Transatlantic Take

NATO in 2020: Retirement or Revival?

Michal Baranowski
Dominik P. Jankowski
7 min read
Photo Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock
This year was supposed to be the occasion for a big birthday party for NATO. For seven decades the alliance has defended its values and principles while guaranteeing peace and prosperity and projecting stability.

This year was supposed to be the occasion for a big birthday party for NATO. For seven decades the alliance has defended its values and principles while guaranteeing peace and prosperity and projecting stability. Unfortunately, the birthday celebrations have not gone as planned. At every party you have those who came to have a good time and those who joined mainly to criticize the host. NATO’s birthday party has not been different. Some voices have started to suggest that it is time for the alliance to retire and that the leaders meeting in London might be the first nail in NATO’s coffin.

In fact, this is not the first time that this idea has been voiced. The alliance has successfully survived also thanks to the fact that the secret of a good NATO meeting is to discuss old things in a new way or new things in an old way. This week’s leaders meeting will not differ. In fact, it will confirm the politico-military substance of the alliance, which is its true glue. On numerous occasions, this has proven to be more important than fiery speeches and critical comments.

Progress in 2019

In retrospect 2019 has been rich in key politico-military deliverables that enhance transatlantic security. Three are of particular importance as they helped to forge transatlantic unity and cohesion within NATO.

First, after the demise of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty NATO has speeded up its process of a military adaptation to respond to the increased diversity and size of Russia’s intermediate-range arsenal.

"This week’s leaders meeting will confirm the politico-military substance of the alliance, which is its true glue."

The illegally developed, tested, and fielded SSC-8 system exacerbates threats posed by Russian precision-strike and nuclear capabilities, including that of a surprise attack. Russia sees such mobile ground launchers as a cheap addition to its air and maritime platforms. Ground platforms are also more difficult to detect, track, and destroy. They are flexible to deploy. They offer better coverage of the whole of Europe, making it easier for Russia to impede the movement of allied forces. This adds to other anti-access/area denial systems, such as air defenses and shorter-range strike systems, that already cover large parts of NATO territories in the direct vicinity of Russia.

NATO’s upgrade of its deterrence posture will be comprehensive so as to tackle the evolving character of this threat. The alliance will focus on the capabilities that may be useful for a range of contingencies, such as air- and sea-launched missiles and/or air and missile defense assets.

Second, with China on everyone’s mind, NATO is engaged in discussions on securing the fifth-generation wireless communication networks. Allies agreed to update the baseline requirement for civilian telecommunications, which provides a benchmark for them to deliver reliable communications systems in peacetime, crisis, and conflict. NATO members should possess robust options to restore systems in case of disruption or outage, and assure priority access for national authorities to communications networks in a crisis. The baseline requirement also guides allies on how to develop risk-management plans and mitigation measures. NATO members should conduct a thorough assessment of the risks to communications systems associated with cyber threats, as well as the consequences of foreign ownership, control, or direct investment.

Third, NATO has recognized space as a new operational domain, alongside air, land, sea, and cyber-space. Space is essential to its credible deterrence and defense posture. The goal is to enable the alliance to strengthen its situational awareness of and ensure that operations receive the necessary support from national space capabilities. In fact, without reliable control over assets in space, allies will have limited ability to track forces or detect missile launches.

Looking Ahead

Nonetheless NATO still has some vital work to do to further strengthen the credibility of its deterrence and defense posture. In 2020, it should concentrate on three key topics.

First, NATO has achieved a lot in countering hybrid threats, including through enhancing resilience and developing greater civil preparedness, but more is needed. This year saw counter-hybrid support teams—a dedicated instrument to help allies under a hybrid attack – became fully operational. Yet, the political and military elements of countering hybrid threats need further refinement. Politically, NATO should more broadly look into creating strategic dilemmas for adversaries to limit their willingness to escalate tensions, including by using hybrid warfare tools. This will add credibility to its deterrence posture, especially in the early phases of a hybrid crisis. Moreover, NATO needs to look at how military instruments can contribute to deterring and defending against hybrid actions. The establishment of dedicated military-led advisory teams has been a step in the right direction.

"The London meeting will also have to address the increasingly yawning gaps and political differences among key allies."

Second, NATO’s deterrence and defense has always relied upon maintaining a technological edge, but it is now confronted with emerging and disruptive technologies. The pace of technological development and increased pressure from strategic competitors, including China, put additional burdens on NATO. Artificial intelligence, big data, hypersonic missiles or 3D printing will impact its ability to deter and defend. Yet, emerging and disruptive technologies also offer an opportunity for NATO, especially in the context of burden-sharing. Coping effectively with new technologies will also require additional investment in defense. This could help numerous allies increase their defense budgets toward the agreed goal of 2 percent of GDP. 

Finally, developments in the energy sphere can have significant security implications for NATO. A swift and uninterrupted access to fuel, independent from Russian sources, is an important element contributing to the credibility of the alliance’s military posture. And the increased NATO deployment on its eastern flank is leading to a growing demand for fuel. Building a sustainable fuel supply chain remains a work in progress, however. Extending the NATO Pipeline System, providing fuel transport and storage means, to the eastern flank should be closely examined.

The United States Question

The London meeting will also have to address the increasingly yawning gaps and political differences among key allies. Turkey, China, Syria, and Russia are just some of the key issues that NATO will have to begin to address to maintain not only its military cohesion, but also its political ones. And underneath these political splits lies the biggest question of all—whether or not the United States will remain a European power given the systemic competition between it and China in all spheres.

The answer to this question splits the European members of NATO. President Emmanuel Macron’s view that NATO is “brain-dead” comes from a growing consensus in France that over time the United States will cease to be a European power. Therefore, Europe should fix its relations with Russia, engage with China, and build European strategic autonomy. Those who agree with Macron view his recent interview in The Economist as stating something that is clear to everyone who chooses to see.

Germany has not made up its mind—some describe its position as strategic patience, others as strategic inertia. The defense of NATO from across the country’s political establishment following Macron’s words shows that for now Germany understand that there is no good alternative to the United States for European security. The hope in Berlin is that the damage that President Donald Trump done to the transatlantic alliance can be fixed after he leaves office. It remains to be seen whether this calculation will change if there is a second term for Trump

Poland has clearly chosen strategic embrace of the United States. Some would say that this is based on the “look at the deeds, not the tweets” school of thought; other that it comes from denial. The consensus in Warsaw is that the United States can continue to be simultaneously a European and an Asian power, but also that Europe will have to do more for its own defense. This recognizes positive developments such as increasing the number of U.S. forces in Europe (including in Poland to 5,500 in coming year) and spending on the European Deterrence Initiative. At the same time, the consensus in Washington behind European engagement—even if sometimes the occupant of the Oval Office questions this.

What unites France, Germany, and Poland is the fact that Europeans have to increase their military capabilities and take more responsibility for Europe’s security. Whether one focuses on the 2 percent of GDP target or the Cash, Capabilities, and Contribution metric, and whether one thinks that the United States will remain a European power or not, the next step to looks the same: more European capabilities.

Therefore, the next year will be a busy one for NATO and the beginning of a crucial decade. Retirement is not an option for the alliance. In fact, the key to its survival will be ambidexterity, or being able both to explore and exploit opportunity. The leaders meeting in London offers the chance to make a start on this path.


Dominik P. Jankowski is political adviser and head of the political section at the Permanent Delegation of the Republic of Poland to NATO and a 2012 alumnus of GMF's Marshall Memorial Fellowship.