Jane Harman: NATO must use its brain cells to battle these threats

Jane Harman: NATO must use its brain cells to battle these threats
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NATO is not brain dead. The bold pronouncement by French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronUS-China tensions shadow United Nations meeting The US is missing an opportunity in Lebanon Russia's aggression can and should cost Putin dearly MORE last month is excessive and premature. However, the comment put American President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpOmar fires back at Trump over rally remarks: 'This is my country' Pelosi: Trump hurrying to fill SCOTUS seat so he can repeal ObamaCare Trump mocks Biden appearance, mask use ahead of first debate MORE in the awkward position of defending NATO when he normally does the opposite. “NATO has come a long way in three years, and it has become very powerful,” he declared during the meeting of its leaders in London this week. He also took credit for the recent increases in defense spending by member states, nine of which now meet the guideline of 2 percent of gross domestic product.

But NATO does have a “brain cell” problem. Simply look at the headlines this week. Trump decided to cut short his attendance following difficult bilateral meetings and a video that emerged of world leaders apparently mocking him. Rather than using brain cells focused on external threats, a mission that has sustained NATO for 70 years, the transatlantic alliance seems to be mired in useless name calling and managing personalities.

If anything is truly brain dead, it is the “cash register” theory that all that matters is each country spending 2 percent on NATO. Looking at the alliance as a binary transaction between individual members misses the mark. Eighteen years ago, NATO allies did not think about money when they invoked Article 5, the common defense clause within the charter, to support America in the wake of 9/11. They did so before the United States could even ask, and it remains the only time Article 5 has been invoked.


But Trump warned that he may disregard the common defense clause if allies keep underspending. NATO should certainly have in place spending guidelines. But it more urgently needs investment in a better strategy to meet current and emerging challenges including Russian interference, a risen China, and asymmetric capabilities and threats that level the playing field, such as cyber and space warfare. Let us address each of these here.

News of bickering in the alliance is an early Christmas gift to Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinEx-Trump national security adviser says US leaders 'making it easy for Putin' to meddle The Hill's Campaign Report: GOP set to ask SCOTUS to limit mail-in voting Putin calls on UN to strengthen World Health Organization MORE. His administration continues to interfere in Ukraine, a prospective NATO member, and in the domestic politics of many in the alliance, including the Baltic States and the United States. Meanwhile, Moscow curries favor with Turkey, another NATO member. Turkey has now tested its Russian S400 air defense system, which is incompatible with NATO, after purchasing it against American wishes. Russia and Turkey have been conducting joint patrols along the Syrian border, where the United States handed Turkish troops essentially a free pass to attack our Kurdish allies, and where human rights violations have allegedly been happening on a massive scale under Turkish oversight.

Fortunately, Turkey blinked and did not go through with its threat to veto the updated NATO defense plan for the Baltic States, an essential bulwark against Russia, unless the allies acknowledged the Kurdish soldiers as terrorists. Ultimately, the allies managed to sign a document endorsing the defense plan and condemning Russian “aggressive actions.” But a document is still not a strategy for actively addressing interference.

The allies did agree on language toward China, for the first time officially recognizing the “opportunities and challenges” posed by its rise. “We see them in the Arctic. We see them in Africa,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, noting that “China is coming closer to us.” Indeed, the Chinese investment in Europe, and in 5G in particular, potentially puts at risk all NATO countries. The willingness of some European countries to embrace Huawei could leave them with a network vulnerable from buggy code, or worse, offer China an intentional backdoor into their systems.

The European Union has now warned against using 5G technology from “hostile” countries, without naming Huawei, and late last month, the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel overruled a planned deal with the company. Alignment between the Europe Union and the United States on the nature of the threat from China is an important first step. But only time will tell whether NATO can translate this coordination into a coherent and effective strategy that will have any measurable impact on this matter.


The cyber challenge to NATO gets even murkier than 5G. The alliance cyber chief, Colonel Jaak Tarien of Estonia, admitted this week in London, “It took a good decade for NATO to really start taking cyber seriously.” According to most cyber threat experts, Russia is near the top of the pile in terms of its capabilities and willingness to attack. That would require a coordinated response from NATO, which was right to extend Article 5 to cyber attacks five years ago. The alliance should also help the member states resist and respond to cyber attacks, identifying frequent enemy techniques and procedures, far better than any one country alone.

As technologies become easier to deploy, the playing field and the number of players increase. On top of that, the communications and intelligence capabilities enabled by space technologies multiply the threats exponentially. But while cyber attacks can come from nonstate actors, the biggest cyber threats still come from nation states, because they have the time, money, and coordination capability required for the task. For the very same reason, an alliance of 29 countries is even better than a single country defending itself. With NATO countries owning half the satellites orbiting the earth today, they can rely on other member systems as a backup in case one gets knocked out by a cyber attack.

If petty feuds suck all the oxygen out of the urgent priorities for NATO, then brain death may not be far behind. But the good news is that the average adult has about 100 billion brain cells, and NATO leaders have nearly 3 trillion altogether. The challenges to the transatlantic alliance number far fewer than that, and if world leaders can focus on the current and emerging threats that really matter, then the 75th anniversary of the critical alliance will be a real cause for celebration five years from now.

Jane Harman is the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She served in Congress as a Democratic representative from California and was ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.