April 4 marks the 70th anniversary of the world’s most successful political-military alliance – the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). On the heels of the Soviet blockade of Berlin and the West’s airlift, NATO’s initial 12 members founded the alliance to confront the Soviet Union’s emerging challenges to peace and prosperity. That foe was defeated, but NATO remains necessary to maintain a peaceful world order. It has defended the United States in Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, helped to end genocides in the Balkans, combatted the scourge of piracy in the Red Sea, and maintained a period of unprecedented peace among the major European powers.
NATO membership has proven not only to be a military success but a political and economic one. NATO’s security umbrella helped create and maintain the conditions in which the European Coal and Steel Community could be born and grow into the European Union. In the 1990s and 2000s, countries newly freed from the Soviet yoke turned to NATO for military protection; their membership in NATO has guaranteed their stability, safeguarded their nascent democracies, and thus fostered an environment favorable for investment and economic growth. To be eligible for accession to NATO in 1999, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic had to demonstrate their progress towards implementing market-based economies; all three are now key investment targets for U.S. and NATO allies, creating jobs both at home and abroad.
In return, the United States has benefited enormously from the peace and stability that NATO’s strength has created in Europe and North America. Nations like Canada, the United Kingdom, and France are among the biggest investors in the United States, creating jobs for Americans. The NATO alliance has also allowed the United States to build and maintain a forward deployed military presence in Europe: troops going to Iraq transit through Ireland; soldiers injured in Afghanistan are evacuated to Germany; and anti-terrorist operations in Africa are supported from U.S. bases in Italy. We have been able to confront ISIS and Al-Qaeda, only with the help of our NATO allies, who host 28 U.S. operating bases throughout Europe, and have contributed hundreds of thousands of troops to U.S.-led missions in Afghanistan since 2002.
As nations with authoritarian ideologies and imperial tendencies increasingly look to secure power and influence on the world stage, the original commitment by all NATO allies to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of [its] peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law” remains the glue that binds the Alliance together. But these values cannot be defended by passion and rhetoric alone. NATO must continue to adapt to new challenges and maintain readiness across the alliance.
All NATO allies must put their words into actions and ensure that they meet the 2 percent pledge. Luckily, NATO nations understand the growing threats facing the transatlantic community. Like Congress, they have stepped up to meet these challenges. Allies have halted defense spending cuts and increased investments in NATO by $41 billion. This increase is expected to reach $100 billion in 2020. In addition, critical new NATO commands are forming in Germany and the United States, and capabilities to counter hybrid threats and terrorism are rapidly developing.
Later this year, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote to ratify the accession of NATO’s 30th member, North Macedonia, an addition intended to occur in 2008, when Croatia and Albania joined. A recent courageous political agreement between North Macedonia and Greece over the former’s official name has finally cleared the way for NATO to complete this unfinished business. We look forward to welcoming North Macedonia into NATO, and to growing our community of democracies.
Some critics say NATO is past its prime and may even be a drain on U.S. national security, but this could not be further from the truth. The reality is that NATO remains critical to defending U.S. interests around the world. Certainly, NATO faces internal challenges, like generating sizable forces quickly or having the logistical support necessary to move rapidly, and policy disagreements among members. By remaining focused on strengthening the Alliance, however, Europe and North America can best prepare NATO against long-term threats like those emanating from China, the Kremlin and terrorist organizations.
It is against this backdrop that the United States must reaffirm its commitment to NATO and the deep transatlantic alliance that it produced. But our allies must also remember that the relationship is a two-way street, one that demands robust financial investment and a political will to defend the values the Alliance was founded on 70 years ago.
Risch is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Shaheen is ranking member of the Subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation.