NATO is 75 years old, but it is not dated; it is not a rusty old alliance, and it still serves the needs and aspirations of the United States and the world today, said Julianne Smith, the U.S. permanent representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Smith spoke to the Defense Writers Group this week, previewing the alliance’s Washington summit in July and commenting on how Americans feel about NATO

The ambassador noted that U.S. polls show two-thirds of Americans believe NATO is worth the U.S. investment. Of course, she said, that means a third of Americans question the value of the alliance. 

Smith, who hails from Michigan, said she has taken two listening tours through the U.S. Midwest. “I wanted to hear how students, veterans, local politicians, mayors and governors, and industry leaders … talked about the NATO alliance, [or] if it resonated at all,” she said.  

She said she found some confusion about what the alliance is doing — or not doing — in regard to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. She said the trips to Ohio and Michigan encouraged her “because I still have the feeling that NATO is largely a nonpartisan issue. I think two-thirds is a pretty good number compared to a lot of other issues.”

She said she sees the need to reach out to young people on the worth of the alliance. “Look, the alliance was created 75 years ago, and I don’t know if all the people that are in the 18-to-25 age range truly understand why it was important that we created NATO and what it’s done for U.S. national security interests,” she said.  

People hear that an organization has been around for 75 years, and they believe that it “seems dated, rusty, creaky,” she said. They are asking if the alliance is necessary, she said. It was, after all, built for a different era. 

Smith said she is working to help people understand “why NATO exists today, and how it’s different from the NATO that was created 75 years ago and how it not only serves our interests but serves the interests of our allies.” 

Part of the disconnect for some Americans with NATO is the issue of burden sharing. In 2014, when Russia illegally occupied Ukraine’s Crimea, only three NATO countries met the alliance’s goal of investing 2% of gross domestic product in defense. “Burden sharing has to be a part of the story this summer at the summit,” Smith said.

Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump and Joe Biden stressed the need for Canada and the European allies to hit the 2% mark. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 further focused the allies. Now, up to 23 of the 32 NATO allies are at or above the 2% mark. “Within the next three years, most allies will be there,” she said.

She said Americans need to understand that Europe is sharing the burden. “We’re all working together, and Europe is helping us focus elsewhere in the world, as well, because of what we do together,” the ambassador said. “Europeans are stepping up and doing their fair share, and it enables us to be in the position of taking on the global responsibilities that we uniquely hold.” 

NATO is a work in progress. The allies are addressing new plans, new strategies and new challenges. The alliance is looking at new domains of conflict and new technologies that can make alliance nations safer.  

“We just have to work to continue to get the message out on why NATO matters,” she said. “And that’s what, in part, we’ll be doing at the at the summit.”

Leave a comment

Powering peace, equipping nations