NATO’s New Mission

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with US President Donald Trump

There is little argument that the 70-year-old NATO Alliance today finds itself in one of the most complicated security environments it has ever seen. China and Russia continue to pose significant challenges, the fast-paced development of new technology is adding borderless perimeters that must be defended and the organization is managing internal strife from its own members including Turkey and the United States.

As part of a joint statement issued Wednesday, leaders said, “We, as an Alliance, are facing distinct threats and challenges emanating from all strategic directions.  Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security; terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.  State and non-state actors challenge the rules-based international order. Instability beyond our borders is also contributing to irregular migration. We face cyber and hybrid threats.”

Alliance leaders have been focused this week on developing a strategy to address security concerns with China for the very first time, and considering the implications of Beijing’s global investments and growing military. They were also aiming for agreement on a defense plan for the Baltics and Poland, as well as considering new approaches to common threats like terrorism.

Internally, the Alliance has been challenged by Turkey’s seeming lean in toward Russia and with a consistent demand from the U.S. to address burden sharing among NATO members.

“Since 2016, Canada and European allies have added 130 billion more to their defence budgets. And this number will increase to 400 billion U.S. dollars by 2024. This is unprecedented. This is making NATO stronger and it shows that this Alliance is adapting, responding when the world is changing,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the opening of the two-day conference. “NATO is the most successful Alliance in history because we have been able to change when the world is changing. That is exactly what we are doing again. And the fact is that we are doing more together in this Alliance now then we have done in many decades.”

While there has been no shortage of theatrics among leaders this week, The Cipher Brief tapped two of its experts, both former NATO Supreme Allied Commanders Europe (SACEUR) to help cut through some of the rhetoric to understand the Alliance’s strategic importance today to both the U.S. and its allies.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove served as the 17th Supreme Allied Commander, NATO.  Prior to his position as SACEUR, General Breedlove served as the Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe; and Commander, U.S. Air Forces Africa.

Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.) served as the 16th Supreme Allied Commander, NATO and is currently an Operating Executive at The Carlyle Group.  His is the author of, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character.


  • The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established in April 1949 with 12 initial nations signing on.
  • The Alliance was founded on three basic goals: to deter Soviet expansionism, to form a strong partnership with the United States to deter nationalist militarism in Europe and to encourage political integration throughout Europe.
  • U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower became NATO’s first Supreme Allied Commander (a role always held by an American) in 1950.
  • On September 12, 2001, NATO invoked its mutual defense clause in support of the United States after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
  • Today, NATO is comprised of 29 member countries including: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, The United Kingdom, and The United States.


Why is NATO so important right now?

General Philip Breedlove (Ret.), Former Supreme Allied Commander Europe

“The bottom line is we’re living in some of the most uncertain times of our history. We used to understand our opponents, who they were and where the lines on the ground and the lines in the sand were. Now, there are no lines out there for us to understand. There are all kinds of gray zone conflicts going on. Russia is attacking us in cyber every day. They’re engineering social media against the West every day. They’re interfering in elections, every single one of them including the French, German, U.S., and British elections. Where and how we draw lines and understand what our opponents are doing to us is critical. More than ever, we need NATO. In the last five years, Russia as a major world power, has used its military to cross internationally recognized borders into Crimea and into the Donbass and has changed internationally recognized borders by using their military. I don’t know what more we need to look for in order to understand how important NATO is.”


Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.), Former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe

“I’ll give you three reasons. One is the challenges that we collectively face with Russian adventurism. I think there’s still a significant role for NATO in deterring Russia and by the very nature of its invasion of Ukraine, we see that Vladimir Putin is a gambler. He’s a risk taker and I think will continue to put pressure on the Alliance. Number two, cyber security. We are increasingly at risk in the world of cyber where the level of threat far outpaces the level of preparation. And I think it’s an area in which we would be collectively much, much stronger if we operated together. Third, and finally I think the Alliance matters because of its potential impact in the Middle East and here whether we’re working on counter terrorism, helping to calm the situation in Syria, or in working over-time to deter Iran from bad behavior. And I think there are still significant missions ahead for NATO. I just mentioned three. We also have a continuing mission in Afghanistan and we have challenges in the Arctic. There’s plenty for NATO to do and it’s still great value for the United States.”


What needs to happen in London?

Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.), Former Supreme Allied Commander, Europe

“I think we need the Alliance to take a deep breath and work on the overall center of gravity for this Alliance, which is political coherence. At the moment, you have the French pulling in one direction, you have the Turks distinctly pulling in a different direction to the South, you have questions about where Afghanistan is going and you have the American side, which continues to constantly talk only about funding and who’s paying what. So right now, the Alliance doesn’t feel like a synchronized political Alliance, although its military capability remains strong. So, I would say the number one thing we need is more coherence out of the leadership assembling in London.”


Gen. Philip Breedlove (Ret.), Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe

“What needs to happen in London is the same thing that should happen every time NATO meets at the senior level. And that is to reinforce the commitment by all of the allies to the alliance, and what the alliance stands for, to its Western values, and to the military commitment that we make to each other. There is essentially a commitment to collective defense, but there are also 28 individual bilateral commitments to defend each other.”


Access your full Cipher Brief debrief with Admiral James Stavridis here

Access your full Cipher Brief debrief with General Philip Breedlove here

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