Nine thinkers assess the alliance’s future ahead of a historic summit.
What was NATO before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? A Cold War relic in search of a mission, a drain on Washington as it pivoted to Asia, a needless irritant to a nonthreatening Russia—or so a chorus of academic and media pundits told us. French President Emmanuel Macron, Europe’s pundit-in-chief, famously summed up the mood by calling the alliance “brain-dead.”
Countries closer to Russia knew differently, of course, and tirelessly warned their western peers that the alliance still served a vital purpose. Today, in many ways, NATO is back to its roots as a bulwark of the trans-Atlantic West against an expansionist Kremlin. Weapons are heading east, and troops are being forward-deployed. Seeking the bloc’s traditional protection, Finland has joined, Sweden is in the waiting room, and Ukraine’s path to membership will be discussed when NATO leaders meet for their annual summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, next week. All of a sudden, we’re talking about the defense-industrial complex again, tallying ammunition production and counting tanks.
But this is no return to the past, even if some might be nostalgic for the sense of unity and purpose that seemed to define the West during the Cold War. Having brought that epic contest to a peaceful close without a major conflagration arguably made NATO the most successful military alliance in history. Today, however, the bloc operates in a very different world, where Moscow is just one challenge of many. As allies of Russia, China and Iran now impact European security directly; NATO, in turn, is eyeing new threats to the east.