This Time, NATO is in Trouble for Real

When any institution—a university, a corporation, a think tank, or even a married couple—reaches its 75th anniversary, you can expect to hear its supporters offer up a rose-colored litany of its accomplishments, virtues, and remarkable longevity. The NATO summit in Washington will be no exception: There are bound to be plenty of speeches celebrating the alliance’s past achievements and extolling its role as the cornerstone of trans-Atlantic relations.

Yet one cannot ignore the dark clouds casting ominous shadows over NATO’s upcoming love fest. Donald Trump is an even-money bet to return as U.S. president in 2025, the far-right National Rally is now the most powerful political movement in France, Hungary’s Viktor Orban remains a disruptive force, and Europeans and Americans are divided over the Israel-Hamas war, China, the regulation of digital technologies, and the best way to help an increasingly beleaguered Ukraine.

Some observers might say this is nothing new. The alliance has faced serious crises throughout its history, and reports of its impending demise (including my own) have always turned out to be premature. The 1956 Suez crisis was a serious rift, and so was the Vietnam War. Disputes over military doctrine (and especially the role of nuclear weapons) strained the alliance throughout the Cold War (remember the Euromissiles controversy?) and intra-alliance discord was apparent during the 1999 war over Kosovo. Germany and France openly opposed the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, and every U.S. president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Trump has complained—sometimes bitterly—about Europe’s tendency to free-ride on U.S. protection. Maybe today’s troubles are just more of the same, and everyone should start planning for another big birthday celebration in 2029.

This view should not be casually dismissed. Once created, institutions often endure long after the circumstances in which they were formed have vanished, which is why Britain and France are still permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. NATO’s persistence is reinforced by a large and well-established bureaucracy in Brussels and a supportive penumbra of former officials, pro-Atlanticist pundits, and well-funded think tanks that defend it at every turn. Given the breadth of elite support, it’s a safe bet that next week’s summit won’t be NATO’s last.