Last week Finland became the thirty-first member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a remarkable break from the Nordic country’s history of neutrality. The admission of Finland’s close partner and other neutral Scandinavian country, Sweden, has been held up by NATO members Hungary and Turkey. However, there is a good chance that Sweden too will join the alliance within the next year. In addition to its enlargement, NATO has become much more relevant to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area, and it will likely remain that way for years to come. NATO has a new strategy, its member states have raised their defense spending, and NATO has become more active operationally given Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine last February. An alliance which had its utility questioned over the last twenty years has seen its core purpose – collective defense – imbued with new value by its member states.
With the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, many analysts and politicians in NATO member states wondered whether it would or should survive. NATO member states talked about the necessity for NATO to go “out of area or out of business.” This led NATO to change its focus to being able to deploy military forces outside of Europe, and NATO eventually took on missions in Afghanistan. The alliance’s focus has now returned to its historic and core mission – deterring and defending its member states. At its summit meeting in Madrid in June 2022, NATO adopted a new strategic concept – “Deter and Defend” – which was designed as a 360-degree approach to countering threats but with a central focus on Russia’s renewed aggression in Europe. The upcoming summit in July in Vilnius, Lithuania will build on this focus by finalizing detailed military plans to make that strategic concept an operational reality. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been invited and plans to attend the summit even though Ukraine is not a NATO member, nor has it been formally invited to join. Nevertheless, his attendance signals the focus of the alliance and its seriousness.
Political statements and plans are one measure of solidarity and effectiveness for a military alliance. Another set of more lasting measures are defense budgets and military exercises and operations. In both of those categories, NATO and its current (and likely future in Sweden’s case) member states have demonstrated seriousness of purpose particularly in the past year plus. All NATO states have committed to spending two percent of their GDP on defense, and many more are now on track to meet or exceed this level in the near future. This includes a significant about face on the part of Germany to invest over 100 billion Euros in new defense procurement before the end of the decade including participating in the fifth generation F-35 fighter jet program. In addition, NATO operations and exercises are now much more robust in terms of size and scope. Operations, under the rubric “enhanced vigilance operations” such as Neptune Strike in the Mediterranean Sea put U.S. and other NATO nation aircraft carrier strike groups directly under NATO command and control – a significant advancement and break from decades of practice. Today’s vigilance operations are subject to much less political micromanagement by NATO’s political authorities, and the balance between the need to deter and prepare to defend is outweighing concerns about provoking Russia.
Regardless of how the war between Russia and Ukraine turns out, NATO will remain the central security organization in Europe for decades to come, having been strengthened by Russia’s rash and illegal actions and the solidarity of its member states in response.