NATO must recognize Russia as political, economic threat

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
French President Emmanuel Macron told The Economist NATO is suffering from "brain death." Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI
French President Emmanuel Macron told The Economist NATO is suffering from "brain death." Photo by Rune Hellestad/UPI | License Photo

LONDON, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- This week, NATO heads of state and government gather at the Grove Hotel, the former estate of the dukes of Clarendon outside London, for a summit marking the alliance's 70th anniversary. During those decades, the alliance faced many critical crossroads. However, today's crossroads may be among the most daunting.

The central question is unmistakably clear: Is NATO still relevant? Or is NATO a relic of the past whose time has expired?


During the Cold War, the Soviet Union was the central unifying foundation for a military alliance designed to counter a primarily military threat. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the alliance decided that it must move "out of area" or "go out of business" and project stability contributing to global order.

Sept. 11 reinforced that choice. The next day, the only time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 -- an attack against one was an attack against all -- and went to war with America in Afghanistan. Thirteen years later in 2014, after Moscow intervened in Ukraine and annexed Crimea, the alliance returned to the traditional mission of countering a resurgent Russia.


But today's Russia is profoundly different from the Cold War Soviet Union. Despite the hype, Russia has no intention of invading west. The risks are too great. Instead, Russia's tools are political, economic and propagandistic, employing "active measures" to disrupt and divide NATO. Because NATO is still a military alliance, its predictable response was to spend more on defense. That response has little utility in countering current Russian actions.

Worse, NATO's expansion never resolved two contradictions. With 29 and soon 31 members, obtaining "consensus," meaning unity, is all but impossible except in broadest terms. And NATO never agreed on how to deal with Russia beyond the NATO-Russia Council that has not worked.

Today, NATO's members are often in profound disagreement. Nord Stream pipeline with Russia is a contentious issue. Turkey has angered all, moving closer to Russia buying S-400 missiles against strong American objections. Brexit makes Britain's role more uncertain. Hungary and the Czech Republic are moving toward autocracies. And Donald Trump is viewed as dangerous.

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At the summit, the United States will reduce its contribution to common NATO spending from 22 percent to 16 percent, raising concerns over Trump's commitment. The president's denial of Russian interference in elections runs counter to what all NATO leaders know has happened. And Boris Johnson must be frantic that Trump, already highly unpopular in Britain, might unleash a tweet or comment as politically damaging as the head British rabbi's condemnation of Labor Leader Jeremy Corbyn's for anti-Semitism.


France's President Emmanuel Macron reflected many of these concerns about the alliance, telling The Economist NATO was suffering from "brain death." That drew an immediate rejection from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But NATO is still slow in confronting the political forces that are eroding its coherence.

This summit will not address the key question of NATO as relevant or relic. NATO will defer making tough choices and instead will issue a bland declaration of support and unity. An "experts group" most certainly will be convened to draft a new strategic concept to be approved in 2021 after the American presidential election.

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In difficult times, NATO has done this before. In 1967, the Harmel Commission, named for Belgium's former foreign minister Pierre Harmel, recommended adapting the Kennedy/Johnson strategy of "flexible response," moving away from "massive nuclear retaliation."

In 2010, the group of experts headed by former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called for a policy of "assured security and dynamic engagement." Given the divided views of alliance members, an experts group is perhaps the best outcome. In that regard, such a group might consider these suggestions.


First, the greater Russian threat is not military. Hence, repeated American demands for more alliance defense spending suffer from two flaws. How much is spent is a misplaced metric. NATO collectively spends about 15 times more than Russia on defense. On what and how NATO allocates money are the correct measures. Second, few resources go to countering the real Russian dangers of active measures and political and economic means to unravel NATO.

NATO must focus on deterring, defending and engaging Russia across broader geopolitical and strategic economic fronts with heavy emphasis on engagement. American abrogation of arms control risks a new arms race. NATO must use arms negotiations as a tool to counter and engage Russia.

The takeaway: If NATO is to remain relevant, the alliance must understand that Russia's principal challenges are political and economic, not military. But will it?

Harlan Ullman served on the advisory board for Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2004 to 2016 and is a senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.

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