Much of the attention from last week’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, focused on the group’s refusal to offer war-rocked Ukraine immediate membership, but international security experts say what’s most important is that NATO appears to be back after foundering in recent years. They say with Finland on board and Sweden near official membership, NATO closed out its summit unified and reinvigorated by collective security concerns from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Founded after World War II to protect, in part, against Soviet expansionism, the alliance’s current territorial dominance across Europe, the Baltic Sea, and the Arctic Circle has never been greater in its 74-year history.
Ambassador Douglas Lute, M.P.A. ’83, is a decorated (retired) U.S. Army lieutenant general who served as U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO from 2013 to 2017. As a Belfer Center fellow, Lute co-authored a paper in 2019 with Nicholas Burns, a former Harvard Kennedy School professor who is currently the U.S. ambassador to China, about NATO’s uncertain future. He spoke to the Gazette about the significance of Sweden and Finland’s desire to join to join and Ukraine’s prospects for membership. Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: How capable are NATO forces now with the addition of Finland and soon Sweden?
LUTE: Even without them, NATO is by far the strongest military alliance maybe in history. Maybe the coalition in World War II was stronger, but in terms of peacetime military alliances, and long-standing military alliances, NATO doesn’t have a historical competitor. It already outclasses, by way of military capability, any potential threat, to include Russia.
The key advantage of adding Sweden and Finland is, in part, geographic because their position lends capacity or credibility to the NATO military role in the Baltic Sea. Adding those two means that only the Russian coastline in the Baltic Sea is outside of NATO, and the Russian Baltic Sea fleet is essentially surrounded now by NATO capability.
Also, from a polar perspective, there are eight members of the Arctic Council. (These are countries that have geography above the Arctic Circle.) And now, seven of the eight are NATO allies. Especially as climate opens up trade routes in the Arctic region, that kind of NATO-allied voice among Arctic Council members is important, as well. The addition of Sweden and Finland is maybe the most important addition of new members probably since the end of the Cold War, maybe with the exception of the Baltics and Poland. It’s very significant; it’s historic.
“The key advantage of adding Sweden and Finland is, in part, geographic because their position lends capacity or credibility to the NATO military role in the Baltic Sea.”
GAZETTE: Why did Sweden finally decide to join NATO after all this time?
LUTE: The straw that broke the camel’s back was the invasion in February of 2022 when they realized that what was always a hypothetical threat — they knew Russia had the capability to do such things, but they discounted the intent. And what February 2022 proved is that Russia has not only the capability but also the intent to do something as crazy as invade Ukraine. After something like 200 years of neutrality, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine convinced them that they needed to buy some insurance.
NATO has never recruited new members. If a European country that meets the criteria is interested in joining, that country approaches NATO and expresses its interest. That’s, of course, what Sweden and Finland did. NATO has, for decades, had a program of partnerships. This is a looser association with states that provides partners access to NATO standards, NATO exercises, the NATO schoolhouse, and so forth. For decades, Sweden and Finland have been among NATO’s closest partners but had never before declared an aspiration to join the alliance. So, this was a pretty easy call for NATO. NATO appreciated the military capacity of those two countries, and the maturity of their democracy, their democratic institutions. We knew them well.
GAZETTE: NATO announced that Ukraine is on an expedited path and will become a member when allies agree that it has met certain conditions. What most concerns NATO about Ukraine and how long could that process take?
LUTE: Article 5 is probably the most famous of the 1949 NATO Treaty, but Article 10 essentially says there are three criteria for an aspiring member. One is unanimity among current members. One is states who wish to be members have to represent the principles of the treaty outlined in the preamble: democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law. Its democratic values, democratic institutions are where some people say, “Not so fast.” Even before the war, Ukraine was an emerging democracy. It’s rated as among the most corrupt countries in Europe. It’s got a rough 20-year track record in terms of democratic institutions and corruption and so forth. So, it’s got work to do.
The third criteria is contribution to the collective defense: Do you have a meaningful defensive capability, like Sweden and Finland? And here, Ukraine meets the criteria. That’s pretty obvious. In fact, I would argue that Ukraine today is the most militarily capable ground force in Europe.
The phrase about “conditions” largely points to democratic values and democratic institutions, and the maturity of Ukrainian democracy. They’re not going to make a lot of progress on that while they’re under martial law and in a fight for their lives. So, this points to the reasoning that says, “First things first. Let’s win the war,” and then that sets the stage for Ukraine to work on its democracy and that puts it in a position to join the alliance. There was quite a bit of dialogue, I suppose some controversy, over the Biden administration’s decision to go “not so fast” with Ukraine, but I think it’s rooted in the treaty and also rooted in common sense.
After the Soviet Union dissolves in 1991, by 1999, NATO offers the first three post-Cold War new members, Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Now, a couple of decades later, two of the three offered membership then are among those who have slipped the furthest in democratic values, as rated by the Freedom House annual rating of democracies. The EU has sanctioned Poland and Hungary for democratic backsliding.
So, NATO has some track record observing that when they admit members who are not mature or developed democracies, there’s the hazard that there’ll be democratic backsliding. Today, if you ask who are the two most disruptive NATO allies, Turkey and Hungary go right to the top of the list.
“After something like 200 years of neutrality, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine convinced [Sweden] that they needed to buy some insurance.”
GAZETTE: How can Ukraine convincingly demonstrate to the alliance they’re doing what’s needed?
LUTE: The NATO communiqué relieved Ukraine of going through a Membership Action Plan. A Membership Action Plan is essentially a checklist of criteria. It said that is not necessary. But in practice, even though they won’t call it a Membership Action Plan, the criteria are still quite applicable. So, things like dealing with corruption, free and fair elections, open and free press.
Certainly, these are conditions that can’t be met under martial law — understandably. I’m not critiquing Ukraine in this regard because they’re fighting for their lives. Zelensky needs the executive options available under martial law. I’m simply saying he’ll have to revert to a post-martial law period and demonstrate that the democratic progress that was apparent before the war has been reinvigorated, has been continued. Things like non-interference in the judiciary, open and free press, electoral procedures, anti-corruption are all going to be on the list.
GAZETTE: Just four years ago, you and Burns described NATO as being in crisis. How does it look today compared to then?
LUTE: We listed 10 challenges confronting NATO. The first one was American leadership. There’s an old saying, even among the smaller allies who don’t always agree with America, that “NATO works best when the US leads.” Under Trump, U.S. leadership was absent, and even beyond absent, it was sometimes corrosive.
The good news is that, as NATO approaches its 75th anniversary next year, you can see the sharp contrast between American leadership under Biden and the absence of American leadership under Trump. Biden and other presidents, Republican and Democratic, before Biden … have emphasized the value of American alliances and treaty partners and have taken seriously the role of American leadership. And why? Because our geostrategic competitors, like China under President Xi or Russia under Putin, have no such geostrategic advantage.
When Biden goes to the Vilnius summit and stands with 30 allies, welcomes the 32nd in Sweden, they all stand together in a family photo. What’s the counterpart photo for Vladimir Putin — Lukashenko in Belarus? So that’s the value of NATO. If Nick and I were to write “NATO at 75” next year, the first challenge would not be American leadership. That is probably the starkest difference and the fact there’s now war on NATO’s doorstep in Ukraine. The strategic conditions have changed a lot in four years.
GAZETTE: What are some of the challenges that remain?
LUTE: There are a couple. One is the alliance announced it has adopted now, and agreed on, specific defense plans for three regions in the Alliance — a defense plan in the North, one in Central and Eastern Europe, and one in the South.
For each of these plans, specific national forces and capabilities have been assigned. Germany, for example, will know where it is expected to send what forces on what timeline where, which is a lot different than before when NATO said, “Look, if we need you, we’ll call you and figure it out.” From a military-planning perspective, removing ambiguity and adding specificity is a big advantage.
The disadvantage, or the challenge ahead, is that this is going to require funding. Once you accept that you’re expected to be someplace at a particular time, you’ve got to get there. This means that nations are going to have to make serious public-policy decisions about allocation of national resources to defense, and this goes to the infamous 2 percent GDP pledge made under Obama in 2014. And so, going forward, NATO still has this challenge of mustering the resources required to do what it declares it will do. Nick and I cited that challenge four years ago and if anything, it’s more urgent today because of the Russian invasion.
The other one I think about is the communiqué makes clear that Russia is the most clear and present threat to alliance security. Russian conventional forces, especially the conventional army, are being hollowed out in Ukraine. So, I’m worried that NATO allies like Germany, who are under pressure to spend more, will look at the destruction of the Russian army in Ukraine and say, “Why do we need to rebuild the German army if the Russian army has been set back 10 or 20 years?” There’s a sort of a reverse logic here for an inverse effect of Ukrainian success in defeating Russia and that is that it also relieves some of the political pressure to actually do what NATO says it is going to do.