WASHINGTON — In Brussels Monday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg kicked off an all-day NATO 2030 Youth Summit aimed at injecting interest in the alliance into millennial and Generation Z future leaders.
“You — tomorrow’s leaders, both in North America and Europe — have the greatest stake in our security, so NATO 2030 is the chance for you to step up and safeguard your future, your freedom, your Alliance,” Stoltenberg said in his opening comments.
But a new report from the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank argues that NATO has not done enough to activate interest in younger European leaders — and that the alliance faces an existential threat if it can’t turn that around.
“We need to recognize there is a whole new generation of post-Cold War citizens of the alliance who have grown up in an entirely different environment, and they are already beginning to take up roles in national government, and they have a different set of priorities that are more in line with future threats,” the author of the report, Lauren Speranza, told Defense News.
“If NATO doesn’t bring them into the fold now, we risk this scenario in which NATO is viewed as outdated and doesn’t have the buy-in of a next generation of political leaders, and at that points risks retirement.”
Speranza offered three key areas where the alliance should step up its focus in order to make sure NATO is relevant to that post-Cold War cohort.
The first is a focus on the nontraditional threats that are well below the Article 5 designation, an area that “has impact on the everyday lives of millennials and Gen Z in a way that it doesn’t current policy makers,” per Speranza. A more proactive effort in that regard (something NATO has begun doing in recent years) would help attract interest in a way that a focus on Article 5, which refers to the alliance’s collective defense clause, may not, she said.
The second is a need to develop a technology and innovation agenda. The private tech industry is always in competition with the defense sector for young talent, and often wins, but NATO also lags behind the Pentagon and the European Union in how it recruits and offers interesting challenges for younger technology experts.
The third area also dovetails with statements from NATO leadership that it needs to figure out how to relate to China, and what role the alliance may play in the Pacific.
There are a lot of next-gen leaders with an interest in Asia, so bringing them in to help inform how partnerships with Asian nations could happen is a good way to benefit both sides," Speranza said. “It’s not about tearing up the current NATO agenda. It’s about finding ways to communicate those priorities with ways that resonate with next-gen leaders.”
The next-gen summit itself serves as a perfect example of the internal challenges Speranza sees at alliance headquarters. The effort is billed as a way to bring younger voices into NATO at a time when the alliance is undergoing a major review of its future, dubbed NATO 2030, and alliance leadership has announced plans to stand up a Young Leaders group in parallel to the review – all good moves, on paper.
But, Speranza says, “in an ideal world, we would just put a few next-gen representatives on the main Reflection Group instead of running a parallel process.”
“Oftentimes the next generation wants to be consulted but they get very few opportunities, and it’s always under this next-gen label; they don’t get to sit at the adults table or get to actually work shoulder to shoulder. By maintaining this divide, we do the Alliance a disservice.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.