When visitors come to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) Headquarters in Brussels, one thing that stands out is the powerful 9/11 Memorial that commemorates the only time in the alliance’s history that it invoked Article 5, in solidarity with the United States. When NATO was formed in 1949, many hoped—but few imagined—it would become the most successful alliance in history and a pillar of strategic defense for our democracies and shared values.
NATO is not just a marriage of convenience—it represents a lasting relationship of almost 72 years that cannot be replicated. Our adversaries, including Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, have nothing like it. In recent years, however, there have been some cracks in the marriage that require attention by governments on both sides of the Atlantic. The United States has been right to remind other alliance members of their obligation to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. That message has not always been well received, but it is important for all members to shoulder their fair share of the burden. On the other hand, unilateral U.S. decisions to reduce troop levels or headquarters elements in Europe, Afghanistan, and Iraq have reduced our allies’ and partners’ confidence in the U.S. commitment to the marriage.
The key to NATO’s success—like any successful relationship—is that it grows and adapts to new circumstances. NATO has adapted and evolved to counter emerging threats from new authoritarian regimes and violent extremist organizations who seek to destabilize free, democratic societies and terrorize their populations. But new threats are looming on the horizon, and without careful reexamination and staunch recommitment, NATO could be unprepared to tackle emerging challenges in domains like cyber and space.
In fact, the NATO 2030 report warns that our adversaries—including Russia, China, Iran, and violent extremist organizations—are ramping up the speed and frequency of their attacks, influence campaigns, and technological competition. Take Russia, for instance, which has used a conventional troop build-up in Crimea and waged disinformation and malign influence campaigns in Georgia, the United States , and the Western Balkans to polarize democratic societies and spread anti-NATO, anti-EU, and “us versus them” narratives. China has waged influence and disinformation campaigns in both Europe and Africa during the COVID pandemic. Beijing has also promoted digital authoritarianism, used military exercises to cow its neighbors, and economic and technological espionage to fuel its economic and military expansion.
President-elect Joseph Biden has said, “NATO is at the very heart of the United States’ national security, and it is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal.” As his administration begins its term, there are several steps it can take to strengthen the alliance for the challenges facing it this decade.
We believe the first step is to remind the American public that NATO is their strongest and most important alliance, and it will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States in time of need. The new president should attend the 2021 Munich Security Conference and embrace NATO in a public and vocal way. A similar message can be reinforced at the proposed Summit for Democracies and the next NATO Summit.
Second, the Biden Administration must work with NATO in the global COVID response. The COVID-19 pandemic is a national security issue, and NATO has stepped up to provide military airlift, set up field hospitals, share medical expertise, and provide personal protective equipment. But stronger collaboration with the United States, including the dissemination of the vaccine, is needed. Strengthening our collective response to COVID will save lives. COVID represents a clear and present danger to the national security, health, and welfare of every NATO country, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Third, given its commitment to diversity and inclusion, the Biden Administration can join NATO’s call to strengthen women, peace, and security. Together, the Alliance can work on a joint agenda to ensure women are integrated and treated fairly at every level of civilian and military life.
Fourth, the Biden Administration must work aggressively with NATO to counter the threats posed by disinformation, cyberattacks, technological competition, digital authoritarianism, and election interference. As a start, the new administration should lead an effort to establish and agree on a set of norms that all NATO members must follow to work together to address these challenges. As part of this line of effort, the Biden Administration could work with NATO to establish Article 5 red lines when a member nation is attacked in cyberspace or another nation interferes in its elections. Furthermore, the new Pentagon leaders will need to work closely with NATO to address technological competition. Technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning present enormous opportunities to strengthen our collective security and democracies. Yet, our competitors and adversaries such as China and Russia are forging ahead and using these technologies to spread disinformation, suppress populations, and carry out attacks in cyberspace. Strong commitments and investments in the NATO Strategic Communication Centre of Excellence and Cooperative Cyber Defence Center of Excellence will allow us to better counter foreign disinformation and cyber campaigns. Most important, resilient societies make for strong democracies that are capable of withstanding external interference from adversaries and competitors. As such, NATO should adapt the NATO 2030 report recommendation and stand up a Center of Excellence for Democratic resilience to prevent the kind of democratic backsliding we have been witnessing on both sides of the Atlantic.
Finally, the new president should maintain U.S. troop presence in Europe and Africa. Intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities increase information sharing, and U.S. missile defense is critical to alliance security. Similarly, the United States should work with NATO to maintain a presence in Africa, to support peacekeeping operations and thwart attacks from violent extremist organizations and state-sponsored malign influence and disinformation campaigns. This includes supporting the NATO Strategic Direction South Hub Initiative, which can serve as an example for other cross-regional NATO initiatives moving forward. Headquartered in Naples, Italy, the Hub complements the Trans-Atlantic Bridge by building new bridges between Europe, Africa, and the Middle East through coordination, communication, and collaboration to address emerging stability and security threats in Africa.
NATO stood with the United States in our time of need after 9/11 because the alliance was fit for purpose and prepared to meet emerging challenges. President-elect Biden must renew, reinvigorate, and strengthen NATO, so that when America and the world need it most, the oldest and most capable security alliance in the world is ready to respond.