NATO is starting to show its age. It’s time for reform | Opinion

Starting Tuesday, NATO leaders will convene in the great halls of Washington to mark the 75th anniversary of the most powerful military alliance in modern history. Yet the celebratory mood may be overshadowed by a stark reality: NATO is a shadow of its Cold War self. The war in Ukraine, while an opportunity for a kind of NATO renewal in terms of purpose, capabilities and even membership with the addition of Finland and Sweden, has also highlighted the alliance’s limitations. As NATO convenes in Washington, a deep question hangs in the air: Can this relic of a bipolar world adapt to the fractured geopolitics of the 21st century, or will it crumble, a monument to a bygone era?

European critics point to NATO’s excessive reliance on American muscle. This imbalance is a direct result of Europe’s bloodless investment in the alliance, which has left the US shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility. After the demise of the Soviet Union, NATO’s main adversary disappeared. The brutal Balkan Wars of the 1990s exposed a stark difference between American decisiveness and European hesitation. The US led the charge in building a powerful NATO intervention force. Between troop deployment, air power and logistical support, the US made the dominant contribution to the operation in the Balkans, a region strategically important to European stability. Although European allies participated, their contributions were considerably smaller.

The 2011 intervention in Libya is another striking example of NATO’s reliance on US military power. The initial goal was to enforce a no-fly zone and protect civilians during the Libyan civil war. However, the operation, which was intended to demonstrate European military leadership, quickly revealed significant gaps in European defense capabilities. The US had to step in to provide critical assets, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as aerial refueling. Even after the US withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, and despite initial interest in staying, many NATO allies lacked the logistical backbone, air power and infrastructure to conduct operations independently.

During the Cold War, average defense spending in European countries fell significantly, from just over 3 percent of GDP to just 1.5 percent in 2022. However, the recent resurgence of the Russian threat has not shaken Europe awake. European fears about the US focus on defense spending are merely a product of Washington’s partisanship and are misplaced. Regardless of who sits in the Oval Office, China will remain one of the greatest concerns for US national security. As Washington prioritizes China in its global strategy, European countries must face a critical reality: increasing defense spending and taking a more active role in their own security is no longer optional; it is essential.

Europe’s shortcomings within NATO are undeniable and require examination. However, the US cannot shirk its responsibility to the alliance. Washington’s ambitious vision for a global, one-size-fits-all NATO that treats Europe and the Indo-Pacific as a single theater raises serious concerns. First, it risks distracting from core European security concerns. It also exacerbates existing divisions among transatlantic allies. There is no consensus on how best to deal with China, let alone a potential Taiwan contingent. Moreover, European capabilities are insufficient to meaningfully contribute to a US-led defense of Taiwan in a conflict scenario.

NATO summit
WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 9: Heads of state pose for a group photo during NATO’s 75th anniversary celebration at Andrew Mellon Auditorium on July 9, 2024 in Washington, DC. NATO leaders gather…

Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Any attempt to expand NATO into a global collective security system faces significant obstacles. During the Cold War, a more united NATO, bound by shared social, cultural, economic and demographic factors, thrived against a clear and unique threat: the Soviet Union. But as the alliance grew and the global order transformed, the drive to transform NATO into a global collective security system risks undermining its core mission.

While its core mission of collective defense has remained unchanged, the alliance itself has undergone a dramatic transformation since its inception. Originally a group of 12 countries, it has grown to 32 members through nine rounds of enlargement, most notably by incorporating former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania.

This growth has exposed a critical flaw in NATO’s decision-making process: the requirement for unanimous consent. The 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, which established NATO, requires unanimous consent for new members and all major decisions. Because of this provision, a single member can delay action, even during a potential attack. This outdated principle, originally designed for a much smaller alliance, now threatens to render NATO impotent in the face of 21st-century threats. A radical solution may be the only way forward. A shift to majority voting for major decisions could break the impasse and allow NATO to act with the necessary decisiveness. A revitalized NATO, capable of quickly invoking Article 5 in a crisis, is essential to deter potential aggressors and ensure the security of its member states.

A “burden-sharing” conversation should not be presented as anti-European. European allies should signal their commitment to collective defense in Europe. This does not detract from the value of the US role, but it does recognize that in the long term a healthy NATO requires a more self-sufficient Europe—and we are a long way from that. There should be recognition in Washington of the inherent limitations of a one-size-fits-all alliance that spans every global conflict. The US must understand that NATO cannot be Washington’s tool for every challenge, from the War on Terror to China. And most importantly, with an expanded NATO facing a potentially more audacious Russia in Ukraine, a consensus-based decision-making process may not be the right choice at this critical juncture for European security.

Mohammed Soliman is a director at the Middle East Institute, a member of McLarty Associates, and a visiting professor at Third Way. On X: @ThisIsSoliman

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.