Personality conflicts aside, NATO leaders are thinking more strategically

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We already have a narrative in place for how the Brussels NATO summit will unfold this week: The conclave is slated to be an acrimonious failure as President Donald Trump clashes with America’s European allies over defense spending, and European leaders continue to seethe that a U.S. president invoked a threat to national security in order to impose tariffs on their goods and services in the American market.

This concern is augmented by the fact that Trump next week will jet to Helsinki for a face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin, raising concerns that, in a private tete-a-tete, the two leaders will conduct a 21st century version of Yalta, unrolling maps to delineate spheres of influence in Europe and the Middle East.

{mosads}Fireworks are all but guaranteed in Brussels, but dramatic confrontations and angry Twitter outbursts should not distract from or derail longer-term changes in the Atlantic Alliance that will outlast any specific leaders’ terms of office. Over this past weekend, two dramatic, if understated, developments point to critical under-the-surface changes that have important ramifications for the future of NATO — and which also could help to stabilize a confrontational relationship between Russia and the West.


Probably the most contentious issue that bedevils NATO is the question of Russia. As senior European defense figures told me last month on the sidelines of the Loisach Group, a German-American conclave cosponsored by the Munich Security Conference and the Marshall Center, the alliance lacks a common threat assessment when it comes to Russia.

For some countries, such as the Baltic States, Russia is an immediate, existential threat to their national security. For southern Europeans, Russia poses no threat and, in fact, is seen as a possible partner in helping to stabilize the Middle East. Britain, of course, is dealing with the ramifications of nerve-agent attacks carried out on its soil by alleged Russian agents. For Germany and France, Russia poses no challenge to territorial integrity or economic position, but Putin’s activities create problems for their preferred vision of European order.

For years, the alliance has struggled to find a middle position between Russia-skeptics and Russia-engagers — often settling on half-measures that satisfied no one and were not, to boot, taken that seriously by Moscow.

Over the weekend, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear that while Germany wishes to see a “responsible relationship” with Russia, NATO must focus on “defending the alliance” — which means having a credible, reliable and effective deterrent to any Russian mischief-making on the alliance’s eastern frontiers. This would require funding and resourcing to full capacity the “necessary arrangements, for example through a presence in central and Eastern European countries.”

Part of Russia’s strategy in recent years has been to exploit divisions within the alliance over Russia. It has been German leadership that has held together a sanctions regime against Russia for its actions in Ukraine, even as more pro-Russian governments have come to power throughout Europe, most notably in Italy. Merkel’s statements will help to ratify a consensus in Brussels that NATO must demonstrate a credible deterrent capability even while keeping the door open to improved relations with Russia. Reaffirmation in Brussels by all the allies — concurrent with practical commitments — of that point would help to remind Putin that, no matter how friendly his personal chats with Trump are in Helsinki, the Western allies retain their resolve to block hostile Russian actions.

That deterrent capability also will be strengthened if the allies follow the advice proffered this past weekend by UK Defense Minister Tobias Ellwood. We know that Trump will raise the contentious question of allied defense spending and the importance of all NATO members meeting their obligation to commit 2 percent of their GDP toward national security expenditures. Yet, a focus on numbers is not enough. NATO members are beginning to grapple with the question of what they are spending on. Some countries, such as Greece or Turkey, whose defense spending exceeds the 2 percent benchmark, are purchasing capabilities that bring little value to the overall mission of the alliance, while others use defense budgets as a de facto jobs program to deal with unemployment.

Ellwood wants to see the alliance thinking more strategically about what it is buying, noting: “It’s in Europe’s direct interest to upgrade our defense posture, as our economies, heavily reliant on access to international markets, will be affected if we can’t guarantee security for that access as well as put out potential fires in future markets.”

Under Ellwood’s proposals, European states would invest more in long-range, expeditionary capabilities to address threats to the Euro-Atlantic region in their cradles across the Mediterranean and in the global commons, rather than waiting for them to metastasize into imminent dangers.

Europe also must spend more to upgrade infrastructure and interconnections so that troops, equipment, and even energy can flow easily and rapidly from one end of the continent to the other, instead of the current system with its bottlenecks and choke points — investing in what transatlantic relations expert Daniel Hamilton of Johns Hopkins University calls “forward resilience.” And a more resilient NATO increases the costs for Russian malfeasance, while incentivizing more cooperative behavior.

No matter the immediate optics of the Brussels summit, the long-term planning for making the alliance more flexible and capable is under way. A narrative of NATO failure arising out of personality clashes between the president and European leaders, no matter how seductive in terms of headlines, obscures real progress that is being made and weakens confidence in the process of alliance regeneration that started before Trump came into office and will continue when his term is concluded.

Nikolas Gvosdev is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, the U.S. Navy’s staff college in Newport, Rhode Island, and former editor of the foreign policy journal The National Interest. The views expressed are his own.

Tags Donald Trump International relations NATO Russia–NATO relations Vladimir Putin

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