NATO at a crossroads or a precipice?

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  July 9, 2018 at 7:53 AM
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This is a potentially tectonic week for NATO, U.S. relations with Russia and America's future global leadership role. It began where last week left off. A trade war with China was underway. After sending strongly worded letters to several NATO members for insufficient defense spending, on a campaign swing in the Midwest, President Donald Trump continued personalizing these attacks by accusing Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel of not bearing a fair share of these costs.

Regardless of what happens at the NATO summit Wednesday and Thursday followed by Trump's brief swing through Britain, including golf in Scotland, and then his first formal meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the future of the Atlantic alliance is at stake, even if the Brussels' meeting is civil and without major incident. The reason is that because NATO was conceived as a military alliance against a military threat, it still views the world through a predominately military lens.

As relations with Russia deteriorated, Moscow's seizure of Crimea finally provoked an alliance response. Many believed the military threat had returned. Yet the danger from Russia is far less military than it is political. The dilemma is that NATO lacks the political tools for dealing with this form of political intimidation.

Instead of a fundamental re-examination of NATO's strategy in these circumstances, however, the alliance reflexively chose to follow a Cold War game plan and a military response. Enhance deterrence and military power by increasing spending, exercises and troop numbers in Eastern Europe to check Russian expansion into NATO member states as occurred in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine six years later with "little green men."

Putin has absolutely no intention of invading NATO and invoking Article 5 that declares that an attack against one is an attack against all. Instead, Putin realizes that his most effective strategy is to disrupt alliance cohesion and solidarity with a combination of intimidation, propaganda, disinformation, misinformation, economic pressure and a not so subtle threat of military strength. The smarter action by NATO would have been to mount political as well as military responses. But to accomplish that, NATO had to become more than a military alliance.

While NATO has gone through major strategic reviews, the most significant was in 1967 and the Harmel report -- named for its chairman, Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel. NATO moved from a strategy of nuclear massive retaliation set in place under the Eisenhower Administration to "flexible response." Given the Soviet Union's increases in both conventional and nuclear capability, "flexible response" meant to deter all possible types of war. Now, a new version of the Harmel Report is desperately needed to take on the new political challenges.

With the likely ascension of Macedonia, NATO will have 30 members. In an alliance in which "consensus," or in plain English unanimity, is required for all decisions, most will not be made quickly if at all. Consensus will not be abrogated. However, other options such as allowing "coalitions" of partners to undertake missions should be broadened particularly to counter Russian active measures, including cyber ones.

NATO members rightly regard Article 5 as the alliance's foundation. However, none are prepared to cede critical domestic prerogatives and authorities to Brussels. The consequence is that greater reliance on political actions has not occurred.

Similarly, the goal of committing 2 percent of GDP for defense spending set at the Wales Summit in 2014 is an artificial number that does nothing to increase capabilities against "active measures" and Russian gambits such as interference in elections. Given Trump's insistence that 2 percent is the metric by which to measure NATO loyalty and utility, this will not be easy to change.

Unless the summit is a disaster, no one will wish to make major strategic changes. Relief will be the unspoken takeaway. If Trump decides to declare four days later that Russia, like North Korea, is no longer a nuclear or even a threat, NATO's future cannot be assured in its current form. This is very much in line with the America First ideology and the original Trumpian view that NATO was obsolete, since rescinded.

NATO is at another crossroads. That crossroads could be leading to a sharp precipice. Any bets as to how this turns out? We should know next week.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is Senior Adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him at @harlankullman.

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