5 Lessons for the future of NATO

Mart de Kruif MSM is a three-star general in the Royal Netherlands Army and served as its executive commander from 2011 to 2016. This is the full text of his address at the 7th edition of the annual Atlantic Assembly event, organized by the Jonge Atlantici (The Hague, April 6 2024).

I am a war child. Because my parents were war children. My mother was 15 years old when the Germans marched into Zaandam, her hometown. Her favorite German teacher died in Auschwitz. My mother distributed the underground newspapers Trouw and Het Parool, woke up to the sound of Allied bombers heading to Germany and back and had to travel on a bicycle with wooden tires, cycling for 100 miles, to the east of the Netherlands with the family’s savings to buy butter, meat and potatoes. Hoping to return home unscathed. My father was 18 when the war started, and from Schiedam he watched the bombing of Rotterdam and felt the heat and smell of death and destruction.

In 1942 he had to report as a forced laborer and spent three years testing Daimler engines for the Messerschmidt 110 south of Berlin. My parents passed the war on to their children, probably without realizing it. Between and during holidays, the De Kruif children were always confronted and sometimes overwhelmed with war stories, visits to battlefields and commemorations. It is impossible to be untouched by that kind of context.

Now we have lived in freedom for almost 80 years, in a continent that was once characterized by conflict and caused two world wars. Where does that long-lasting peace come from? The answer is: unprecedented courage! Former enemies from Germany and France: Adenauer, Monnet and Schumann, together with General Marshall in Washington, had the courage, strength and vision to leap over their innate shadows of enmity and make peace. Because without peace, Europe would no longer have a future. It is these people who laid the foundation for our long-lasting freedom, by bringing Europe together and ultimately forming the cornerstone of NATO. And it is NATO that still allows us to live in freedom, especially at a time when that freedom is once again acutely threatened. So time for reflection on NATO.

NATO was founded in Washington on April 4, 1949, with the Netherlands as one of the Founding Nations. Initially as an alliance against the threat of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, as a security guarantee in a Cold War. Until the Wall fell and the military importance of NATO crumbled in our Western world, except for a short period of revitalization when NATO invoked Article 5 after the attacks of 9/11. But that urgency disappeared along with the allied presence in Afghanistan except among many former Warsaw Pact countries that couldn’t wait to join NATO. Not only because they had experienced the Russians and their behavior, but also because they knew that Russia would come back. But these were sidelines in an overall tendency of optimism and ignorance. Many regarded war as history, closed their eyes to everything that called that into question and stripped NATO’s armed forces of people, combat power and resilience. NATO was brain dead. How different is this now? Time for a review regarding the future of NATO,  and I intend to approach this theme along five lines of operation.


Europe in balance with the US

But before I start this overview, let me be very clear: NATO works. NATO is not just an international organization with worldwide strategic effect, it is also the backbone for operational effect. The tactics, techniques and procedures that NATO brings us offer a high standard, extremely important for cooperation and operational integration down to the lowest level. Because of NATO the nations can be organized together, train together and fight together. Without NATO no joint or combined effect. Let us now focus on the operational lines, defining NATO’s future.

The first line of operation is NATO’s strategic context. You don’t have to be a scientist to realize that the power struggle between China and the United States is going to dominate our world, if it hasn’t already. This has two effects for the other NATO countries. First, we will have to choose. Do we support the US in its strategic course, or do we as Europe pursue a more independent course within NATO?

Both choices keep NATO afloat. But a more independent course for Europe within NATO does mean that dependence on the US must be reduced. That means investing heavily and for the long term in a capable European pillar of NATO. We don’t do that now. A second reason why NATO must become much stronger within Europe is that the shifting power plates in the world always lead to friction. To wars, conflicts and insecurity, also (or perhaps especially) in or around Europe. The war in Ukraine in particular is an example of this. With China deliberately sitting on the fence, Putin could go about his business, as long as he stays away from using nuclear weapons. With this strategic support of China, Putin saw the opportunity to seize Ukraine as part of his ambition to reinstall the historic Great Russian Empire. One of the reasons that encouraged Putin to take this step was the declining military strength of the European NATO nations. With limited operational capability, no stocks, insufficient strategic mobility and political denial of any occurring threat, Europe was not able to firmly react to Putin’s invasion and support Ukraine.

We found ourselves in a position of complete dependence on the US and its military power. Because support from the US is far from certain in the coming years, the European part of NATO now has to redesign itself. But success is not assured. Because while you can shut down your armed forces and their capabilities in less than a day, building them up takes years. That hard lesson is now being learned.

Conclusion number one: NATO has a future only if the ‘European pillar’ of NATO is in balance with the US. That requires a long and intense political commitment and swift and unconventional military buildup. That sense of urgency is not well established yet throughout Europe.


NATO must be physically bigger

These considerations may not be new to you. Often we analyze the situation in the world along conceptual lines. But I have bad news for you: that’s only part of the truth. Our Western world, and especially the European part of NATO, also has a physical and mental problem. Which may be more threatening to NATO than an uneasy strategic analysis.

Let me start with the physical component of combat power: people and equipment. I’ll start with equipment. If the war in Ukraine makes one thing clear, it is that protracted wars are often decided by the ability to produce materiel better and faster than the opponent. This in combination with sufficient initial stocks generates resilience and perseverance. Within NATO, only the US has a sufficient industrial base and supplies to realize this; Europe has virtually nothing. It is high time for a European defense strategy that leads to significant volume of equipment and stocks, division of labor, streamlining of weapon systems and redundancy in logistics.

Conclusion 2: NATO, and especially the European part of NATO, must be physically bigger, faster and smarter and supported by a clear and broadly accepted strategic industrial policy.

Let us now focus on the soldier. Things aren’t going well there either. A lot of NATO countries have switched to a professional army, much smaller in size than the Cold War conscript armies. Rightly so at the time, because war turned out to be far away from Europe and missions like peace-keeping or stabilizing missions were seen as the overarching new business to invest in. This led to smaller but professional armies, avoiding juridical problems in deploying conscripts abroad and less political discussion about missions. Besides that, being a soldier has increasingly become a profession and professionalism often determines success and survival. But that situation now needs to be reconsidered. If the current wars make one thing clear, it is that manpower is still crucial to success. A war requires large numbers of people, especially if an intensive war lasts a long time. Not only to compensate for the terrible and unimaginably high losses, but also because wars are gaining more and more geographical depth. Cities must be protected and supply lines and critical infrastructure secured.



This forces us to think about expanding the manpower of our armies. This can be done on a voluntary basis through systems such as military service and reservists, but perhaps ultimately also through compulsory military service. However, this might not be easy seeing the speed and willingness with which we abandoned this system. But there is also a major organizational challenge. No country currently has the infrastructure, training grounds, ammunition, weapons and NCOs to make this possible. If we want more manpower, we need to fundamentally change our systems and our organization, which requires firm political and societal commitment, and time.

Conclusion 3: war requires manpower. Professional armies do not have sufficient mass, redundancy and depth in numbers to deliver sufficient manpower. NATO must consider new models for force generation. But there is something more to that: the quality of the leadership. War was, is and will always be about breaking the will of your opponent. Of course, technology has an unprecedented and ever-innovative influence on warfare, but that does not mean that high-tech armed forces always win a war. See Vietnam, see Gaza.

In addition, breaking the will often means physically occupying a country. War is also a primitive approach to power. Conquering land and planting your flag in occupied territory is still decisive in war. You have to show the people who is in charge. In Cherson, in Avdiivka, in Gaza. War is about people, not about systems or dimensions. People do not live in the air, at sea, in cyber or in space; people live on land. That is why the mental component of combat power is still decisive and always will be. Leadership, motivation, resilience and cohesion are crucial for success. This can be achieved only through education in the broadest sense of the word. A manager gets the best out of his people, a leader makes his people the best. That lesson might need to be relearned.


Unconventional and unprecedented multinational integration

Conclusion 4: the backbone of NATO is leadership. NATO needs to constantly renew its vision on leadership: morale, ethics and resilience. Education is the key to operational success. Finally: the future of NATO can take shape only with much further integration of armed forces. National autonomy (if it exists) is then subordinate to the collective European interest. Not only joined, but most of all combined. NATO will increasingly be characterized by mixed formations and units, consisting of people from different countries. This is no problem for soldiers as it has long been our reality in missions. For example: soldiers from 18 nations were involved in the evacuation of a wounded Dutch soldier in Afghanistan! That does not necessarily mean a European army, because we cannot wait for that. But integration where possible; see the merger of the Dutch Army with the land forces of Germany. So, don’t just ‘train as you fight’, but also ‘organize as you fight’. Conclusion 5: the future of NATO is in unconventional and unprecedented multinational integration.

Finally, allow me to share something with you about the Dutch situation, but possibly applicable to many other countries. The Netherlands was one of the first NATO members and is proud of that. But full membership does require renewal and strengthening of our forces. In 2020, the then Minister of Defence stated that the Dutch armed forces cannot fulfil their constitutional tasks, including the defense of NATO territory. Since then, and especially after the start of the war in Ukraine, a lot has been invested, but recovery takes much longer than demolition. Dutch defense spending has also not yet caught up. Although the Netherlands almost meets the standard of investing 2 percent of our gross national product in our forces, that standard has not yet been structurally anchored.

And finally, the current governance model of the Dutch MoD is not focused on vision, long-term planning and stability, but still too reactive and opportunistic. In addition, the organization of the ministry is not yet geared to the principles of mission command and not yet focused on warfighting, but remains too busy with processes, paper work and politics. Let us use the imminent but lasting threat from Russia and the other major latent but impending threats to strengthen our defense in such a way that the Netherlands becomes a leader in NATO again. Our soldiers are ready for that.

Mart de Kruif MSM is a three-star general in the Royal Netherlands Army and served as its executive commander from 2011 to 2016.