Back to the future for NATO

The Russian military incursion into Ukraine has focused renewed attention upon the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Sixty-five years after NATO’s founding to counter Soviet expansionism and 26 years after the collapse of the Soviet empire, it is back to the future for NATO. The organization must now take the steps necessary to deter and counter Moscow’s objective of regional domination.

Critics have contended that NATO, a security alliance founded in 1949 that binds the United States with 26 European nations and Canada, is irrelevant to 21st-century international politics. For example, Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass in June 2011 contended that “If NATO didn’t exist today, would anyone feel compelled to create it? The honest, if awkward, answer is no.” This assertion was wrong at the time and, given recent Russian actions, is even more wrong today.

NATO is the most successful military alliance in history, having played a crucial role in the ultimate implosion of the Soviet Union. In addition, it was also a key factor in the consolidation of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe, while its intervention in the Balkans has both protected human rights and allowed time for gradual political evolution in that region. Although NATO was not officially involved in the first Gulf War in 1991, the U.S.-led coalition utilized already-in-place NATO logistics resources for much of its military operations.

NATO has also taken on new important missions such as counterterrorism, cyberdefense, energy security and counter-piracy. Most significantly, it is deploying missile defenses to protect not only military forces and logistics sites, but also populations and territory. Further, through its partnership programs, NATO has assisted in building military capacity for non-NATO nations in Eurasia, North Africa and the Middle East.

At the same time, as NATO nations reduce defense spending, NATO’s own military strength is also being diminished. This is because NATO’s military capabilities are composed primarily of contributed national military resources. Many NATO nations have been reducing capabilities by canceling, delaying or stretching out acquisition programs. Furthermore, these nations are cutting back on new and upgraded equipment, personnel replacements, training programs, participation in exercises, and equipment and stocks maintenance.

NATO and its member nations must reverse these trends. First, the organization should refocus on its traditional mission of deterring or responding to an attack on a member’s territory. NATO should commence enhanced contingency planning and exercises in areas adjacent to Russia and amplify its Rapid Reaction Force.

NATO should also enhance its defense training and overall relationship with Ukraine through the NATO-Ukraine Commission established in 1997 and state clearly that admission to NATO is open to any European democratic nation that meets its requirements for membership. NATO has already wisely suspended its participation in the NATO-Russia Council.

Second, as part of an overall political, economic and military response to the new challenge presented by Moscow, NATO members should immediately begin increasing relevant defense spending. Third, NATO should encourage defense efficiencies through multinational cooperation efforts in such areas as research and development, procurement, pooling and sharing of equipment, and multinational logistics. NATO should also establish a mechanism to advise members regarding the impact that potential national defense reductions could have on the alliance’s military capabilities.

Fourth, NATO partners should be requested to support relevant NATO regional missions. For example, Sweden and Finland could support air-policing missions in the Baltics. In addition, the organization should enhance and expand its programs that provide security-related training to non-NATO nations, thereby enabling them to participate effectively in allied military missions.

In support of NATO, the United States should suspend planned reductions in U.S. forces in Europe and adapt their roles to the new security situation. Strengthened bilateral military relationships with Central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics should be developed.

In addition, the U.S.-Ukrainian military relationship should include enhanced training and equipment. America should also make clear that Moscow does not have a veto over U.S. missile-defense plans in Europe.

NATO remains an essential institution for the defense of those within — or seeking to join — the democratic community of nations. Therefore, NATO members must summon the requisite political will to provide the financial, political and military resources necessary to meet the current challenge posed by an expansionist Russia.

W. Bruce Weinrod served as the secretary of defense representative for Europe and the defense adviser to the U.S. mission at NATO from 2007 to 2009. He was deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy from 1989 to 1993.

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