NATO’s Next Generation
A Chicago delegate to the 2012 Young Atlanticist Summit reflects "on what has held the [NATO] alliance together for more than sixty years, why it still matters, and how we—the next generation of leaders—can ensure its viability."
Ana Miyares Photography
As heads of state and ministers assembled for the largest NATO summit in history, a group of seventy-five emerging leaders from thirty-five countries held simultaneous discussions on the future of the transatlantic alliance. Over the course of three days, we considered NATO’s challenges, opportunities, and criticisms leveled against the organization. We reflected on what has held the alliance together for more than sixty years, why it still matters, and how we—the next generation of leaders—can ensure its viability.
Given the context in which NATO operates, we collectively asked if it is possible to achieve the tighter political cooperation necessary for “Smart Defense” in a time when diminished resources will require the alliance to be more selective. How can we ensure stability in Afghanistan when relations with Pakistan remain tenuous? Is the alliance still relevant in today’s world?
Our debates played out during coffee breaks, over Twitter, and in face-to-face exchanges with heads of state and foreign ministers. Some exchanges were off-the-record, while others were broadcast around the world the same day. Experts were challenged by young delegates’ bold questions and observations. Has there been an uneven application of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty? Should the intervention in Libya be considered a success, given Germany’s objections? Why we haven’t we “won” in Afghanistan?
We noted the absence of some principal players and the presence of aspiring members, who charmed us and made us champions of their cause.
Underlying everything, though, was economics. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated it simply: “You can’t be safe if you are broke.” Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel and former National Security Advisor General Jim Jones said the fundamental security of any nation is its economic strength. So what does this mean for a military alliance in a time of severe economic crisis? One answer came in an off-the-record session and evoked the spirit of NATO: when countries experience (economic) crises, it is time to help them, not “kick them out.” On the other hand, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reminded us that NATO is not a “scholarship organization.”
As if signaling its growing importance, cyber security pushed itself up on the agenda as NATO’s website was hacked during the summit. Other areas of debate included Syria, the need for the alliance to deepen engagement with the private sector, and the nature of NATO’s role in the prevention of future conflicts.
Afghanistan was a major focus of the talks. The ISAF transition to a training role and upcoming elections have made some apprehensive, but not everyone feels this way. I was told by a proud, young Fulbright scholar from Afghanistan that his country was ready to take over. When Secretary Albright was asked about this subject she recalled the country’s recent history and concluded by saying, “Afghanistan is the story of unintended consequences.”
The summit was also about renewing partnerships and deepening the bonds that have held the alliance together while acknowledging shifts in national priorities, such as the United States’ “pivot” toward Asia. We were reminded of NATO’s strengths: its ability to withstand changes of government; to survive political, economic, and even existential crises; and to flexibly form coalitions of alliance and non-alliance countries to get the job done.
In spite of the positive steps taken at NATO’s Chicago summit, many real and immediate challenges remain. The Atlantic Council’s Barry Pavel and Young Atlanticist Joshua Foust of the American Security Project noted a failure in Chicago to secure funding commitments to finance Afghanistan’s military and police forces through 2024, as well as a lack of engagement on political challenges during transition.
The summit will be memorialized by the articles of some 1,500 international reporters, in the notes of hundreds of staffers, formal declarations, and through our stories. Young Atlanticist Carl Bindenagel sees the most positive result as “the development of local and global groups, networks, and connections.” Indeed, the convening of people dedicated to the study and advancement of the alliance is a strong sign of its enduring relevance.
Most important, perhaps, was that we came to see ourselves as part of the future of NATO. “While any alliance will necessarily carry with it some difficulties in aligning the divergent interests of its members and may sometimes place constraints on the courses of action available to the United States, I am more committed than ever to strengthening ties with our European friends,” affirmed Young Atlanticist Shayne Kavanagh. Young Atlanticist Jon Horek hopes that “this weekend will serve as the springboard for lifelong transatlantic friendships. Each generation must renew its commitment to the ideals of this partnership.”
Karl Lamers, president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, opened the Young Atlanticist Summit recalling the words of Daniel Burnham, who put Chicago on the world stage as organizer of the 1893 World’s Fair. Speaking minutes before Mayor Emanuel, who once again put Chicago in front of the world as host city to the NATO summit, Dr. Lamers infused new meaning in Burnham’s well-known words: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood...” As next-generation participants of the largest NATO summit in history, we are up to the challenge.