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NATO: Losing Sight of the North Atlantic?

President Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric focused heavily on presenting a tough, assertive image of American power. Indeed, he broke new ground in toughness — not only did he take traditional US opponents to task, but traditional allies as well. At a July 2016 campaign rally in Wisconsin, Trump had harsh words for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — he proclaimed that it was obsolete, and promised voters that if elected, he would tell other members of the alliance “Fellas, you haven’t paid for years, give us the money or get the hell out.” He was referring to the 2% defense spending target for NATO members, which is not paid to the United States, but the message was clear.

Barely a year later, he announced that NATO was no longer obsolete and that he had fixed it. NATO members, who by that time had developed well-founded doubts about Trump’s commitments to the alliance, now had reason to doubt his consistency as well. American membership has been a driving force behind NATO’s activities and development since the alliance’s inception in 1949, and a vigorous, harmonious NATO is increasingly critical to European stability as Russia grows more threatening. Even with strong American commitments, the process of revitalizing NATO and reinvesting the peace dividend — the massive defense spending cuts after the fall of the Soviet Union — would be difficult; without it, that process would be impossible. And US leadership is not sending inspiring signals.

Donald Trump’s regular and visceral diatribes about NATO — as candidate, President-elect, and now President — have aroused great concern over how the United States’ commitment to the alliance. The most alarming predictions have gone unfulfilled, but there is continued tension. The President’s hyperbolic statements about the United States providing 80% of NATO funding had no basis in fact; this figure was based on total military budgeting, and the much smaller direct payments to NATO institutions are, in general, fairly divided.

He has also seemingly dropped his insistent statements that other NATO countries repay the US for the perceived benefits that they gain from US military largesse; that discussion would not have ended well. But the kernel of truth at the center of Trump’s bluster remains: Only a handful of NATO members actually meet the 2% of GDP target for military spending. This target is not enshrined in law and is not enforceable, but meeting it is a sign of commitment. Eight countries are expected to meet the target this year, and fifteen by 2024; whatever the effects of Trump’s statements on relations in general, they seem to have struck a nerve.

But the President’s statements would have accomplished nothing were it not for the fact that NATO members besides the United States have come to value the alliance much more in the past few years. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, none saw the 2% target as particularly important; there were no threats on the horizon, and more urgent spending needs. While Russia was picking up the pieces of its economy and political system, NATO found only the occasional outlet in regional peacekeeping missions and struggled to retain the relevancy of other pan-European institutions. But since the 2014 seizure of Crimea, defense spending and cohesiveness have surged across the alliance, keeping pace with enhanced perceptions of the Russian threat. This may well be the real answer to the pointed questioning about why NATO was retained after 1991; if a future threat to Europe arose, it would be easier to revitalize the alliance than to rebuild it totally. But the Russian threat has evolved greatly since NATO’s heyday.

Perhaps most importantly, Russia no longer has Eastern Europe under heel. Most of the Warsaw Pact countries now lay their allegiances firmly on the other side, or somewhere towards the middle; only Belarus lingers, an almost pathetic reminder of what used to be. There is really no doubt at this point about the ultimate outcome of an all-out conflict; instead, the fear is that Russia could repeat its fait accompli in Crimea, winning a local victory of some kind and then making it impossible to reverse without full-scale war. The changing nature of Russia’s aggressive acts has prompted a few critical changes in NATO strategy. As long as there are Western-aligned minor powers in Europe, they will be under threat. Obviously, from NATO’s perspective, the easiest way to alleviate that threat is to seek their membership in the alliance.

NATO’s efforts to draw in as many regional allies as possible in Eastern Europe have met with general success so far, and, at least outside of the Russian perspective, have been mutually beneficial and cordial. NATO integration often accompanies EU integration and favorable economic and diplomatic relations with Western Europe, and this package deal is a powerful incentive. The Russian narrative, of course, portrays NATO as a vehicle for unrepentant American imperialism and a massive threat to independence and sovereignty in Eastern Europe, but this simply has not proven convincing where it counts; NATO member countries in Eastern Europe still hold broadly positive views of the alliance. The expansion process, if it continues as planned, will mean greater conflict with Russia for the foreseeable future and will expose long-standing domestic problems in new member countries. Ukraine is the foremost problem here; incorporating it into NATO will require resolving lingering separatist violence in the east of the country, which is sponsored by Russia with the express goal of hindering and punishing Ukraine’s efforts to engage with NATO and the EU. It does not take a master diplomat to recognize the problem there, and it will take more than one to solve it.

In addition to gradually expanding, NATO must take stock of, and prepare for, Russian unconventional warfare. Russia’s Internet and mass media propaganda may be transparently state-sponsored and blatantly self-serving, but we in the United States need no reminders that propaganda need not be covert to work. There is a growing effort throughout the West to address Russian information warfare, but since Russia often uses these techniques to distort facts about its other aggressive actions and to manipulate political affairs in target countries, this effort must be part of a comprehensive NATO strategy. It will not be possible to defend NATO members from Russian meddling without cohesive planning that incorporates a range of precise,  targeted countermeasures. Likewise, whether or not concerns about a Russian advantage in cyber warfare are well-founded, it is clear that a major threat exists. The United States has the most developed cyber capability among NATO countries, and even this is fairly anemic; this is a matter of funding but also of training, sustained development work, and harnessing technical expertise.

Even if these strategic gaps are adequately addressed, NATO members follow through on their new commitments to increase spending, and the alliance continues to expand throughout Eastern Europe, NATO will not be out of the proverbial woods. New spending commitments must be maintained over time, and new developments in the Russian threat and in internal politics in Eastern Europe will demand responses. The alliance must pursue rapid change and modernization while maintaining the continuity of policy required to keep members reassured and ensure that major investments are not wasted. A strong, consistent American commitment to a leadership role within NATO will be critical for this evolution. Consistent, long-term policymaking is especially critical to keeping defense spending efficient. Modern militaries are built on a timeframe of decades, and keeping readiness high while investing in new capabilities requires comprehensive long-term planning as well as stable funding.

Sudden budget cuts have an outsize effect; maintaining capabilities and forces costs far less than restoring them after they are dissolved or allowed to lapse, and predictable budgets enable far more effective planning for future needs. In a way, Trump’s pressure on NATO members to meet the 2% target, while often delivered with crass and accusatory language, is firmly in line with US interests. In fact, a more aggressive push will be required in the near future. While the wider adherence to the 2% target is encouraging, new commitments to increase spending have come primarily among smaller powers, while NATO’s linchpin members allow their forces to atrophy. The constant pace of rotations and deployments overseas keeps general readiness among US forces high; but among, for example, German forces, critical maintenance on tanks, ships, and planes has been deferred, leaving nearly half unusable. Fierce debate over budgeting in the UK last year nearly led to a substantial defense spending cut; while this was avoided, spending on defense as a percentage of GDP has declined since the 1980s. French president Emmanuel Macron has pledged to meet the 2% target, up from the current 1.6%, but this follows a series of deep spending cuts in 2017.

The US may prove reluctant to pressure its closest allies in this way, but it will prove necessary. Unfortunately, president Trump has proven that he is incapable of decisive action on the equally important fronts of confronting Russia and setting NATO’s agenda. His approach to Russia so far has been disturbingly inconsistent; he refused to implement new sanctions against Russia passed by Congress, but has recently taken a strong stance against civilian casualties caused by Russian and regime forces in Syria. Put simply, a president with no consistent policy on Russia cannot hope to shape NATO to better meet the threat that every other member seems to see clearly.

Ultimately, the members of NATO will almost inevitably maintain their proverbial thousand-yard stare across the Polish border – and in the future, perhaps across the Ukrainian or Moldovan or Montenegrin ones. The importance of NATO’s role as a deterrent to Russian aggression is hotly debated, but there seems to be broad agreement among member countries that the alliance is regaining its relevance. But no amount of collective determination can overcome a loss of commitment by the United States, at least in the short-term.

If Trump continues his fiery rhetoric about other NATO members not pulling their weight, it must be balanced with strong signals that the United States is committed to NATO, values its partnerships in the alliance, and has a consistent, long-term grand strategy to guide NATO in confronting the threats it faces. American leadership in NATO holds the alliance together, no less today than in 1949. But holding NATO together, even with increased military spending across Europe, is not enough. Rising to the challenge of Russian unconventional warfare, coordinating the modernization and recapitalization of European militaries, and continuing to pursue new member states will require sustained commitment throughout the alliance, as well as a commodity that has become vanishingly scarce — coherent policy from Washington.


Image Source: Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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