Why NATO must resist squabbling and focus on what matters
The leaders of the 29 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will meet in Brussels next month for a major summit. Although the leaders of NATO met last year, it was not a full summit— so this gathering comes at a very important time. Not only will it be the first official NATO summit since President Trump was elected, it will also be the first NATO summit for both British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron.
The summit also comes at a difficult time for transatlantic relations. Tensions are high. Unhelpful rhetoric from both sides of the Atlantic only makes the situation worse. There is huge division between the US and its allies across the pond when it comes to climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, and trade. This tension boiled over most recently at the ill-fated G7 Summit in Canada, which ended in the US refusing to sign up to the communique.
With a backdrop of such challenges, three big issues must be addressed for the NATO summit to be a success.
First, NATO is primarily a collective security alliance and when President Trump and his NATO counterparts meet next month, they should not forget this.
The leaders of NATO need to compartmentalize the myriad issues facing the members of the alliance individually, but remain focused on the issues facing the alliance as a whole.
NATO has no competency over issues such as trade tariffs and climate change, and the leaders of NATO cannot allow outside disagreements in these areas to distract from the core focus of NATO — security. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said recently in a speech in London: “Where differences persist, we must limit any negative impact on our security cooperation.”
Secondly, NATO must get back to basics. The alliance was founded in 1949 with the mission of protecting the territorial integrity of its members and — if required — defeating the Soviet Union. While NATO’s members are no longer worried about the spread of communism, many current NATO members are certainly worried about protecting their territory from Russian expansion.
The summit must be an opportunity for NATO to reaffirm its commitment to territorial defense as its primary goal, just as it was during the Cold War. NATO does not have to be everywhere in the world doing everything all the time. Rather, it must be capable of defending its members’ territorial integrity.
The biggest threat posed to NATO’s territorial integrity comes from Russia. The alliance must make Moscow the main focus of the summit. Since coming to power in 1999, Russian President Vladimir Putin has done nothing to indicate that he would be a trustworthy partner for the alliance. At almost every opportunity, he has pursued policies that undermine the organization.
The biggest threat posed to NATO’s territorial integrity comes from Russia. The alliance must make Moscow the main focus of the summit.
Russia has shown it will use military force in Europe to advance its national interests and to change borders. Russia invaded the Republic of Georgia in 2008 and continues to occupy, illegally, 20 percent of that country’s territory. Six years later, Putin invaded Ukraine and illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula — the first time one European country had used military force to annex part of another since the days of Hitler. Russia still fuels a separatist conflict in the eastern part of Ukraine, creating strife for yet another.
Russia has worked to sow anxiety and instability throughout most of the rest of Europe too. It has weaponized its natural gas exports to Europe, turning off the tap when countries dare to go against its wishes. It has conducted cyberattacks against NATO member Estonia and NATO partners Georgia and Ukraine, and has conducted military exercises to simulate a nuclear strike against NATO member Poland.
Thirdly, NATO must address its funding crisis.
President Trump did a notable job of raising the issue of European defense spending during the presidential campaign. In the Oval Office, he has continued to do so.
As an intergovernmental security alliance, NATO is only as strong as its member states. At the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, member states committed to spending 2 percent of GDP on defense and committed to spending 20 percent of their defense budgets on “major equipment” purchases by 2024. Progress has been made, but at a snail’s pace.
According to NATO figures in 2017, only five countries — Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States — spent the required 2 percent of GDP on defense. Likewise, only 12 NATO members (Bulgaria, France, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States) spent the required 20 percent of their defense budgets on new equipment and research and development.
Since the end of the Cold War, many European nations (until very recently) have consistently cut defense spending. The result, inevitably, has been a significant loss of capability. The US is right to want Europeans to carry a heavier load of defense spending as failing to do so is not good for the long-term health of the alliance.
Even with all its faults, the U.S. should stay closely committed to NATO. Since its creation in 1949, NATO has done more to promote democracy, peace, and security in Europe than any other multilateral organization, including the European Union. As Russia’s aggression in the region continues, NATO’s role will only become more important.
For almost 70 years, NATO and the US military presence in Europe have contributed to European stability, which has economically benefited both Europeans and Americans. It is in America’s interest that NATO thrives and succeeds. If the US were to walk away from this commitment, there would be serious security consequences with significant economic implications.
The leaders of NATO need to use the summit as an opportunity to focus on what unites everyone, and leave the division for another day and another forum.
Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.