Seventy years ago, on a spring day in April 1949, the representatives of 12 fiercely independent Western democracies met in Washington DC to found the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. In the course of a single generation, two European wars had claimed the lives of an estimated 125 million civilians and soldiers. The founders of Nato were united in their resolve: such devastation could never be allowed to happen again.
But the threat of another war was not far away. Europe may have been liberated from the Nazis, but the Red Army of the USSR was camped in the heart of Europe and across the East. One country after another fell prey to communist oppression. As Churchill so memorably put it, an “iron curtain” had descended across the continent.
It was clear that the Western powers would have to work collectively to protect their national security, freedom and democracy. Nato was built around the principle of collective self-defence. As the treaty’s Article 5 stated, an attack against one member “shall be considered an attack against them all”.
There is the persistent threat of global terror groups. Countries like Iran also pose a serious nuclear, cyber and terrorist danger. But it is China which many experts predict could be an even greater risk
It was a noble idea but, at the time, nobody was sure if it would last. Yet our alliance has proved to be an extraordinarily powerful deterrent, preventing war for 70 years on Allied soil. Under Nato’s flag, we emerged safely from the dangers of the Cold War.
In 2001, we Americans will never forget how Nato rallied within hours of the devastating 9/11 terror attacks. Article 5 was invoked for the first and only time in Nato history. Shortly after, thousands of Allied troops were in Afghanistan to fight against terrorism side by side with America’s troops.
With each new challenge, and in each new generation, Nato has adapted, endured and grown stronger. It is a mark of its success that it has expanded to include 29 countries, among them former adversaries from the Cold War period. A billion people now fall under Nato’s protection — a staggering one seventh of the world’s population. It is the greatest alliance the world has ever seen. And it is as necessary today as the day that it was first founded.
Once again, there are serious threats to our individual and collective security. Russian aggression has come back to the fore. We have seen the Russian military, and its proxies, illegally occupy parts of Ukraine and Georgia. We have seen Putin’s Russia target the institutions, information and elections of the West. We have even seen Kremlin-backed assassins using a military-grade nerve agent on British soil - ultimately killing a British citizen and putting many more lives at risk.
Russia is not the only danger. There is the persistent threat of global terror groups. Countries like Iran also pose a serious nuclear, cyber and terrorist danger. But it is China which many experts predict could be an even greater risk. This is not the type of massive military danger Nato faced at its inception but a new type of competition. Today, we are realising the degree to which the Chinese Communist Party is hostile to the West and to our values. And we are watching the situation in Hong Kong with concern. How China responds will say a great deal about the role we can expect Beijing to play in the future.
The only certainty is that Nato must be ready for any threat, from any direction and in any form. We must be ready to defend ourselves in space and cyberspace, as well as on air, land and sea. In the 20th century, we had to defend ourselves from enemy planes, tanks and nuclear warheads. Today the weapons of war could just as easily be biotech or big data, disinformation or drones, algorithms or artificial intelligence. As the world’s premier political-military alliance, Nato is the indispensable answer to these questions.
No single country can meet all these challenges alone. Nato countries must band together. The United States believes this today as we believed it in 1949. Our commitment to Nato has never wavered. Today, America accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the total amount Nato members spend on defence. We will defend our allies with everything we have, and hope our Nato allies will step up and share the burden. And we know that Britain will do the same. A founding member of Nato, Britain gave Nato its first ever home. Across the generations, Britain has been instrumental in Nato’s success.
America is counting on British leadership once again. This December, 70 years after the alliance first began, Nato leaders will gather in Britain to plan for the new challenges ahead. The United States will be clear: the threats may have changed since 1949, but the answer hasn’t. Nato remains the foundation of our collective security. Our peace and prosperity depend on it.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Robert Wood Johnson is the US Ambassador to the UK