It’s time for a sweeping transformation of the alliance

Domènec Ruiz Devesa is a member of the European Parliament.  

Offering a convincing blueprint for the kind of sweeping transformation NATO will have to go through to address the return of great power competition, the alliance’s freshly agreed new Strategic Concept is the product of inevitable compromise. However, the document adopted at this week’s Madrid Summit also stands out for its comprehensiveness and balance — as well as its ambition.  

And yet, on its own, it‘s still not enough.  

Against the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine, NATO’s original task of collective defense is now — unsurprisingly — front and center once more, with the alliance planning to step up its high-readiness forces from 40,000 to over 300,000 by 2023.  

In addition, transatlantic leaders also smartly avoided a mere back-to-basics approach, reinterpreting the other two core tasks introduced by the 2010 Strategic Concept — crisis management and cooperative security — in order to meet the changed realities of today’s contested international environment.  

As a result, cooperative security, which in the previous strategic document had been closely linked to a “reset” in the relationship with Moscow, is now geared toward leveraging NATO partnerships to counter Russia as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security,” in addition to China.  

Indeed, for the first time, the Strategic Concept now spells out how NATO can contribute to dealing with an increasingly assertive and militarily capable China — a subject that made it into the alliance’s internal discussions just a few years ago — as Beijing’s military and technological advances will require staying vigilant.  

But while the adoption of a solid and forward-looking Strategic Concept should put recurrent debates about NATO’s fading rationale to rest, however — after all, French President Macron had diagnosed it with near “brain death” in 2019 — more is still needed to reinfuse a sense of purpose in the transatlantic relationship after many recent convulsions.  

Therefore, following NATO’s new strategic document, it’s high time transatlantic leaders also adopt a political text — a different New Atlantic Charter, committing Europe and the United States to a set of goals well beyond military and security policy, and one that goes much farther than the Anglo-American agreement signed between U.S. President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year.  

A broader manifesto along these lines could dispel concerns about a militaristic drift in the wake of the war and help restore trust in Western principles and values — “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law” — as crystalized in the North Atlantic Treaty.  

The point is surely not to have a piece of paper filled with lofty concepts. Rather, like the historic 1941 Atlantic Charter, this document should pragmatically articulate a common agenda the U.S. and Europe can advance together, despite their diminished international influence. Crucially, it should identify issues that enjoy broad transatlantic and bipartisan support, thus shielding future cooperation from the disruptive impact that electoral cycles will continue to have on the relationship.  

The 1941 text was also adopted at a time of war. And as the ongoing war in Ukraine has highlighted, this new charter should prepare transatlantic societies for the eventuality that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, the contestation of Western leadership and norms may lead to a large-scale international conflict.  

Its focus, therefore, should be two-fold: On the one hand, the new charter should update the “four freedoms,” while also expanding the list. Next to the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear, one could envision others, such as freedom of the seas and freedom of the Internet, which have recently come under attack from authoritarians.  

On the other hand, the charter should also advance the new paradigm of “transatlantic resilience,” spelling out principles that the U.S. and Europe would jointly embrace to preserve cohesive societies and functional governance. Among these principles enjoying broad-based support on either side of the Atlantic would be “fairness” as a corrective to free markets and free trade, as well as the notion of “inclusive and sustainable growth” as a response to deepening inequality, the growing threat of climate change and the increased risk of pandemic-like events.  

When it comes to the functioning of institutions, “accountability,” “responsiveness” and “transparency” — together with a renewed emphasis on “integrity” and the fight against “disinformation” — would also go a long way toward addressing the widespread mistrust feeding the rise of populist parties on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years.  

Articulating a transatlantic agenda capable of attracting bipartisan support is, of course, a formidable challenge. Yet, it is also an imperative task in view of a likely Republican victory in the upcoming U.S. mid-term elections, and the probability of future cases of political discrepancy in the years to come.  

To meet this challenge, this new charter could be innovatively drawn up by transatlantic policymakers, with the European Parliament playing a proactive role. Because while political polarization will undoubtedly remain a challenge both in the U.S. and in Europe, even during the turbulent Trump years, a wide consensus among legislative bodies across the Atlantic still existed on key issues — such as the need to safeguard NATO.  

And it is precisely this kind of broad political convergence that such a charter could translate into a renewed vision for the transatlantic partnership.