“The most successful military alliance in history” is one description. Another is “brain dead.” And a third is “obsolete.”

The fact is that all the above descriptions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are correct in varying degrees along with “guarantor of peace in Europe” and the “military heart of the Western Alliance.”

It is also true to say that the alliance is in crisis. To paraphrase Dean Acheson’s description of post-imperial Britain, NATO won the Cold War and has yet to find a new role in the world.

If one starts from the assumption that NATO is a force for good than it is essential that the alliance re-discover its role in the world. To do that it needs to re-evaluate the circumstances and values that led to its formation 70 years ago; examine how the world has stayed the same; how it has changed; and then change and adapt.

In 1949, the world was only four years out of a world war. America had emerged enormously wealthy, militarily powerful and armed with the world’s first true weapon of mass destruction. Its ideological enemy the Soviet Union had absorbed Eastern Europe and seemed poised to send its steamroller army across the rest of the devastated continent. It was four months away from detonating its first atomic bomb. Britain—which had been charged with the responsibility of protecting post war Europe—was broke and broken, and appealed to America to fill the vacuum. China was soon to “fall” to Mao’s communists and slip behind a bamboo curtain for 30 years. Former enemies Germany and Japan were as distrusted as the Soviet Union. There were only 59 members of the United Nations as most of the future 193-strong membership was still colonies.

NATO had a clear purpose: To protect the democracies of Western Europe from Soviet aggression so that they could recover from a devastating world war; preserve the shared values of economic and political liberalism; protect traditional markets and prevent a third world war. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, declared that the purpose of the alliance was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.”

It was a Euro-centric world. There was a strong kith and kin link across the Atlantic. Out of an American population of 150 million, a total of 134 million claimed European origins. Europe was the traditional market for America and vice versa, and two world wars and a potful of cash had awakened the US to the realization that its 162-year-old isolationism was now irrelevant.

So what has changed and what is the same?

The Soviet Union no longer exists. Former Soviet satellites are now NATO allies. Germany is now the economic powerhouse of an economically united Europe which is inching towards political union. The EU is the world’s largest trading bloc and the economic interdependence it has created has made war between its members almost unthinkable. The United States’ share of the world’s GDP has dropped slightly from a height of 28 percent of the total to about 25 percent. This plus the economic rise of the rest of the world, has revived its old isolationism combined with a new unilateralism which is putting Washington increasingly at odds with its NATO allies.

Russia lost the Cold War and its conventional forces are a mere shadow of its 1949 levels when 4.5 million Soviet soldiers were based in Eastern Europe. But Russia still has 6,500 nuclear weapons and has breached a 1987 treaty banning Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces in Europe. President Vladimir Putin is also developing a formidable cyber warfare capability and is as active as the Soviet Union ever was in the espionage field. Moscow, however, is a corrupt economic basket case. Russia’s GDP is less than half that of Germany while its population is almost twice as big. Putin is clearly investing in achieving the biggest bang for a diminishing buck. Conflict on the ideological battlefield has dramatically changed. Moscow is now driven by a combination of nationalism, ages old paranoia, nostalgia for the Soviet and Tsarist Empire, and a dislike of western liberal values. Its former satellites regard themselves as under constant threat and it is no surprise that they are leading the way in achieving the NATO target of spending two percent of GDP on defence.

China has lifted its bamboo curtain and adopted a successful capitalist economic structure operating within a centralised communist political structure. With the world’s largest population and fast growing population, the Chinese are set to overtake the United States in both economic and military terms by the middle of the century—if not sooner. Many in America see Beijing as the biggest threat to America’s top dog status and advocate shifting resources from the North Atlantic region to the Pacific Rim. Europeans vacillate between viewing the Chinese as a market opportunity one day and an economic and military threat the next.

The colonial problem is largely a thing of the past. But it has been replaced by Islamic Jihadism which has replaced communism as the ideological threat. The big difference is that communism claimed a philosophical truth based on historical precedent. As such it could be countered with carefully constructed logical arguments. Islamic Jihadism is the military arm of an opposing all-embracing religion that brooks no argument because its adherents believe they are directed by God.

Finally, the world has shrunk since 1949. Every square inch of Earth is now threatened by anyone equipped with a nuclear weapon and a missile system capable of delivering it to its target. Space technology is opening a new weapons frontier and cyber warfare has the capability of knocking out an entire economy without a shot being fired. The old geographic constraints have disappeared.

The changes are frightening because the threats are more complex than they were in 1949. But some things are the same. The Russians, Chinese and Jihadists are centralised totalitarian structures. They reject the values of NATO countries which remain bastions of western liberal values such as human rights, individual liberties, the rule of law and free enterprise. If NATO is to be revived it must reaffirm the basic values that united them 70 years ago and develop structures that reflect the constant need to protect them.

Tom Arms is the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War.” He is currently working on a book about Anglo-American relations.

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