Pug” Ismay, quipped, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down,” what exactly does NATO exist to do now? Its expansion to the tiny countries named above raises legitimate questions of common purpose and shared values. Russia is back and playing a much subtler role in undermining and threatening the organization. China’s emergence as America’s most powerful global competitor makes NATO seem anachronistic. Is the alliance, as President Donald Trump called it, “obsolete”?
The short answer is no. Many of the American interests it served in the Cold War are still advanced by NATO today, and walking away from the alliance will likely cost us more than staying and strengthening it. That shared fate is being celebrated in early April as NATO marks its 70th anniversary in Washington with events including an address by its Secretary-General to a joint session of Congress. But to save the alliance and advance the democratic values it was founded to defend, its leaders must take aggressive, creative action.
The fact is, NATO is in trouble.
The original alliance was optimized for the lengthy, bipolar Cold War and had a relatively simple mission: stop the Soviets. It was a very costly approach that required massive expenditures on troops in Europe–around 400,000 at one point, compared with 62,000 today. But with only a dozen original members and a few added along the way, NATO was relatively tight in both size and mission.
After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO 2.0 began with a breath of optimism, sometimes described as a “new world order,” with the U.S. firmly in the driver’s seat and the alliance reaching out in friendship to the former Warsaw Pact countries–including to the Russian Federation. This was a sort of springtime in European security when the idea of a Europe “whole and free” and at peace, as then President George H.W. Bush envisioned it, felt distinctly possible. But a combination of Russia’s increasing resentment as its former allies joined NATO and the global drama of the 9/11 attacks created a new reality.
At the same time, NATO 2.0 began conducting counterterrorism and antipiracy campaigns in Iraq, Libya, the Horn of Africa and Syria, either through formal alliance missions or close cooperation among alliance members. These “out of area” operations became increasingly controversial and damaged not only the popularity of the alliance with other countries but also political cohesion within it. I felt this constantly in Brussels as Supreme Allied Commander, briefing the leadership of the then 28 nations: the air and sea campaign in Libya truly split the alliance; the Afghan campaign, with its rising casualty count, appeared to be a quagmire; and, later, debates over whether to have a formal NATO mission in Syria, on the border of NATO member Turkey, led to difficult sparring matches in the North Atlantic Council, the governing body of the alliance. It felt like the organization was fragmenting badly at the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century.
It was the avowed NATO hater Vladimir Putin, ironically, who revitalized the alliance and launched NATO 3.0. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 gave new purpose to NATO. I vividly remember attending an alliance meeting shortly after I took command in 2009 during which Chiefs of Defense of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania laid out a passionate, intelligence-based briefing on the possibility of Russian intervention in the Baltic countries. I assessed it to be a very low probability at that moment, but in the years afterward, I became increasingly concerned. We updated our NATO defensive war plans, conducted significant training exercises and requested additional forces across the organization to maintain a higher level of readiness. Putin’s subsequent actions, including the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine and increased aggression in the air and on the high seas around NATO’s periphery, drew the alliance together.
But even as NATO reawakened, the challenge from outside was changing. Putin has practiced “hybrid warfare” against his neighbors, the would-be NATO members Georgia and Ukraine. A lethal mixture of propaganda, social-network manipulation, cyberoperations, special forces and unconventional terrorist-like attacks poses a different kind of threat than the tanks and missiles of the Cold War. Could Russia make a similar set of moves on a NATO ally?
Unlikely, but possible. And that threat only gets more difficult to counter with the advent of advanced military technology. As the tools of offensive cyberwarfare continue to grow–making definitive attribution of an attack difficult to achieve–Russia might be tempted to subvert smaller NATO allies in the Baltics or the Balkans. Doing so, Moscow might calculate, could create fissures in the alliance as the larger nations debate their willingness to fight for a tiny ally. Over time such a strategy could cleverly apply pressure to the real Achilles’ heel of NATO, its already shaky political will. It would be a smart tactical move by Putin, who seems increasingly prepared to bet that the answer to the foundational question–Would you die for NATO?–is, for many, no.
President Trump is compounding that danger. He excoriated the alliance during the 2016 campaign and hectors the allies at every turn to increase their level of defense spending. That tactic admittedly has had some effect, as several allies have finally stepped up their spending to pledged levels. But it comes at a cost, creating resentment and division in response to the President’s hostile and threatening tone. Worst of all, Trump himself has called into question America’s Article 5 commitment on multiple occasions, most recently with regard to Montenegro.
That creeping lack of common purpose poses perhaps the greatest risk to NATO. Signs of authoritarianism are already emerging in some of the allied nations, like Poland, Hungary and Turkey. The looming danger of Brexit seems to cut against the core values of the alliance. And the abdication of NATO leadership by the U.S., which for so long stood as a standard of democratic governance for the world, threatens the foundation on which the alliance rests.
For all those harbingers of trouble, though, by many traditional measures, NATO remains extremely healthy.
It is powerful. The 29 nations of NATO produce more than 50% of the world’s gross domestic product, have well over 3 million troops on duty, operate massive combined naval fleets and air forces and together spend over $1 trillion on defense. Indeed, even with all the frustration over European defense spending not hitting the 2% of GDP goal, the collective European defense budget is the second largest in the world after the U.S.’s and is ahead of China’s and Russia’s–combined.
It is smart. U.S. and European defense innovation and production provides a formidable military research and development capacity. Particularly in cybersecurity, unmanned vehicles, space operations, special-forces technologies, maritime and anti-submarine capability, and air and missile defense, NATO is a technology and education superpower.
It is capable. The alliance boasts a large command structure of highly qualified teams of military officers from all of the 29 nations. Throughout Europe and the East Coast of the U.S., those teams prepare war plans, conduct training exercises, monitor readiness of allied units, gather intelligence about potential adversaries and run complex operations centers that cover the entire geographic range of NATO. These standing staffs, which we rationalized by reducing them 35% while I was NATO commander, can conduct prompt and sustained combat operations in a coalition structure on short notice.
Just as important as NATO’s health is the fact that we still need it. Geography matters, and the European peninsula is particularly well located on the western edge of the Eurasian landmass. When I was the Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, people would say to me, “Why do we need all those useless Cold War bases?” My reply was simple: They are not Cold War bases but rather the forward operating stations of the U.S. in the 21st century. When necessary, they allow us to operate in the Middle East and Africa. But they primarily serve as a bulwark: NATO is not global in its scope, scale or ambition and will remain tightly focused on the North Atlantic.
Moreover, despite all the frustrations of coalition warfare, most observers would agree with Winston Churchill that “there is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” The greatest single advantage the U.S. has on the global stage is our network of allies, partners and friends. That network is under deliberate pressure: from China, with its “One Belt, One Road” competitive strategy, and from Russia, with its relentless attacks on coalition unity. A strong NATO means not only having allies in a fight, should it come to that, but also a powerful deterrent to the aggression of ambitious adversaries.
Perhaps NATO’s greatest accomplishment is not even its unblemished record of deterring attack against its members but rather the fact that no alliance nation has ever attacked another. NATO’s most fundamental deliverable has been peace among Europe’s major powers for 70 years after two millennia of unhesitating slaughter on the continent. The disasters of the 20th century alone pulled the U.S. into two world wars that killed more than half a million Americans.
History provides few achievements that compare to those seven decades of peace. They were built not on the ambitions of cold-eyed leaders but something more noble. NATO is a pool of partners who, despite some egregious outliers, by and large share fundamental values–democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, gender equality, and racial equality. Admittedly we execute those values imperfectly, and they are stronger in some NATO countries than in others. But they are the right values, and there is no other place on earth where the U.S. could find such a significant number of like-minded nations that are willing to bind themselves with us in a defensive military treaty.
So what can NATO do to ensure the alliance continues to provide value for all the members in general, and for the U.S. in particular? What would a NATO 4.0 look like?
The alliance should up its game in cybersecurity, both defensively and in the collective development of new offensive cybertools. Geographically, the alliance needs more focus on the Arctic; as global warming opens shipping lanes and access to hydrocarbons, geopolitical competition will increase. We should taper off the Afghan mission, perhaps maintaining a small training cadre in country and continuing to help the Afghan security forces push the Taliban to negotiate peace.
There is work to do in consolidating the Balkans, where tensions among Serbs, Croats and Balkan Muslims threaten to erupt into war again. NATO can continue to have a small mission there to help continue the arc of reconciliation. The alliance will need to be forthright in dealing with Russia, confronting Putin where we must–in its invasion and continued occupation of Ukraine–but at the same time attempting to reduce operational tensions and find zones of cooperation.
Geographically, the biggest challenge ahead will be the Middle East. The NATO nations do not agree on an approach with Iran, which is an aggressive actor in the region with significant ambitions that will impact NATO. Developing better partnerships with the Arab world, which began in earnest with the Libyan campaign and continued into Syrian operations against the so-called Islamic State alongside various NATO allies in the U.S.-led coalition, makes sense. Working far more closely with Israel would pay dividends for the alliance.
And what of other tiny, would-be members, the next Montenegros? NATO should accept North Macedonia to stabilize the south Balkans, then halt expansion. It should build global partnerships with democracies like Japan, Australia, New Zealand, India and other Indo-Pacific nations.
Should we be prepared to fight and die in a NATO campaign? Yes. On balance, the alliance still provides strategic benefit to the U.S. We should support this venerable organization, encourage our allies to increase their defense spending and push them to operate with us on key challenges. We should demand that they help us build a NATO 4.0 that is even more fit for the decades ahead.
We should also remember how dangerous the world can be. As NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander for four years, I signed more than 2,000 personal condolence letters; about a third of them were to the grieving family members of European soldiers. I visited the thousands of non-U.S. troops in Afghanistan often, and they were uniformly brave, professional and motivated.
As a democracy, it is right that we should debate whether NATO is worth dying for. I can tell you that our NATO allies have shown time and again they are willing to fight and die for us.
Stavridis was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander of NATO
This appears in the April 15, 2019 issue of TIME.