Sustaining the Transatlantic Alliance: 75 Years of RAND Insights on NATO

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Jul 2, 2024

NATO flag with blocks showing the numbers 7 and 5, photo by Christian Ohde/IMAGO/Reuters

Photo by Christian Ohde/IMAGO/Reuters

This piece is part of a commentary series on the upcoming NATO summit in Washington in which RAND researchers explore important strategic questions for the alliance as NATO confronts a historic moment, navigating both promise and peril.

NATO's 75th anniversary summit in Washington provides an opportunity for stock-taking about the state of the Alliance, reviewing its beginnings, transformation, and adaptations, and for reflecting about the path ahead. For seven decades, RAND has been at the forefront of analytical efforts to rethink the issues, options, and trade-offs the Alliance has confronted, producing more than 500 reports and memorandums to inform policymakers and broader audiences on NATO's strategy, policies, and military posture.

Our new report examines seminal RAND analyses on four of NATO's strategic challenges, each of which will feature prominently in the Washington summit next week, and offers lessons for charting the Alliance's future course. These challenges are the need to provide effective deterrence and defense, maintaining the transatlantic bargain between the United States and Europe on sharing the burdens of defense, expansion of NATO membership, and adaptation of NATO's strategy and structures to meet changes in the security environment.

Effective Deterrence and Defense

An effective allied deterrence and defense posture has been essential to maintaining the collective defense commitments under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Following the successful Soviet nuclear test in August 1949, allies adopted the first Strategic Concept for the Defence of the North Atlantic Area. This called for coordinating military and economic strength with the goal of “creating a powerful deterrent.” It also called for planning how to combine allied military forces to counter enemy threats and provide territorial defense.

RAND analysis in the early 1950s noted incongruities between the alliance's political objectives and military arrangements. RAND helped NATO to assess what would truly be required for collective defense and to develop the military command structure. It also recommended refining NATO's ambitious 1952 Lisbon Force Goals, which had called for fielding 50 army divisions and 4,000 aircraft by the end of 1952 (and even larger forces by 1954). RAND analysts advocated more realistic force requirements. They increased allied understanding that deterrence is not just a function of meeting military planning goals, but also the capability and political will of member states to support collective defense.

When NATO adopted the doctrine of massive retaliation in 1956 to counter the Soviet Union's larger conventional forces and growing nuclear capability, RAND scholars also challenged the effectiveness and credibility of this approach. Pioneering RAND analysis and wargaming had a profound impact on the U.S. government's efforts to convince allies in 1967 to adopt the strategy of flexible response and forward defense. This called for controlled escalation and a greater role for conventional forces in NATO's deterrent strategy.

During the 1970s, numerous RAND studies highlighted that NATO's conventional force posture was under-resourced and poorly integrated to support the new strategy and counter Warsaw Pact forces and recommended improvements to readiness, reinforcement, combat logistics, and fire-power. RAND's analysis provided the framework (PDF) for NATO's Long-Term Defence Programme of 1978–83. This initiative, advanced by the Carter administration, called for improvements in nine areas of conventional capabilities, to be supported by 3 percent annual growth in member country defense spending over that period, as well as modernization of long-range theater nuclear forces. In the late 1970s, RAND was deeply involved in evaluating the impact of a new generation of weapons and tactics—later known as the Second Offset Initiative—to counter the Soviet military build-up.

As the Cold War ended, several RAND studies looked at how the momentous changes in Central and Eastern Europe might affect U.S. and NATO strategies, as well as future security plans. These studies argued that the United States should stay involved in NATO and the security of Europe. One noteworthy report presented a post–Cold War NATO military strategy. It advocated stabilizing the military balance to ensure NATO's ability to manage crises, identifying NATO's force requirements for defending against a reconstituted Soviet military threat, and maintaining a collective defense mechanism, with U.S. participation, as critical to deterring potential Soviet/Russia aggression.

Since Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, RAND has focused on enhancing the defense of NATO's eastern flank against hybrid and conventional military threats and developing a Western strategy for the Black Sea region. A 2023 RAND review of NATO's defense capabilities and posture concluded they can't defend “every inch” of allied territory and airspace effectively. Achieving that goal will require sustained investments, expanded defense industrial capacity, exploiting new technologies, and better integration between countries. It will also demand employing new innovative concepts to defeat aggression.

RAND's past and present analyses underscore the centrality of improving force generation, readiness, firepower, and logistics, and exploiting new technologies and operational concepts.

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As NATO redoubles efforts to strengthen deterrence and defense amidst Russia's war on Ukraine and the prospect of a wider, high-intensity conflict, RAND's past and present analyses underscore the centrality of improving force generation, readiness, firepower, and logistics, and exploiting new technologies and operational concepts. As in the past, these new efforts demand substantial resources, as well as enhanced national resilience and seamless integration of strategic, domain, and regional defense plans.

The Transatlantic Bargain on Sharing the Burdens of Defense

Burden-sharing among members has been a point of contention since NATO's inception. The original transatlantic bargain aimed to balance the U.S. commitment to defense of the North Atlantic area with European contributions, aligning military requirements with member's evolving economic and military capabilities. NATO's first strategic concept in 1950 (PDF) envisioned national specialization and a division of labor. This strategy facilitated not only a deeper commitment to collective defense but also enhanced coalition planning in the Alliance's formative years.

In the 1960s, the bargain came to be seen by some in the United States in more transactional terms (PDF)—that is, that the U.S. commitment was contingent upon Europeans, as their prosperity grew after the war, bearing a greater share of the defense burden. A major transatlantic debate ensued over how to quantify defense contributions.

RAND's pioneering research on defense economics contributed to addressing this issue. A 1960 report argued that allies needed to “realize economies of specialization in forces, production, or both; various arrangements for burden sharing; and adjustments of domestic policies.” Divergent national priorities, however, made finding efficient solutions complicated. A 1965 RAND report identified several factors contributing to Europe's military shortcomings including resource diversion to national uses, diseconomies of scale, high weapon costs, and underinvestment in new equipment. It proposed improvements including regional pooling of supply, logistics, and support, and ad hoc coalitions among allies with shared interests in specific ventures.

A 1981 RAND report argued that focusing on defense spending did not reflect each ally's full contribution to NATO defense efforts and recommended looking at outputs such as force levels and modernization rates as better measures of contributions. A subsequent report recommended broadening transatlantic burden-sharing calculations to include nonmilitary efforts, such as foreign economic assistance, that enhance mutual security.

The debate on burden-sharing intensified again after the 2008 financial crisis. A 2013 RAND report highlighted a 20 percent overall reduction in defense spending by European allies since the end of the Cold War. It further projected that financial constraints would reduce NATO's ability to deploy and sustain military power. In response to Russia's aggression against Ukraine since 2014, European governments have made significant improvements in defense capabilities, and provided enormous military, financial, and humanitarian support to Ukraine, another element of burden-sharing.

RAND research has consistently demonstrated the need for reciprocal commitment to collective defense on both sides of the Atlantic. Recent RAND analysis underscores the need for allies to deliver on and extend defense investment commitments over the next five years to maintain military readiness and prepare for a potential high-intensity conflict with Russia.

Expansion of NATO Membership

Building on the studies described above, RAND scholars wrote a series of articles and briefings during the 1990s outlining a strategy to enlarge the Alliance to deal with emerging instability along its eastern and southern peripheries. Their analysis warned that, following the collapse of Soviet control, a security vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans could give rise to rampant nationalism with grave geopolitical consequences. They argued that integration into NATO and the European Community was the best way to promote a stable transition to democracy. They also recommended Western support to the fragile democratic transformation in Russia and principles for a cooperative relationship with Moscow. To the south, they foresaw the risks of growing instability in an arc running from North Africa and the Mediterranean to the Middle East and Southwest Asia. They concluded that to deal with these “twin arcs of crisis” NATO should transform its mission from collective defense to projecting democracy, stability, and crisis management.

The RAND analysis was gaining attention as the debate over NATO enlargement was intensifying in the United States and Europe in the fall of 1993. The Clinton administration initially deferred enlargement in favor of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. PfP involved bilateral, military-to-military cooperation with the former Warsaw Pact and neutral/nonaligned countries in Europe to advance interoperability and defense reforms for combined peacekeeping and other missions. But there were concerns that PfP was insufficient to address the security vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe, and many governments in the region aspired to join NATO. In response, President Clinton announced in January 1994 that while PfP was not NATO membership, it would assist those countries seeking to join the Alliance to become stronger candidates. “The question is no longer whether NATO will take on new members,” Clinton said (PDF), “but when and how.”

In the decade to follow, RAND analysis informed the enlargement process. The Clinton administration adopted an incremental approach (PDF). It developed political and operational cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries, Russia, and the former Soviet republics in PfP, while also considering for NATO membership countries that could meet certain criteria. RAND researchers proposed that invitations to NATO should be based on clear principles grounded in the North Atlantic Treaty. The United States and other allied governments adopted this approach in a set of principles that were articulated in the 1995 NATO Study on Enlargement.

RAND provided research to the U.S., German, and Polish governments during the 1990s, assessing the political and military challenges of integrating the countries of Central and Eastern Europe into NATO and the associated costs for existing and prospective members to maintain collective defense. After the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were invited to begin accession to NATO in 1997, RAND outlined a strategy for reassuring the other NATO aspirants by providing well-defined steppingstones and tangible benefits from cooperation with NATO. Reflecting this approach and lessons of the recent accession efforts, NATO leaders adopted the Membership Action Plan at their April 1999 summit in Washington, which helped prepare seven other countries from the region to join NATO in 2004.

Allied governments made a commitment to Ukraine and Georgia at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that they would join the Alliance. Realization of this commitment remains problematic while the war in Ukraine continues and both countries have territorial disputes with Russia. However, NATO leaders declared at their 2022 Vilnius Summit that that they would be prepared to extend Kyiv an invitation “to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.”

RAND's work on NATO expansion suggests that allies would benefit from two things. First, offering Ukraine clarity at the Washington Summit on the conditions for its future membership in a manner consistent with the principles that guided earlier membership decisions. And second, undertaking an assessment of the military requirements and costs of such a commitment.

Adaptation to Changes in the Security Environment

Beyond enlargement, NATO faced broader questions in the post–Cold War context about its relevance and overall future. How would it adapt its mission and activities to address emerging security challenges?

As thinking got underway, RAND research provided geopolitical assessments of the new strategic landscape in Europe and Russia, contributed to debate over the future of the Alliance, and sized up implications for U.S. national security policy. A 1992 RAND report recognized that NATO would need to make significant adjustments and forge new partnerships following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

After the 2002 Prague Summit opened accession talks with seven more countries, RAND analysts outlined NATO's Eastern agenda: Ensure consolidation of defense reforms and the democratic transitions in Central and Eastern Europe. Develop a strategy for Ukraine's democratic evolution and integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. And find ways to engage Russia in a broader European and Euro-Atlantic security framework.

RAND research also offered guidance on how NATO could adapt to address new security challenges including civil conflicts in Europe, international terrorism, and “hybrid threats” including cyber and information operations by state actors below the threshold that would trigger collective defense obligations under Article 5. RAND analysts, for instance, argued that NATO could play a larger role in stabilizing the Balkans. Other studies in the early 2000s took stock of NATO's counterterrorism capabilities. A decade later, several RAND reports identified ways NATO could evolve to better address cyber threats. Other studies during this period outlined actions NATO and the European Union could take to help the Baltic states counter Russian hybrid threats, such as by strengthening their strategic communications and internal security forces, as well as better integrating intelligence, law enforcement, military, and civil defense actions.

In the early 2000s, RAND analysts examined opportunities for cooperation with neighboring countries, beginning in the Mediterranean region, on countering terrorism, drug trafficking, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. NATO's partnerships today are responding to the needs of its members but also addressing growing desire from countries around the world, including Japan and others in the Indo-Pacific region, for collaboration.

RAND analysis has also addressed the risks of overextension. A 2010 RAND study observed that NATO's role in stabilization of Afghanistan was a stress test for the Alliance's “out of area” ambitions and cohesion, one that would shape future operations. Later RAND analysis highlighted differences among allies on whether ending NATO's mission in Afghanistan should be based on conditions on the ground or a set timetable. As NATO deepens its partnerships in the Indo-Pacific amidst resurging threats in Europe, some allies are again concerned about overextension. RAND analysis has illustrated how recent operations by capable Allied militaries in the Indo-Pacific safeguard mutual NATO and partner interests, and their limited scope would not jeopardize defense in the Euro-Atlantic. NATO's cooperation with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea on terrorism, cyber, space, maritime security, and disruptive technologies, can also enhance mutual security and the rules-based international order.

A related concern has been competition or overlap. Is NATO getting involved in activities that might be better served by other organizations? RAND found that concerns about overlap with the European Union have been overstated and that NATO-EU cooperation on a wide range of activities leverages their complementary institutional strengths. Russia's war in Ukraine has underscored the value of stronger NATO-EU cooperation.

RAND's analysis of how NATO has adjusted to a changing security landscape during and after the Cold War offers important lessons for addressing today's emerging threats. In the era of great power competition, including the threats posed by China to shared Alliance interests, new and existing partnerships could hold great value.

The Summit and Beyond

Success across these four strategic challenges hinged on maintaining allied political cohesion. RAND's analysis highlighted that NATO's remarkable degree of unity during the Cold War, coupled with U.S. leadership, played an instrumental role in deterring the Soviet Union. Sustaining this cohesion over the coming decades will require continued U.S. leadership.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine exposed serious vulnerabilities that, if left unaddressed, will leave NATO members susceptible to aggression and intimidation by a hostile Russia.

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RAND research has also illustrated NATO's role as a key geopolitical actor and its contribution to addressing some of the most consequential global security challenges of the last 75 years. NATO remains the premier vehicle for the United States' involvement in European security and amplifies its ability to protect its interests in the region. Moreover, sustaining U.S. collaboration with NATO and Indo-Pacific allies will be essential to addressing the challenges posed by Russia and China.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has united the Alliance in the face of a common threat. It prompted European allies to strengthen their defenses and assume larger responsibilities. But it also exposed serious vulnerabilities that, if left unaddressed, will leave NATO members susceptible to aggression and intimidation by a hostile Russia.

As the Washington Summit gets underway, what is old looks new again. The Alliance still needs to reinforce deterrence and defense; enhance national resilience and defense industrial capability; and equitably share the risks and burdens of collective defense. It should also offer Ukraine a clear path to NATO membership; adapt to meet new threats and keep pace with technological advancement; and strengthen ties to partners in the Indo-Pacific.


Stephen J. Flanagan is an adjunct senior fellow, Anna M. Dowd is senior international/defense researcher, and Stephanie Pezard is a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution.