All eyes were on NATO last week as the leaders of its member nations gathered in Lithuania to discuss key issues, including their response to Russia’s war on Ukraine. This marked a significant – positive – change in the status of the 74-year-old organization.
Only a few years ago, critics called NATO an institution that had served its purpose. The Soviet Union, his old sworn enemy, had collapsed. Donald Trump, as president, criticized NATO allies for not carrying their weight and reportedly threatened to pull the US out of the alliance. French President Emmanuel Macron famously remarked that NATO was “brain dead”.
But everything changed on February 24, 2022, when Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops to Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, writing recently in Foreign Affairs, called the invasion “a turning point in history”. From now on, the relevance of NATO was not in doubt.
The alliance served as a framework for nations to oppose Russian expansionism, and the United States played a leadership role. Although Ukraine is not yet a NATO member, it is seeing a revitalized alliance and deepening Western cooperation, as the Wall Street Journal notes.
At the summit in Lithuania, NATO members agreed on what Stoltenberg called a “solid package” of support for Ukraine, including a multi-year plan to build up the Ukrainian military, the establishment of a NATO-Ukraine Council to consult on issues, and a path for Ukraine to become a NATO member. President Joe Biden, in a speech at the end of the summit, hailed NATO unity and said Putin was “taking a bad bet” doubting his ability to stay.
NATO was created in 1949, in response to the devastation of Europe caused by World War II. An estimated 36.5 million Europeans were killed and millions were displaced. There was a real fear that national rivalries would reassert themselves and another war would break out. The Soviet Union was an obvious threat.
The NATO treaty bound the original 12 nations to mutual self-defense, stating that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all. The pact deterred Soviet aggression and did so without war. NATO has rightly been called the largest and most successful military alliance in history.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO focused on terrorism, ethnic violence and civil war. It has grown to include dozens of nations, including several former Soviet republics. But under Putin, Russia has stepped up its aggression, fighting with separatists from the Republic of Georgia and Chechnya and annexing parts of Ukraine, including Crimea, in 2014. When Russian troops entered Ukraine last year, a line was crossed.
More and more countries asked for NATO membership and the security it would bring. Finland, a former non-aligned state that shares an 830-mile border with Russia, became the 31st member this year. Sweden will soon become No.32 now that Turkey have dropped their objections.
Ukraine, for obvious reasons, also wants to join. Looking ahead to last week’s summit, Zelensky expressed impatience and said NATO’s membership criteria were vague and “absurd”. But with the promise in Lithuania of more support, he seemed satisfied.
NATO has worked hard to project unity. It can be difficult to maintain. Europe relied on Russia and Ukraine for energy and food, and the war had economic consequences. Some NATO countries, especially those in Russia’s shadow, were ready to admit Ukraine to membership now. The United States and other members have been cautious, fearing Ukraine’s admission could spark a wider conflict with Russia.
This kind of disagreement between friends is normal in any great alliance. What is important is that NATO members work through them and remain focused on our common interests. A strong and unified NATO has been making the world safer for nearly 75 years. We have to work for it to continue to do so.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives for 34 years.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: The status of NATO has changed for the better in recent years.