National Opinions

OPINION: Rumors of NATO’s ‘brain death’ were greatly exaggerated

Reports of NATO’s “brain death” were greatly exaggerated, it turns out. That was the memorable diagnosis French President Emmanuel Macron offered for the trans-Atlantic alliance in 2019. But as the 30 allies — and two future ones — powwow in Madrid this week, an updated health check suggests the exact opposite appraisal.

Far from comatose, NATO is today more vital and vigorous than it’s been since the height of the Cold War. It remains the greatest guarantor of security in the West and the entire free world. It is without doubt the most successful alliance in history.

When Macron was speaking off the cuff in 2019 — a time so recent in years and yet so distant in events — the allies had a lot to worry about. One concern was a U.S. president, Donald Trump, who disdained America’s partners and cast doubt on NATO’s theretofore sacrosanct mutual defense clause, and thereby its power to deter aggression.

Another worry was NATO’s mission drift. The original threat — from the Soviet Union between 1949 and 1991, Russia thereafter — appeared to wane. China and climate change weren’t on the official list of adversaries yet. The case for “out of area” operations — from the Balkans to the Horn of Africa — had often been flimsy.

The credit for curing this identity crisis belongs, of course, to Russian President Vladimir Putin. By becoming exactly the kind of threat NATO was founded to defend against, he proved his erstwhile appeasers wrong and the Cassandras right. Putin’s attack on Ukraine this year has been so brutal, irrational and inhumane that all allies have remembered NATO’s raison d’etre: deterrence of Russia, and — if it comes to that — defensive war against it.

The immediate outcome of the Madrid summit will therefore be the refortification of NATO’s entire eastern front facing Russia and its accomplice, Belarus. Its members will also increase their military spending. That includes, at long last, Germany.

Above all, the alliance will expand, by adding two militarily strong and geographically strategic members: Finland and Sweden. Both countries long prided themselves on their neutrality, but now want the safety of NATO’s Article 5 — an attack on one is an attack on all. In return, they can help turn the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake, the better to defend the most exposed allies — Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The backstory to this Scandinavian enlargement highlights another difference between 2019 and 2022. It is that NATO once again, as during the Cold War, benefits from American leadership.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, had been blocking the accession of Finland and Sweden, accusing both of coddling Kurdish groups he considers terrorists. In exhausting negotiations between the three countries, Turkey has now extracted enough concessions from the Nordics for Erdogan to drop his veto. Sweden and Finland will apparently clamp down on Kurdish organizations, but without sacrificing the rule of law in individual cases.

The decisive nudge appears to have come from President Joe Biden, who gave his Turkish counterpart a good talking to. Biden is loath to reward autocrats — and that’s what Erdogan is nowadays — with one-on-one time. But this week Biden reminded Erdogan of the bigger geostrategic picture, while publicly keeping his role deliberately below the radar. This is the opposite of the approach taken by Trump, who relished causing discord at maximum volume.

The allies won’t be able to resolve all vexing questions this week. It’s far from clear how they should deal with China, a potential adversary in the future, or climate change, the meta-problem that will cause countless conflicts to come. Nor is it obvious how exactly NATO and the European Union, which is also trying to strengthen its internal military cooperation, should overlap. Above all, NATO must — in secrecy — war-game the worst scenario: What if Putin uses nuclear weapons?

That said, the alliance deserves accolades. It is containing the kind of aggressor it was built for, and thereby keeping its allies as safe as they can be. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, said it best. Putin wanted less NATO; instead, he’s getting more of it. Good.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.” This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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