- - Tuesday, February 28, 2017


Western political and media elites reacted with horror to President Trump’s repeated statements that NATO is “obsolete” during the 2016 electoral campaign. They have also reacted with skepticism to more recent efforts by senior administration officials to affirm the U.S. commitment to NATO while pressing America’s allies to do more for their own defense. The critics forget both NATO’s history and — more fundamentally — confuse means with ends in U.S. national security. NATO is an instrument and, accordingly, something the United States can and should examine and seek to fix when it is not working properly. Mr. Trump has correctly understood that NATO isn’t doing its job.

Post-Cold War history demonstrates NATO’s failure to adapt to changing circumstances and requirements. George W. Bush administration officials appropriately questioned the alliance’s contribution to U.S. operations in Afghanistan following the Sept. 11 attacks and NATO’s first-ever invocation of its mutual defense obligations under Article Five of the Washington Treaty. Later, NATO’s 2011 airstrikes against Libya illustrated considerable shortcomings as key allies proved unable to sustain the campaign for lack of precision bombs against a foe barely able to fight back.

In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, NATO members all too readily opted to respond primarily through coordinated U.S.-European Union economic sanctions that predictably failed to deter subsequent Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine. Former President Obama bears no small responsibility for this, having declared in April 2014 that Russia could not be “deterred from further escalation by military force” at a time when decisive deployments of U.S. and NATO military forces in NATO member states surrounding Ukraine might well have affected Mr. Putin’s calculations. But Mr. Obama was far from alone among NATO leaders in his reluctance do this.

NATO today has three major problems. First, the alliance has spent far more time discussing its membership than its purpose, leaving its goals unclear. If NATO is a defensive alliance, why did it intervene in Yugoslavia’s civil wars of the 1990s and launch airstrikes in Libya? Neither threatened NATO members with attack. If NATO seeks to stabilize Europe and Eurasia, how did NATO officials expect to do that without a security architecture that incorporated Russia on mutually acceptable terms? Conversely, if NATO sees Moscow as an existential danger and aims to contain and deter Russia, why do so few alliance members meet minimal standards for defense spending and military readiness? And if NATO sought to address new threats, why was it so ill-prepared in Afghanistan and then in Libya?

Second, the confusion about NATO’s purpose has distorted its membership processes. As NATO increasingly concentrated on social engineering in prospective member states rather than security for its existing members, membership processes became longer and longer to maximize NATO’s political leverage over potential entrants. On one hand, this showed the extent to which NATO leaders did not see meaningful security threats to the alliance for most of its post-Cold War history — otherwise, why take this dilatory approach? On the other hand, NATO’s focus on political, economic and military reforms in aspiring members seemed to crowd out attention to military considerations that ordinary citizens outside the trans-Atlantic establishment might justifiably see as more important in addressing security concerns. For example, few explained where, when and how new members would add to alliance capabilities and obligations or how new members would affect alliance military planning, including NATO plans to defend them. NATO is now scrambling to address this gap.

Finally, as Mr. Trump has said, NATO has not adequately addressed new threats like terrorism. This is not too surprising, in that neither NATO’s original members nor newer allies likely saw counterterrorism cooperation as an important motive in joining the alliance. Worse, NATO members have different perspectives, interests and constraints in dealing with terrorism, which complicate efforts to develop a consensus-based policy that moves beyond lowest-common-denominator solutions. Indeed, it seems that security concerns related to terrorism and Russia are inversely proportional and gradually tilt from the former to the latter as one moves from west and south to east and north through continental Europe. This will continue to complicate efforts to define a clear mission.

The Trump administration’s approach to NATO is sensible and long overdue. Moreover, rather than being a threat to the alliance, as some of Mr. Trump’s ideological opponents seek to portray his approach, it is an enormous opportunity. An expected NATO summit in late May could begin this critical conversation. Rethinking and retooling NATO while simultaneously increasing U.S. military capabilities, as Mr. Trump has proposed, and pressing U.S. allies to do the same could produce the 21st century alliance that America needs. Those assailing efforts to modernize and refocus NATO are the real danger to its future.

• Paul J. Saunders is executive director of the Center for the National Interest and a former State Department senior adviser during the George W. Bush administration.



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