NATO Is Not Brain Dead

The Alliance Is Transforming Faster Than Most People Think

Leaders at the NATO summit in London, December 2019 Han Yan / Xinhua / Eyevine / Redux

In November, French President Emmanuel Macron told The Economist that NATO so lacked direction that it was suffering “brain death.” The remark drew criticism from both European and U.S. officials, but when the leaders of NATO member states met in London on December 4, Macron’s words served as a catalyst. Indeed, as Macron said after the summit, his comments were like a giant “icebreaker,” making a lot of noise but clearing the way for the alliance to plow forward.

The alliance has much to grapple with. It must contend with a resurgent Russia, a rising China, continuing terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the imperative to keep up with advances in military technology. Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, took the occasion of the London meeting to begin a review process, in which the alliance would determine how it will confront the new realities of the twenty-first century.

The moment recalls a similar one in 1966. That year, the French “icebreaker” came from Charles de Gaulle, who withdrew France from the military command structure of NATO, claiming that obligations to NATO impinged on France’s national sovereignty. Pierre Harmel, the Belgian foreign minister, subsequently undertook a consultative review and submitted its findings to NATO’s council of ministers. The Harmel Report of 1967 produced the philosophy that would guide NATO for the next fifty years: the alliance would pursue a “two-track” approach, combining strong military deterrence with a willingness to embrace détente and dialogue with the Soviet Union.

The alliance has faced growing challenges in recent years. In 2014, NATO responded simultaneously to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and to the emergence of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by putting in place quick-response capabilities for Europe and providing airborne warning and control near Syrian air space. But to be nimble in handling today’s threats is not enough. NATO must prepare for the threats of tomorrow, when dynamics may be more complex than those between superpowers in the twentieth century. To

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