A stronger NATO for a safer world
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At NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Secretary James Mattis, at a joint press conference on Feb. 15 with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, stated: “America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to the alliance, each of your capitals needs to show its support for our common defense.” This statement is significant, not only for its content but for its context.

In just the last week, it was reported that a Russian intelligence collection ship was operating off the east coast of the United States; Russia had deployed a new missile system to NATO’s borders that may violate the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty; and Russian military aircraft had conducted high-speed passes over U.S. Navy ships operating in the Black Sea.

While an intelligence ship operating near the coast and aircraft buzzing U.S. Navy ships are not necessarily new, particularly in recent years, the deployment of a new missile system that violates a long-standing treaty is certainly something new, and further reveals Vladimir Putin’s strategic intentions to undermine the West and its institutions.


In fact, at the recent Munich Security Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asserted that he hoped “responsible leaders” will choose a “just world order — if you want, you can call it a post-West world order.” 


Within this context, it was reassuring to many at home, and certainly to our allies in Europe, that during appearances at the Munich Security Conference and the NATO ministerial respectively, Mattis and Vice President Pence reaffirmed the United States’s commitment to NATO, and also made it clear that Russia would be held accountable for its actions.

Mattis went a bit further in noting that any cooperation would be contingent on Russia first taking positive steps to meet its obligations. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in his first face-to-face meeting with Lavrov, insisted that Russia live up to the terms of the Minsk agreement and limit its involvement in the internal affairs of Ukraine.

Given the assertions about potential divisions in the Trump administration, could these statements from Mattis and Tillerson reveal some kind of “good cop, bad cop” routine, with the president playing the good cop in an otherwise hard-line administration?

Or is it, as our European allies worry, just a symptom of a dysfunctional administration?

Only time will tell. But what is needed now is not “good cop, bad cop.” What is needed is clarity of purpose and resolve.

If Winston Churchill were with us today, he may have reiterated one of his well-known statements from the WWI period: “It is no use saying, 'We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.” Churchill’s point is as insightful today as it was in his time.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBiden's year two won't be about bipartisanship  Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 MORE (R-Ariz.) clearly took on that mantle of leadership and resolve in his speech at the Munich conference, closely echoing Churchill’s words: “The unprecedented period of security and prosperity that we have enjoyed for the past seven decades did not happen by accident. It happened not only because of the appeal of our values, but because we backed them with our power and persevered in their defense. Our predecessors did not believe in the end of history — or that it bends, inevitably, toward justice. That is up to us. That requires our persistent, painstaking effort.” 

Given the level of effort that the United States has put into reinvigorating its involvement in European security, it is understandable that the president and the American people expect our allies to meet their treaty requirements. This is nothing new; the last three administrations have pushed our NATO allies to step up their funding for defense. However, the events of today require a renewed and unambiguous call for NATO member countries to meet their obligations.

From our time on Capitol Hill and in various other meetings and conferences, we have met with U.S. and allied military commanders. There is a clear commitment among the uniformed services of our alliance partners to increase joint training and improve our force structure in Europe. What is needed now is a political commitment to providing the resources required to enable that cooperation. 

The Obama administration took some small steps in that direction, though Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commander of U.S. Army Forces in Europe, must be given a great deal of credit. He seized the initiative and pushed for more forward deployed U.S. equipment and personnel in Europe. Hodges's leadership is commendable, but the full commitment to the alliance, the security of Europe, and Western interests cannot rest with one general’s ingenuity and sheer will.

Nor can any of this be protected with only a portion of the NATO alliance meeting their full commitment. In the words of the NATO secretary-general: “The challenges we face are the most complex and demanding in a generation. Neither Europe nor North America can tackle them alone. A strong NATO is good for Europe, a strong Europe is good for North America.”

The events of today require a renewed and unambiguous call for NATO member countries to meet their obligations. However, building the public awareness and the political will to meet those obligations is unlikely to be accomplished solely through the holding of joint press conferences on the margins of a ministerial meetings or international conferences. The leaders of NATO, European thought leaders, influencers and activists must commit to visiting the member states who are not currently meeting the funding threshold and taking the case to the people. 

This outreach should be accompanied by a media campaign that takes advantage of the various social networks to bring a new generation of supports to the NATO cause. The message must be clear and unequivocal: The threats of the past are re-emerging, the threat of terrorism grows with each passing day, and we need to be more, not less, involved in the conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East so that we can meet the threat of terrorism before it reaches the shores of Europe or North America. No one country, no matter how powerful, can protect us.

We, in the West, must heed the words of Churchill, in another time — and McCain, in our time — and be in this together.


Joseph Whited is the former Intelligence Lead for the House Armed Services Committee. He spent over 18 years serving in the intelligence community.

Alex Gallo is senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and served as a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee.

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