WASHINGTON -- As NATO prepares to mark its 70th anniversary, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance may have changed many times, but it has not compromised its foundational principle: the commitment of its member nations to protect and defend one another.
Stoltenberg spoke on the future of NATO enlargement at an event hosted by the German Marshall Fund think tank today in Brussels.
On April 4, NATO will mark 70 years since the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty. Other allies are marking significant anniversaries as well, the secretary general said. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland joined NATO 20 years ago. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia became members 15 years ago. Albania and Croatia joined 10 years ago. And NATO’s newest member, North Macedonia, will complete the accession process later this year or early next year.
Need for An Alliance
NATO grew out of the experiences of the early 20th century. The First and Second World Wars were born out of conflicts that had been nearly constant on the continent for hundreds of years. “For most of Europe’s history, conflict was our constant companion,” Stoltenberg said. “The last 70 years have been the exception. And we should not take peace for granted.”
The alliance was also a response to aggression from the Soviet Union. It banded together like-minded nations in a defensive alliance, with Article 5 being the heart of the treaty: an attack on one member nation was the same as an attack on all.
Twelve countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, but NATO was always open to more joining.
“NATO enlargement is not a provocation,” Stoltenberg said. “We respect the right of every sovereign nation to decide their own destiny, without force and without interference, whether they decide to join NATO or not. We believe in a world without spheres of influence.”
The secretary general called 1989 the year when Europe transformed. The Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union started to dissolve and the ideals of democracy and free markets taking hold.
“NATO’s open door and the enlargement of the European Union have helped spread freedom, democracy and human rights, and we must continue to work hard every day to uphold those values,” he said.
“Open door” refers to Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that NATO membership is open to any “European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.”
“Let us remember that alliances do not stand in the way of strong and independent nations,” the secretary general said. “NATO exists precisely to ensure the freedom and prosperity in which sovereign countries and peoples can thrive.”
The new member nations are full players in the alliance, Stoltenberg said. Their troops are deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and are helping to ensure peace in the Balkans.
“Many of you lead by example when it comes to burden sharing within our alliance, already investing 2 percent of your [gross domestic product] in defense,” he said. “NATO’s open door policy serves both our values and interests. It’s a positive driver for reform. It extends our shared area of peace and stability. And it enriches our alliance with new voices, new experiences, and new capabilities.”
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has nearly doubled its membership — from 16 member nations in 1989, to 30 when North Macedonia becomes a full member. “NATO’s door remains open,” the secretary general said. “We continue to work with the three aspirant countries — Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine — to bring them closer.
“At the same time we cannot be complacent,” he continued. “We cannot squander the hard-won gains of those who came before us. They knew that history does not just happen. But that it takes courage and conviction to shape our world and defend our values.”
NATO is changing yet again, Stoltenberg said, and is facing a more complex and unpredictable world.
“This is what has made us the most successful alliance in history,” he said. “Faced with the greatest security challenges in a generation, we are increasing the readiness of our forces, investing more in our collective defense and modernizing our alliance. NATO remains both an anchor of stability and a beacon of hope.”