"It's good to have friends" – Report from NATO Engages: The Alliance at 70

On April 3, nearly seventy years to the day after the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Munich Security Conference, the Atlantic Council, and the German Marshall Fund hosted "NATO Engages: The Alliance at 70" in Washington, DC. Next to high-ranking leaders from Alliance members and beyond, the summit involved next-generation decision-makers in a discussion on NATO’s future as it grapples with emerging threats and geopolitical uncertainty.

Jens Stoltenberg speaks at "NATO Engages" (Photo: MSC / Kuhlmann)

As this spring marked the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Washington Treaty, the founding document of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the NATO Ministerial convened Alliance foreign ministers in Washington, DC at a critical juncture for the Alliance and the transatlantic community as a whole. On the day before the Ministerial, "NATO Engages: The Alliance at 70" – co-hosted by the Munich Security Conference, the Atlantic Council and the German Marshall Fund – took stock of the Alliance's achievements over the past seven decades. However, it also raised the issue of significant new challenges facing NATO – from outside its borders, from entirely new developments in the international security environment, as well as from within the Alliance. In a town hall-style format, "NATO Engages" aimed to facilitate an intense discussion among high-ranking decision-makers as well as a diverse range of next-generation leaders and experts.

The discussions during the summit shed light on the many accomplishments and uniting aspects of the alliance. But they also showed where there is disagreement and sometimes friction between NATO partners. Several testimonials during "storytelling" interludes underlined how NATO changed individual life-stories for the better and how the alliance can be a guarantor of security. Among the stories shared were the experiences of a NATO fighter pilot, a young Afghan-American and a 9/11 survivor who thanked the allies for their support when calling out Article 5. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s address to Congress held on the day of the summit also ended on the same note when summing up the essence of the alliance: "It is good to have friends". Not only was Stoltenberg the first NATO secretary general to address the US Congress, but he was also greeted by standing ovations. Seldom was the bipartisan support for the alliance so clear and visible. That it is "good to have friends" was also highlighted in the words of Nikola Dimitrov, foreign minister of the NATO accession country North Macedonia. He pointed out that his country was glad to become a member of NATO. Dimitrov also reminded the members of the alliance of their duties: "We know that outside NATO, it's cold (…) You walk alone. So I think in countries on the inside, there is a complacency."

In a similar fashion Stoltenberg reminded the audience that despite of 70 years of the alliance’s proven success, members should not overlook that the strength of the partnership is being cast into doubt. Two issues which highlighted the differing opinions among NATO partners stood out in particular. One dealt with the question of burden sharing, the other with Turkeys planned acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system. US Vice President Mike Pence touched on both of these issues in his speech. He singled out Germany among the allies when reminding the German government about its 2% commitment and that "it has to do more on defense spending". German foreign minister Heiko Maas later responded to this statement by pointing out that Germany was indeed gradually increasing its defense budget and intended to keep its commitment. Maas also stressed Germany's numerous commitments in NATO, ranging from troops in Afghanistan to its leading role in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence on its Eastern flank.

Concerning Turkeys role in NATO, Mike Pence gave a stark answer to Turkeys foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu who stated earlier during the conference that the procurement of the S-400 system "is a done deal – we will not step back from this". Pence made clear that Turkey risks the expulsion from the F35 programme if it stays on its course on the procurement process.

It became clear throughout the day that while the alliance is discussing its internal issues, the world outside is not standing still and global tensions are rising. Both Mike Pence and Heiko Maas pointed out the challenges for the alliance coming from a more assertive Russia and China as a rising global power. During a discussion on the impact of innovation on NATO, Lindsay Gorman of the German Marshall Fund gave a bleak outlook of the alliance preparedness: "There will be a cat and mouse game we are not prepared for. NATO isn't ready because we are not ready." Thus after 70 years there is still a lot to be done for the alliance – both concerning its internal cohesion as well as in preparing for external challenges.

Further Information
To see the full agenda as well as for more information on the consortium behind NATO Engages, go to nato-engages.org. You can re-watch recordings of all of every session from NATO Engages here. A selection of photos from the event is available in our media library.

For more on the topic of the transatlantic alliance and European defence, see the summary of our Roundtable on European Defence, which was held in Brussels also on the eve of the NATO Summit, as well as our report "More European, More Connected and More Capable: Building the European Armed Forces of the Future".

05 April 2019, by MSC