Om NATOs framtid

av Paul J. Saunders, Center for the National Interest

NATO’s newest members, Finland and Sweden, bring important capabilities—and valuable geography—to the alliance as it contends with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their historic admission brings all Scandinavian countries inside the alliance (echoing their common foreign policies during the long-past Kalmar Union), overturns Sweden’s long-standing neutrality, and firmly moves Finland, a contested territory for centuries, inside the West’s security system. Notwithstanding prior close coordination, this is a new era. It will require some new thinking. 

NATO’s task remains to ensure North Atlantic security, as it has been in the past, yet alliance members have yet to decide exactly what this means in today’s world. Indeed, for the last three decades, NATO members have arguably been more preoccupied with the group’s size than its purpose. “Protecting Europe from Russia” is a convenient answer, but far too simple. Considering NATO’s mission more seriously will raise many questions, however, and it is not clear that all member governments will have the same answers.

During the Cold War, NATO did not operate “out of area.” This changed during the 1990s when, despite some reluctance, the alliance assumed a significant role in managing Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration. In 2001, NATO historically invoked Article Five of the Washington Treaty—collective self-defense—following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States to support America’s intervention in Afghanistan, even further away. In parallel, NATO added three members in 1999 and seven in 2004, increasing from sixteen to twenty-six members. 

Today, the thirty-two-member alliance is deeply engaged in assisting Ukraine in resisting Russia’s invasion even as the United States and some others push, so far unsuccessfully, for a NATO liaison office in Tokyo. Though Washington is increasingly attentive to potential threats from China, these possible dangers are less compelling for many of its NATO allies. Meanwhile, one U.S. ally in Asia, South Korea, has won arms contracts to supply Poland, Finland, Norway, and Estonia, as Europe’s defense industries struggle to meet growing demand at home amid concerns about Russia. This is perhaps a more concrete connection between Europe and Asia than a small NATO office. 

These dynamics highlight profound questions for NATO and its members—

  1. How do NATO allies define success in Ukraine? Do NATO’s means align with its ends? If so, when and how will NATO succeed? If not, what adjustments will allies make to ensure this alignment? Will NATO adjust means, ends, or both?
  2. Setting aside Ukraine, what should NATO and its members do to deter Russia and to prepare to defeat Russia if attacked? Do NATO member governments have a shared understanding of deterrence and how strengthen it? Beyond attacking a NATO member state, what Russian behavior can and should NATO deter?
  3. Is China a threat to North Atlantic security? If so, what will NATO do to address this challenge? If not, how do America’s allies expect the United States to balance its forces, planning, and procurement between Europe and Asia? What implications might this have for America’s allies in Europe and for their ability to deter and, if necessary, to defeat Russia?
  4. Similarly, is Chinese trade and investment activity a threat to North Atlantic national security and/or economic security? If so, in which sectors and to what extent? How should NATO allies manage this challenge when firms in allied countries are also commercial competitors with one another? How should they balance economic opportunity and risk?
  5. Finally, should NATO continue to add new members? The list of prospective members in the North Atlantic region has become quite small. What should be NATO membership requirements? Should NATO admit Ukraine and Georgia? If so, with what borders and at what cost? If not, with what consequences?

These are big questions with few easy answers. Yet NATO will have a hard time succeeding in its core mission without building consensus around its responses. Finland and Sweden—and other Nordic nations—will be critical to this process. This is in no small part due to their location in the Baltic region, home to some of NATO’s most vulnerable members, and their adjacency to Arctic waters, long a bastion for Russia’s nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines. Isolated Iceland, astride the gateway to the North Atlantic, will be essential too. If aligned as a group, these five countries could have substantial impact on NATO deliberations, something that would only heighten their importance to the United States.