After 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) largely succeeded in its mission to protect democratic Europe by keeping “the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” in the words of its first Secretary General. Russia has never invaded a NATO member, the US has guaranteed alliance security for almost 75 years, and Germany was so successfully kept down that its current generation of leaders struggled to embrace the idea of hard power, even when full-scale war returned to the continent.
Russia’s brazen and brutal invasion of Ukraine, however, has thrown a spotlight on NATO’s strategic and structural weaknesses. Even after years of Russian hybrid warfare and election interference against NATO member states, military aggression and expansionism in Georgia and Ukraine, and now a full-scale war and attempted genocide, it has been unable to reach a consensus on the threat Russia poses and how it should be addressed.
This strategic indecision was on full display at July’s Vilnius summit, where the alliance agreed to a compromise statement promising that Ukraine would join when “conditions are met” (its application to join was accepted at the Bucharest summit 15 years ago). In recent weeks, Russian attacks on Ukrainian grain storage depots and export infrastructure have intensified virtually under NATO’s nose, destabilizing food prices and threatening the lives of millions of vulnerable people across the world. Nearly a quarter of the way through the 21st century, member states must ask themselves: what is NATO’s purpose, and what must be done to fulfill it?