- By Neil JoeckNeil Joeck is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
Retired Gen. Doug Lute may have the most important job in Washington — and he doesn’t even live there. As the U.S. Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), he lives in an estate in Brussels that, since 1984, has been known as Truman House, honoring U.S. President Harry S. Truman for his role in founding NATO. Built by the Michiels Family, Belgian chocolatiers who developed the Cote d’Or brand, it is now on the Secretary of State’s Register of Culturally Significant Property. It was given to the U.S. NATO mission because, in the words of Mrs. Michiels, "Your country saved mine in World War II."
So why should we worry about NATO now, with the world on edge over so many other crises? The list seems endless: the shoot down of Malaysian Air 17, the threat of outright Russian intervention in Ukraine, Hamas’ continued aggression against Israel, Israel’s incursion into Gaza, the exodus of Central American children toward the U.S. border, civil war in Syria, Iraq’s descent into chaos. This depressing litany of woe could get even worse before President Obama hands over the reins of government to a successor 30 months from now. Although the urgent tends to drive out the important in Washington, a good national security team at the NSC will ensure that the important issues are never dropped from the foreign policy to-do list. An important item during the remainder of President Obama’s term is maintaining NATO’s good health. However, Ambassador Lute faces three issues, which in combination could put the future of NATO in doubt: the end of NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan, the military response to Ukraine, and intelligence support for the alliance.
Since 1948, NATO has been the cornerstone of peace and stability in Europe. The collective security provided by NATO has not come without a financial price, however, that American presidents have encouraged Europe to share more equitably. Defense burden sharing has nagged intra-NATO relations for decades, but in 2001, following the terrorist attacks on the United States, the alliance seemed to be worth every penny spent. On September 12, 2001, the North Atlantic Council concluded that the attacks the day prior had triggered the Treaty’s collective defense provisions. NATO therefore invoked Article V, which calls for a unified response to an armed attack on any member of the alliance. The stress on NATO over the years has been considerable as individual countries responded within the limits of their sovereignty and laws. In a certain sense, the Afghanistan mission can be said to have been a high-water mark for the alliance. As we look ahead, however, the prospects in Afghanistan are far from good. As western forces prepare to depart, the Taliban is on the move and Afghan National Security Forces seem to be on the defensive. The situation inside Afghanistan could easily deteriorate and become the next Iraq. It’s not too late to prevent such an outcome, but the myriad other crises threaten to relegate Afghanistan to the sidelines. With the results of a decade’s effort in doubt — indeed with a human rights catastrophe very much in prospect — recriminations within NATO are likely to flow. Was it worth it? If this scenario were untroubled by other factors, it would be an easier management task for Ambassador Lute. But two additional factors do come into play, making his task more rigorous.
By now, Vladimir Putin has made clear that he holds the West in contempt and will do whatever he deems necessary — and whatever he can get away with — to reassert Russian control over parts of the former Soviet empire he considers vital. Not for him the democratic process or transparent politics, since the big lie and the masked militiaman now define Russia’s policy. Here again, the response from the West may appear more positive. Harsh sanctions have now been imposed on Russia, demonstrating a shared Western interest in punishing Russia — or at least Putin’s cronies — for the aggression. But European business interests, combined with the consequences of over reliance on Russia’s energy exports make the response highly contingent. The economic sanctions may bite, but it is unlikely that the EU or the United States will look to NATO for a military answer to Putin’s Ukraine aggression. What happens, however, if Putin applies the logic of his intervention in Ukraine to the Baltic States, all members of NATO? An unlikely contingency, perhaps, but as NATO member states collectively examine the possibilities, elements of doubt may creep in. Poland and other former Soviet satellites may be concerned about how much steel is in the NATO backbone. As with the Afghanistan issue, this by itself would not undercut confidence in NATO. But Ambassador Lute’s work is now far more complicated as he seeks to reassure front line NATO partners in the face of Russian belligerency.
Finally, there is the issue of U.S. intelligence gathering, a fundamental pillar of NATO security. The self-appointed patriot, Edward Snowden, continues to enjoy the same benefits the British traitor Kim Philby once did, this time by the good grace of Putin rather than Nikita Khruschev, but the damage he wrought makes Ambassador Lute’s work far more difficult. In addition, intra-NATO relations have also been damaged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to very publicly evict the U.S. intelligence chief from Berlin. An unfortunate and probably unnecessary contretemps that should have been resolved quietly between the two allies was subjected to screaming headlines and mutual embarrassment. The combination adds fuel to the fire of European rightists and leftists alike who share little ideologically but apparently quite a bit emotionally. Self-righteousness and playing to the galleries were too much in evidence when cool heads and discretion were needed.
As a result, Lute faces a trifecta of grievances as he endeavors to sustain a common front that has kept Europe safe, secure, and at peace since the Nazi regime made so painfully clear that Europe works best when Europe works within NATO’s carefully defended walls. A month after international leaders gathered in France to recognize the 70th anniversary of the allied landing in Normandy, marking the beginning of the end of the Nazi era and the consequent liberation of all Europeans from the horror of Hitler, the sinews of European peace represented by NATO are being stretched. Good luck to Doug Lute as he works to sustain the spirit captured by Mrs. Michiels and ensure that this greatest of alliances remains unbroken.