The secret of NATO’s longevity is its adaptability. The transatlantic alliance kept Soviet communism from overrunning Europe. It manages crises worldwide. It creates stability through a web of partnerships. And, right now, it is facilitating international co-operation in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
NATO has always adjusted to the challenge at hand. To continue this tradition of success and effectiveness, member states today must reflect on how to keep NATO fit for purpose in the years to come. Here are some suggestions.
It has been successful because its principles are sound: democracy, individual liberty, rule of law. Its core promise — that an attack against one is an attack against all and all are prepared to help each other — provides more than just collective defence and deterrence. It provides peace of mind, allowing member states to stop worrying about survival and prosper, thus contributing to international stability.
Germany’s post-war economic success, the Wirtschaftswunder, was made possible by this guarantee of security. The same holds true for the central European states that tore down the Iron Curtain and joined NATO after the cold war. Since NATO started expanding after the cold war, membership in the alliance has preceded joining the EU.
Security paves the way for both political and economic development. Now that member states are facing the economic fallout of Covid-19, we should keep this lesson in mind. We must appreciate the invaluable geostrategic, and economic benefits of reliable security arrangements and of a Europe whole and free.
Far-reaching crises such as this pandemic are dangerous beyond their immediate effect. Adversaries might take advantage of distracted and weakened societies. NATO is indispensable at such a time. We need to keep a health crisis from turning into a security crisis.
To do this, NATO needs appropriate military capabilities. It is therefore essential to stick with its planning goals.
Germany, for one, remains committed to NATO’s capabilities according to its size and econonomic strength — today, tomorrow and a decade from now.
It serves German interests to honour our commitment to the alliance’s capabilities while strengthening the European pillar within NATO. Concrete commitments will only gain in importance over abstract percentage targets, which depend on economic fluctuations.
This pandemic is one of many diverse threats to national security, from terrorism and cyber attacks to disinformation campaigns and the effects of climate change. None can be deterred by tanks and missiles. In fact, the best defence is to strengthen our ability to absorb such blows and continue to tackle their causes. That means we must improve our resilience — for example by strengthening and adjusting our critical infrastructure, be that energy grids, roads and railways, or computer networks and healthcare systems. While this is primarily a task for national governments, NATO should play a strong supporting role, building resilience into its own structures, forces and operations and adding military and organisational expertise to national efforts.
NATO has been working on all this — from the Cyber Centre of Excellence in Estonia, to the management of emergency relief through the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre.
“Resilience” should become the alliance’s watchword, high on its list of priorities. To build such resilience, NATO needs to engage more regularly and systematically with civilian organizations, from police forces to disaster relief agencies, to experts in medicine, climate and in cybersecurity.
The alliance has just established a reflection group, chaired by American and German leaders. I am confident that this group will aid NATO’s strategic development, developing fresh ideas on how to achieve greater security for all transatlantic allies.
My country is doing its share — in cash, capabilities, and commitments, with another significant increase in 2020. After all, West Germany joined NATO 65 years ago last week. Accession to the alliance meant the return into western civilisation, a mere 10 years after the end of the second world war. It allowed for German reunification and a united Europe a few decades later.
Today, NATO continues to keep our homeland safe, projects stability and provides immediate relief from unforeseen disasters such as this pandemic. Building on this proud tradition of safeguarding freedom and security for all states, the 30 sovereign members must take the next step in creating a more resilient alliance.
The writer is German defence minister and head of the Christian Democratic Union. This article was first published on the 10th of May in the Financial Times.