The future of Nato

As the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, a military alliance of 32 member states, celebrates it’s the 75th anniversary of its formation, what does the future hold for the North Atlantic Alliance?

| 10 min read

The treaty establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) was signed in 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War. The idea was for like-minded democracies to form a common defence.

Article 5 of the treaty 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”. The US wanted to help secure a peaceful post-war Europe and to offer advice, military support and resources to friendly countries.

The founder members included the US, UK, and Canda, which had undertaken so much of the fighting for victory as they joined with the German occupied countries of France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Norway, which they had helped to liberate. Italy was invited to join as it had evicted its fascist dictator and broke with Germany in 1943. In 1946 an Italian referendum had established a new Republic and in 1948 it elected their first new democratic government. Portugal and Iceland made up the twelve founders. 20 additional members have since been added to the 12 founders.

After the war, Germany was split into four zones, occupied by the US, UK, France and the USSR. The occupiers gradually introduced civilian self-government, culminating in a Western state, the Federal Republic of Germany for the US, UK and French zones. Greece and Turkey joined Nato in 1952. On 5 May 1955, West Germany was declared a sovereign state and joined the alliance.

East Germany remained under strict USSR control. Spain joined by progressive convergence with Nato between 1982 and 1996 following the end of the Franco dictatorship. In 1999, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Czechia, Hungary and Poland joined. Bulgaria, the Baltic states, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia became members in 2004. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, and North Macedonia in 2020. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia led to Finland and Sweden joining recently.

The nature of the agreement

The treaty states that Nato is a defensive alliance. Other member states will come to the assistance of any Nato member that is threatened by external forces. This is the crucial deterrent to hostile countries who fear that if they did invade a smaller Nato member the wrath of the whole would be visited on them.

The Nato treaty does not create a legally-binding framework, enforced by a superior court for any particular action of a Nato member. Nato has intervened in many conflicts by mutual agreement. It has common command establishments. Countries are requested but not instructed to join missions, and there are discussions over who can contribute what to any operation. This copies the way the victorious allies operated in the Second World War, when they helped each other and accepted common commands in joint operations.

The larger strategic decisions were hammered out between the political and military leaders of the allied powers. Between 1966 and 2009 France was partially disconnected from Nato though still joined in various decisions and missions. France returned to accepting the common command structure from 2009. Nato members can leave after giving one year’s notice.

The relationship with former USSR

From the late 1940s, Nato came to see that the new threat to peace was no longer German continental ambitions in the way it had been in the first half of the century, but the threat of an aggressive Soviet Union. USSR action to suppress dissent in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, the construction of the border walls in Berlin and around East Germany, the attempted 1948 blockade of West Berlin all alerted the western allies as they occurred. They saw a need for strong defences to warn the USSR off any ideas of expanding its influence beyond the eastern European satellite countries Russia controlled.

Nato was true to its word that it did not seek eastern expansion by military means. However, the relative economic success of the west and the greater freedom of lifestyles was a constant challenge to a negative and tough USSR government. The better the West did, the stronger their controls had to be over the subject peoples of eastern Europe. Anyone attempting to escape to the West was likely to be shot.

Nato was relatively successful in holding the line during the prolonged cold war of the 1950s and 1960s.

Nato was relatively successful in holding the line during the prolonged cold war of the 1950s and 1960s. The USSR did not make any military moves against Nato members. The West had to live as neighbours to a regime that suppressed freedoms in Eastern Europe. There were tensions over the positioning of weapons. Nato did not intervene when the USSR put down rebellions. When the USSR crumbled and opted for reforms there was a rush of applicant countries to join Nato . They wished to symbolise their decisive break with Soviet government and to give themselves the protection of the Nato umbrella should the USSR seek to recreate its controls over them.

To some in Russia, who wrongly assumed ill intent by Nato, the rapid advances in membership up to the borders of a shrunken greater Russia seemed threatening. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tipped formerly neutral Finland and Sweden into joining Nato to give themselves more reassurance against possible future Russian threats.

Nato assists Ukraine

Nato is playing an important role in offering assistance to Ukraine. Crucially dependent on US money and firepower the Alliance has followed the US policy of helping Ukraine but avoiding any direct involvement in the fighting. Nato has offered a widening choice of weapons to Ukraine but said they must not be used to attack Russia outside Ukraine’s own borders. Nato has held back some of their most advanced weapons and has struggled to supply all the shells and anti-air attack systems Ukraine needs to fight the current war. Ukraine is not a Nato member, though she has applied to join.

Nato has no wish to grant Ukraine membership all the time there is a Ukraine/Russia war as that would trigger a Nato/Russia war. The fact of the Russian invasion has renewed the support for Nato and confirmed its purpose in the European theatre.

The strength of Nato

Nato rests heavily on US armed forces. The US dominates Nato, with 1,360,000 army personnel, 11 carrier led naval groups and over 13,000 military aircraft.

These numbers illustrate the importance of the US forces. The US also has a leading position in technology with the most advanced weapons, ships and planes. The 11 carrier groups with supporting vessels enables the US to project power around the world. The heavy lift capability of the US airforce allows rapid entry of ground forces into a conflict. The US greatly outspends any other country in the world, spending as much as the next ten biggest spenders in 2022 (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Military expenditure). The US spends almost four times as much as Nato’s next five biggest spenders, the UK, Germany, France, Italy and Canada combined.

Each Nato member is meant to spend at least 2% of the annual GDP on defence. Many members have fallen short of this and are under pressure from the US to increase their contributions. The outbreak of hostilities in Europe has also acted as an incentive to spend more, as has the need to help Ukraine.

The future of Nato

Nato is still much wanted by its members. The Ukraine war has reminded members of the dangers to the east of the European continent. The US still provides the main resources and leadership. When Donald Trump was president, he pressed hard to get other Nato members to spend more but never carried out a threat to change or break up Nato. Should he be elected this year he would probably up the pressure for more spending but would not quit. President Biden works through Nato. Both men are reluctant to get the US drawn into new wars but both believe independently and through Nato the US needs to be powerful to influence world affairs and to stand up to Russia and China.

Nato is going to have to do more work on procuring more weapons and ammunition for Ukraine, and on restocking Nato’s own arsenals. The Ukraine war has been a shock to the system, revealing just how much weaponry and ammunition is needed for a regional war. It has revealed Nato should have larger stockpiles as a precaution against an emergency.

The war is also changing views of what weaponry is needed as experts study the role of drones, smart weapons, cyber warfare and the other new threats and techniques. Nato, 75 years old, has more work to do. The armourers will be busy dealing with the consequences of a cruel and unwanted war in Europe.

Power of NATO navies

  • US has 11 advanced aircraft carriers
  • The UK and Italy have 2 carriers each
  • France and Spain have one each

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The future of Nato

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