Assessing NATO’s Legacy and Prospects: A Critical Analysis

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NATO celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary on April 4 as history’s most prosperous military alliance. However, its future as a plausible deterrent to aggression now lies in the victory or failure of Russia’s unjust and cruel invasion of Ukraine. NATO’s past triumphs are unquestioned and impressive. It was NATO that helped the transatlantic community to conquer the Soviet Union without shooting a shot. NATO operations brought truce and stability to the Balkans following the flareup of brutality and aggression there in the 1990s. Allied forces leveraged their interoperability enabled by NATO to fight courageously and actually in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere around the world.

NATO’s success is embedded not only in its development and deployment of favourably capable integrated military forces but also in the Alliance’s unquestioned political will and willingness to exercise those forces in battle. Nowhere was this more clearly illustrated than during the Alliance’s protection of West Berlin, its Cold War enclave in East Germany. The Alliance’s potent force posture and unquestioned resoluteness is what preserved West Berlin from being surpassed by Warsaw Pact forces during the most tense and explosive periods of that era. Looking ahead, can this NATO anniversary—which will also be sketched by a summit hosted by US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC, in July—inspire enthusiasm about NATO’s forthcoming credibility? In particular, can it do so when Ukraine is at a deadlock or losing territory to Russia?

Ukraine’s loss of momentum in its defence against Russia’s full-scale invasion is deeply rooted in Moscow’s ability to deter the Alliance from providing more robust assistance to Ukraine. A key element of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy has been the exercise of nuclear coercion to deter the West from intervening directly in the defense of Ukraine. The strategy has so far worked out better than he must have hoped. Putin’s threats of nuclear war caused the Alliance to pledge “no boots on the ground” and have intimidated allies into restricting their flow of military equipment to Ukraine.

Underscoring the significance with which Russia has exercised nuclear force is the sheer imbalance of power between NATO and Russia. The integrated gross domestic product (GDP) of NATO member states is some fifty-one trillion dollars, more than twenty times Russia’s GDP. NATO members disbursed $1.3 trillion on defence in 2023, around ten times that expended by Russia, and Russian military supplies and personnel are no match for the technology and professionalism deployed by the Alliance’s strengths. This imbalance begs the query: How is it that the Alliance is incapable or unwilling to decisively defeat Russia’s invasion? That question will be inevitable at the July summit. Allied leaders have unambiguously tied NATO’s security to this war. NATO summits have frequently condemned the invasion and demanded that Russia “fully and unconditionally withdraw all of its strengths and equipment from the territory of Ukraine.”

And the verbiage has escalated. French President Emmanuel Macron recently conveyed the war as “existential” for Europe. “If Russia succeeds in this war, Europe’s credibility would be lowered to zero,” Macron stated, adding that war would then come to NATO’s eastern border. Biden, in his latest State of the Union speech, said: “If anybody in this room believes Putin will stop at Ukraine, I guarantee you, he will not.” Numerous allied heads have said the same, if not in as urgent of terms.

NATO has a long and significant agenda at its upcoming Washington summit: Alliance leaders will emphasise NATO’s rejuvenated unity. They will offer its updated concept for defence and deterrence. And they resolve to roll out its refined war plans that are already being supported by raised defence spending and more intensive and larger-scale activities. All true . . . but will the summit demonstrate that NATO can still draw upon the political intention—the political grit—required to defeat its adversaries?

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