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Is NATO 'obsolete'?

Lewis Sanders IV
February 18, 2017

Doubts concerning NATO's future have proliferated across the alliance and beyond its borders. But a common thread has woven member defense ministers' reactions to the question.

AWACS und NATO Symbole
Image: picture alliance

Near the stroke of midnight, five NATO defense ministers gathered at the Munich Security Conference to discuss whether – in US President Donald Trump's words – the transatlantic alliance was "obsolete."

First to speak, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon answered simply, but with robust clarity.

"The only answer to the question is: NATO is very important in 2017. But to remain important, NATO must act faster," Fallon said. "The alliance needs to be ready to project stability beyond its borders."

In the wake of Russia's illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula, NATO member states committed to bolstering the alliance's eastern flank, deploying battalions in a defense posture known as enhanced forward presence.

The move came under sharp criticism from Moscow, which claims it represents a provocative maneuver that posed a threat on Russia's borders.

However, Fallon did not mince his words when describing the Kremlin's strategies to undermine democracies on its periphery, in part as a response to Trump's often-provocative remarks.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev arrives at the 52nd Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, February 13, 2016
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev arrives at the 52nd Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, February 13, 2016Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Kienzle

"It's Putin, not Trump, who's deploying those missiles. It's Putin, not Trump, who's interfering in foreign democracies," Fallon said.

'Values that unite us'

But beyond the perceived threats posed by Russia's military maneuvers in the region and vulnerabilities on the alliance's southern borders, there was an essential thread that wove the defense ministers' responses to the question.

"Let us not forget that NATO is the backbone of our value system," said Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert.

But what precisely are these values?

"Democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the media, independence of the judiciary, protection of minorities: these are the values that unite us," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in September.

They represent "the fundamental values which unite so many countries across Europe," he said in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan noted that "solidarity" and "interoperability" gave the alliance its character and ability to operate in unity, while Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik said "uniting our forces is not a preference."

But instead of asking whether NATO is "obsolete," a much more compelling question raised by Sajjan was: "Where would Europe be if it weren't for NATO?"

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