Coronavirus gives NATO a chance to demonstrate its worth

Coronavirus gives NATO a chance to demonstrate its worth
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On March 27, North Macedonia became NATO’s 30th member, expanding the Alliance’s direct area of responsibility to much of the Balkans, with the exceptions of Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo. Bosnia is negotiating to enter the Alliance, and Kosovo has indicated it intends to apply. Whether NATO has the resources, the will or, for that matter, the ability to defend every one of its members — and certainly any more members — is an open question. 

Four days after North Macedonia’s accession, the U.S. Navy placed all but the skeleton crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in quarantine to halt the spread of the coronavirus onboard the ship. The decision underscores the tenuous nature of NATO’s ability to defend its members against external aggression. The carrier’s commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, who asked the Navy for assistance after several of his crewmen contracted COVID-19, had asserted that the situation would be different in wartime because “in combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime.” (Crozier since has been relieved of his command.)

Whether the United States, or any other NATO member would undertake those risks during a crisis, or in the face of an aggressor’s gray zone operation against one of its weaker members such as North Macedonia, is not that clear, however. Indeed, the Alliance’s flaccid collective response to the challenge of the coronavirus points to its lack of cohesion and does not augur well for its ability to mobilize militarily in the face of an impending threat to one or more of its members.

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NATO’s foreign ministers released a statement Thursday after discussing the COVID-19 threat by video conference, saying in part, “Allies continue to stand together and support each other in the pandemic, through different NATO arrangements, as well as bilaterally,” and that the ministers “will consider what more can be done.”

But in fact, the NATO states have not done much to assist one another in combating the coronavirus. It took weeks, and hundreds of deaths, before Italy began to receive aid from its European neighbors. Until mid-March, China was Italy’s major source of protective masks. NATO created the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre (EADRCC) in 1998, but tellingly, it did not issue its first situation report until April 1. At the same time, it has received requests from seven nations — including a North Macedonian request for 500,000 masks and 800,000 nitrile gloves — to which it has yet to respond. Thus far, only Turkey and the Czech Republic have completed deliveries to Spain and Italy. 

France, which had started to supply large numbers of masks to Italy, now is running short of its own supply of masks and is in need of ventilators as well. Thus far, it does not appear to have received much, if any, assistance from its NATO or European Union partners. 

In his statement welcoming North Macedonia to NATO, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called it “great news in a difficult time.” The time is certainly difficult, but the news may not be that great. The alliance is stretched thin and North Macedonia’s entry stretches it thinner. NATO simply has too many members — and too few that can make a material contribution to its defenses. Its cohesion in the face of a threat is not a foregone conclusion.

The travails of the Theodore Roosevelt highlight the reality that NATO’s forces — even those of the United States — may be insufficiently robust to overcome extraordinary challenges, such as the coronavirus, that would reduce its readiness and responsiveness in a crisis. And the go-it-alone policies of NATO’s member states, most especially the United States, in combating the coronavirus do little to inspire confidence that all, or even most, members can be relied upon to invoke Article 5, which calls for their common response if one of their counterparts comes under attack.

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As the coronavirus rages on, it offers NATO a chance to demonstrate its credibility to operate as a unit for the benefit of all members. The Alliance, together with its partners, should build upon its creation of the EADRCC to develop a common plan for the most efficient distribution of masks, protective gear, ventilators and other badly needed commodities — including any newly developed vaccines — among all member states. 

In addition, now that the Trump administration has finally recognized the seriousness of the threat that the virus poses, it should assume its historic NATO role and lead both the planning effort and its rapid implementation. There is no time to lose. Too many lives remain in serious peril. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Editor's Note: This article was updated to reflect that Kosovo is not yet negotiating to join NATO.