NATO can deter Russia, and America can deter China, but Europe must step up

NATO can deter Russia, and America can deter China, but Europe must step up
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Back in 1949, the NATO alliance was formed to ensure that a rising Soviet Union would never think about swallowing up a Western Europe still bloodied from a savage war that had taken millions of lives and destroyed its industrial and economic base. And its mission was successful for the simple fact that Moscow was deterred — and World War III never had to be waged.

In fact, there has never been a more powerful alliance in history, even to this day.

Of course, victory in the Cold War meant problems were inevitable. After the USSR collapsed in 1991, NATO has struggled with an obvious identity problem. What happens to a great alliance when its enemy is defeated? History tells us many times they languish on for a time, and then, either slowly or suddenly, they get dissolved.


NATO, however, seems to have bucked that trend, at least for the time being. All during the 1990s and into the present day, the alliance moved east, closer and closer and then right to Russia’s doorstep.

While no one will admit it, NATO’s mission is now clear: deter a much weaker but still troublesome Moscow. Thanks to a rogue Russia’s foolish meddling in Ukraine culminating in the invasion and capture of Crimea, NATO is back as a key international intuition that ensures Moscow does not cause trouble in any alliance nations — either directly or with those pesky “little green men” Russia loves to use.

But why is America still shouldering the burden of the alliance’s spending and capabilities? Simple math tells you that the economic muscle of just Germany, Great Britain and France — worth a collective $8.4 trillion, enough to field a world-class military easily — should be more than enough to push back against any challenge that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his band of thugs could ever dream up.

We also should consider for a moment the internal challenges Russia must contend with — and they aren’t pretty. Moscow’s demographics are a disaster; her economy is in tatters, thanks to economic sanctions and gross mismanagement. And the military, while certainly one of the best on the planet, is nowhere near the level of superpower status that it was during the Cold War.

Quite simply, thanks to a vibrant Europe and a weakened Russia, our friends in Brussels should have no problem meeting their common defense needs — with minimal help from Washington, who will surely remain in NATO but no longer should need to be NATO.

Instead, quite the opposite has happened. The German Air Force, for example, is on the verge of collapse. The mighty Royal Navy, the queen’s savior during not one, but two world wars, is a shell of what it used to be. Readiness and operational capacity are down. In fact, in various simulations I have led over the years, NATO lost in several hypnotical conflicts to Russia because alliance forces were so dependent on America coming to their aid from across the Atlantic that Moscow took advantage in conflicts over the Baltics to Ukraine and beyond. Sheer incompetence by NATO, thanks to a lack of resources in these simulations, was Russia’s greatest military advantage.

This is the problem President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump faces high stakes in meeting with Erdoğan amid impeachment drama Democrats worry they don't have right candidate to beat Trump Trump threatening to fire Mulvaney: report MORE must address when he speaks to European officials at the NATO summit, because the administration must turn its attention elsewhere. America has a strategic need to ensure Europe can and must guarantee its own security — because Asia is calling. With a rising China that seems destined to further challenge the international order in East Asia and beyond, Washington must be able to deploy as much of its economic, military and diplomatic prowess into Asia.

In the months and years to come, the China challenge will be America’s greatest geopolitical test in decades. As I have noted in these pages recently, the glue that held the U.S.-China relationship — a shared fear of the Soviet Union, and then trade — has disintegrated. Washington and Beijing seemed destined for a test of wills that will determine not only the future course of Asia and the larger Indo-Pacific region, but perhaps the destiny of Taiwan; who will control the South China Sea; and the fate of the idea that the global commons — our oceans and seas — should remain open to all.

Now is the time for the strategic shift Washington should have made years ago. All NATO members must begin to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. That alone should ensure that any Russian notions of rekindling its aggressive past die a quick death. That also should allow America to truly pivot to Asia and ensure China’s own aggressive desires also are checked.

None of that means Washington would step away or leave NATO, pull out all its forces, or move towards isolationism. Such actions as outlined above are simply a bowing to strategic reality.

NATO, being led by Europe, can handle Russia if properly resourced — and America must handle China. Anything less only compromises both goals.

Harry J. Kazianis (@grecianformula) is director of Defense Studies at the Center for the National Interest, founded in 1994 by President Richard M. Nixon, and executive editor of its publishing arm, The National Interest. He previously worked on the foreign policy team of the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign and as foreign policy communications manager at the Heritage Foundation, editor-in-chief of The Diplomat, and as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views voiced in this article are his own.