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Rejuvenate NATO now!

By Harlan Ullman, UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron welcome Barack Obama, President of the United States at the NATO Wales Summit on September 4, 2014. The alliance's future, uncertain since the fall of the Soviet Union, stands at yet another crossroads. Photo by NATO/UPI
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron welcome Barack Obama, President of the United States at the NATO Wales Summit on September 4, 2014. The alliance's future, uncertain since the fall of the Soviet Union, stands at yet another crossroads. Photo by NATO/UPI

Since the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1949, the alliance has often been riven with dire predictions about its future viability.

That NATO survived the demise of the military threat for which it was established to contain -- the Soviet Union -- reflected reasons why global stability and security needed such an organization as a foundation for protecting and defending against the forces of disruption and violence. With a recrudescent Russia challenging the old order in Europe and non-traditional dangers in the form of the Islamic State and other Jihadi-inspired terror groups posing existential threats to the Middle East and disrupting Europe through the forced migration of hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the chaos in the region, a revitalized NATO would seem self-evident.

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It is not.

Despite the actions taken at last year's NATO summit held in Wales to bolster defenses against potential Russian encroachment into Western Europe, many of NATO's members seem ambivalent or indifferent to the potential dangers emanating from the east and the south. While NATO maintains a small training mission in Iraq, the alliance is doing very little to contain and ultimately defeat IS. And the once powerful NATO contribution to the International Security and Assistance Forces in Afghanistan has, along with America's withdrawal of the bulk of its troops, become token.

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With Russia's aggressive intervention into Ukraine and now into Syria and the establishment of a Caliphate by the IS in Syria and Iraq and the Paris bombings driving this home, where is the leadership in NATO advocating and calling for appropriate responses? Barack Obama preferred a "strategic pivot" to Asia and while his administration threatened to intercede in Syria if Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons against his countrymen. Obama then demanded Assad must go, but that belligerent rhetoric was empty. And leading from behind in the air campaign that forced Libya's Moammar Gadhafi from office and lead to his death ultimately provoked a civil war with no end in sight.

These facts raise the question of whether NATO is relevant to the 21st century or is really a relic from the past. To be sure, the Rapid Action Plan, new exercises and deployments to show resolve in the face of Putin's Ukrainian gambit and other steps, was initiated in Wales. Yet, virtually all these responses are tactical and not strategic or political actions to reset the alliance on a new course to deal with the issues, threats, dangers and uncertainties of the 21st century. It has been the senior military who have largely proposed these changes to counter and deter Russia, obviously approved by political authorities. But where and who are the political leaders arguing and pleading to adapt NATO to what a former Supreme Allied Commander termed this "new, new world?"

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The answer is that these leaders so far are missing in action.

It is easier to spend rhetoric and words in response than to attempt to change the alliance's actual course. However, unless leadership emerges, NATO runs the real risk of becoming moribund. And failure to act after the Paris horrors further erodes NATO and the perception of a strong, functioning military alliance.

What should be done? Next year's heads of government NATO summit to be held in Warsaw provides perhaps a last opportunity to rejuvenate the alliance. A new overarching concept is not needed. But a change in strategy is.

To counter and deter Russia, bigger, more expensive weapons systems are not the answer. Instead, in the regions most vulnerable to Russian intimidation -- the Baltic and Black Sea states -- there should be a shift to what has been called a porcupine or hedgehog defense. This defense would be based on so bloodying any potential Russian incursion west, as to make such an undertaking too expensive. Armed with literally thousands of ground to air missiles such as Stinger and anti-armor weapons such as Javelin along with sea mines and other capacities to blunt an attack, this defense would be formidable.

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The other alliance members of would provide supporting capability against Russian cyber, propaganda and economic tools and indeed could deploy even small numbers of forces to demonstrate commitment. Such a strategy would not incur huge costs and indeed might actually prove less expensive. However, work needs to start now.

Regarding IS and threats from the south, NATO could be used to promote a NATO-like alliance in those regions by expanding the Gulf Cooperative Council. Not to provoke Iran, as the NATO-Russia Council was originally created, a similar arrangement with Tehran should be pursued.

NATO is at a, and perhaps the most, critical juncture in its history. Will it be a relic? Or will NATO remain relevant? Only NATO can make that choice.

Dr. Harlan Ullman is chairman of two private companies; is senior advisor at the Atlantic Council and Business Executives for National Security (BENS); and sits on an advisory board for Commander European Command and Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

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