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Trump’s first NATO outing comes at a time of adjustment, with the perception of Russian aggression again raising concerns of just how committed its members are to their collective defense

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Commitment was the dominant topic at the NATO summit in Brussels. Of particular note, the May 25 gathering was the first for U.S. President Donald Trump, who has frequently called for an increased commitment by NATO member states. In fact, during his address to the collected leaders of the alliance, Trump emphasized that each member must fulfill its obligations by spending its «fair share» of 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. And, in light of the bombing at Manchester Arena, the U.S. president also reinforced the need for the alliance to continue the fight against terrorism.

 

Trump’s first NATO outing comes at a time of adjustment for NATO, with the perception of Russian aggression again raising concerns of just how committed its members are to their collective defense. NATO’s main challenge is to reshape its strategy and objectives under a specific concept in a changing world. Since the organization was founded in 1949, NATO members have debated the necessary level of commitment in financial or military terms. Then, as now, the discussion has been divisive, at times even hampering the bloc’s ability to make effective decisions. But as an organization expected to act in an ever-evolving environment, NATO must continue to resolve its debates if it wants to remain a force to be reckoned with.

 

A Simpler Time

The debate was clearer during the Cold War. With NATO forces staring down Warsaw Pact armies in East Germany, the military minds of Europe and North America faced the problem of devising the Continent’s defense strategy, as they had done since even before the bloc’s founding. The advent of nuclear weapons only made the situation more precarious.

 

While the objective was straightforward, the strategy to achieve it wasn’t. Even then, there were differences of opinion among the supposed allies. British policymakers insisted that NATO forces in Europe should stand and fight in Germany, pouring as many troops into the Continent as needed to halt Soviet-aligned armies in their tracks should they invade. U.S. military planners, meanwhile, argued that this was not a realistic scenario. Their expectation was that Soviet forces would eventually be able to break through any defensive ranks, and therefore NATO forces in continental Europe should rapidly evacuate so that the war could be continued from overseas. This would allow the United Kingdom and the United States to adjust their economies to cope with a large-scale conflict, as they had done during World War II.

 

NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg addresses a news conference after a meeting of the NAC  in Defense Ministers session at the NATO headquarters in Brussels(NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg) 

 

Under that plan, the alliance would launch an air and naval campaign that targeted the advancing Russian forces and their supply lines, weakening their position before NATO forces could be deployed to retake the Continent. To the United Kingdom, however, the sacrifice required to trade territory for time to mount a response was unacceptable.

 

Both strategies had their merits, but NATO eventually decided that its official strategy would be to stand and fight at the Rhine. The U.S. and British expectation, though, was that in the event of an invasion, Europe would be occupied by the Soviet Union before remaining forces could initiate a real counterattack.

 

The development of NATO’s earliest strategy demonstrates an important fact: It is not a monolith, but rather an alliance among individual states with individual interests. The ability to align those interests into a coherent military deterrence has been the most critical aspect of NATO’s purpose.

 

An Aggressive Expansion

The development of NATO’s earliest strategy demonstrates an important fact: It is not a monolith, but rather an alliance among individual states with individual interests. The ability to align those interests into a coherent military deterrence has been the most critical aspect of NATO’s purpose.

 

After the Cold War ended, the threat to NATO changed. Instead of Warsaw Pact armies in Germany, it now faces threats less focused on conventional capabilities. Russia, even without its large Soviet armies, retains its vast nuclear weapons arsenal and other asymmetric tools (i.e. cyberwarfare) that could be used with great effect against its foes. NATO has also taken on the fight against transnational terrorism.

 

And NATO itself has changed dramatically. Through different phases of expansion, the alliance now extends east to Russia’s border. That gives NATO considerably greater strategic depth – with terrain it can either trade for time to prepare counteroffensives or defend from more advantageous positions. There is no longer an expectation that Russian armies could easily push through Europe. NATO’s membership also reaches into the Middle East, providing the alliance with a long, uninterrupted front that can be leveraged against any potential Russian threat.

 

NATO_EUROPA

 

The expansion to the Middle East has brought several risks, however. NATO is now much closer to a number of military threats in the region, and member Turkey, which has the largest conventional army among NATO’s European members, occupies a key position within the alliance. Apart from providing such a considerable force, the country is also forms the entire southern flank against any potential Russian threat that emerges from the Black Sea or Caucasus.

 

The alliance has extended its reach through the Partnership for Peace program as well, enabling it to involve neutral countries in planning. Austria, Sweden and Finland, among others, while not becoming a part of the alliance through the program, have been integrated into NATO military operating procedures. Those countries aren’t covered by the alliance’s Article 5, which states an attack on any member state is an attack on all others, but they do enjoy the benefits of NATO educational institutions and joint trainings. Ukraine and Georgia in particular have taken up responsibilities in NATO by serving as part of the NATO Response Force or by taking part in overseas operations, such as in Afghanistan.

 

The partnership program is a tool of diplomacy as much as one of the military. Not all of its participants, after all, are aligned with NATO politically. Even Russia is a member: The emphasis of those relationships, after all, are to build trust rather than provide military reinforcement. For several years now, however, this cooperation has been interrupted because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its activities in eastern Ukraine.

 

Falling to Rancor

But with more members in NATO, there are more interests in play, resulting in more internal spats. Turkey’s interests, for example, have occasionally diverged from those of the rest of NATO. In certain cases, some even argue that Turkey, because of its position in the Middle East, is more of a liability than a benefit to the alliance. The spat that erupted after Austria, which is a neutral partner of NATO, blocked Turkish accession to the European Union, for example, thwarted NATO’s ability to work with Austria, which participates in the Partnership for Peace program, for some time. The fact that in an alliance built on the principle of unanimity, a single member state can block action that all other members want, illustrates the risks of disunity.

 

Turkey’s intransigence has forced NATO to adjust the procedures by which its partnerships with nonmember states are approved. Rather than collectively approving the entire Partnership for Peace program as a whole, NATO countries will now vote collectively on each partner state. The spat between Turkey and Austria, therefore, would no longer halt all partnership activity. But Turkey would still be able to continue blocking NATO cooperation with Austria.

 

The increased scope of NATO presents another problem. The level of commitment to the NATO defensive posture differs from country to country and region to region. Because Western Europe faces a far less pronounced threat from an immediate Russian invasion, members in that region do not share the keen interest in actively supporting defenses against a conventional threat as do those in Eastern Europe, which face Russian activity on their borders daily.

 

The differences of opinion naturally translate into diverging interpretations of strategy. NATO members in Western Europe prefer contingency planning for potential interventions, if and when a threat materializes. Its Eastern European members are more in favor of permanent deployments of NATO forces to deter and potentially halt a conventional invasion. In some ways, it’s the same debate NATO has engaged in since its inception. As then, political and military interests are split, making it impossible to consider NATO a monolithic bloc.

 

NATO’s True Purpose

The United States has attempted to respond to these needs, particularly following Russia’s actions in Ukraine, through Operation Atlantic Resolve. In it, U.S. forces rotate through Eastern European member states for exercises, inspiring NATO to maintain a permanent rotational force near the eastern border of the alliance. The size of the U.S. force is minimal, however, and it provides but a tripwire to any real conventional invasion. But for Western European alliance members, this plan is still within acceptable boundaries of resources to commit to the defense of Europe.

 

NATO BUDGET PAESI MEMBRI

 

With its unilateral operation, the United States has managed to circumvent the lack of overall commitment and coherence in NATO. But that core lack of commitment remains and presents the alliance’s most profound challenge. When the Iron Curtain still stood, commitment was easier: If hostilities had commenced, no member state would be on the sideline; its forces would already be on the front line. Currently, however, maintaining such a permanent force doesn’t make sense for most NATO members, with resources better spent developing rapid-response forces, as well as establishing common logistics, ensuring interoperability and unifying command-and-control procedures. That is part of the reason the Trump administration has made the call for greater financial commitment to the bloc.

 

But these preparations are useless if the alliance is unable to act in the face of a threat. Modern threats such as hybrid warfare or cybersecurity can exploit any weakness in a divided bloc. Even a conventional attack against one NATO member could cast doubt over the resolve of the entire alliance if it failed to recognize the threat and activate Article 5. Less existential asymmetric threats offer an even greater hurdle. As scenarios change, the single constant throughout NATO’s history is the fact that its true value hinges on the individual resolve of member states to act together when a real threat presents itself. The rest of the world waits to see if the alliance is still committed to that cause.

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  • Mohammed Zwaway Zawawy

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