With crises brewing in Ukraine and the Middle East, the transatlantic alliance needs a shot of fresh energy.
As the NATO summit in Wales approaches, the 28 nations of the alliance should recall the words of Aldous Huxley, author of the classic 20th-century dystopian novel Brave New World: "And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability."
Indeed, there is clearly spectacular instability on the horizon, both in Europe, the Levant, and near Middle East. Europe has predictable divisions across the key issues — from Russia to the Islamic State — and the United States must stand and deliver leadership.
The first order of business at the summit is to address the new relationship with Russia. The idea of a "true strategic partnership" with the Russian Federation, duly embedded in NATO’s 2010 Lisbon Strategic Concept, is in tatters. Finding a new modus vivendi with Russia is job one for the alliance, and the discussions will not be pretty.
The components are fairly clear: a more robust force posture in the east, mostly with rotational ground forces; continue the program of missile defense installations both at sea and ashore; all stop on any discussion of withdrawing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe; maritime deployments to the Baltic and Black Sea; support to the Ukrainian military as they struggle to reclaim their nation’s stability and territory; an aggressive exercise program; supporting a strong NATO Response Force; and a robust program of partnerships with other likeminded but non-NATO nations in Europe (e.g. Sweden, Finland, Austria, Georgia). Options for sequencing these actions should be spelled out by the Supreme Allied Commander to the political leadership and immediately accepted.
Second, the European nations need to spend more on defense, at a minimum hitting their self-stated goal of 2 percent of GDP — today, only a handful of nations (Britain, Estonia, Greece) do so. The United States spends twice as much on defense despite having a slightly smaller economy than the European NATO nations and Canada combined. This is not sustainable politically in the long term and should be corrected rapidly.
The alliance also needs to work through areas where we can find zones of cooperation with Russia, be it Arctic exploration, Afghanistan cooperation, or counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and counterpiracy. Keeping alive at least some level of conversation is important, even as the alliance stands strongly against Russian aggression in Europe.
A second key agenda item is cementing the outlines of the new Afghan mission. This, of course, will require a willing partner in the Afghans, who hopefully can conclude their election squabble and come to the table with a coherent government and a signed agreement to keep 15,000 NATO troops there. The disaster of Iraq reflects the failure to maintain a robust level of advisors to strengthen and train forces — and the alliance must convince Kabul to avoid making Baghdad’s mistake again.
There is still a chance at a successful outcome in Afghanistan, although the window is narrowing appreciably. The follow-on NATO mission, Resolute Support, can succeed, but will require willing hands on both sides of the summit table. Too much treasure and blood has been spilled there — both Afghan and allied — to let the chance for success slip away.
The third agenda item is a strategy for the Levant and Near Middle East. The rise of the Islamic State and the ongoing crisis in Syria will ultimately send hundreds of trained jihadists first to Europe then to the United States. The appearance of an allegedly British member of the Islamic State in the gruesome video showing James Foley’s execution only highlights the urgency of this concern. The United States cannot be the only actor taking on the challenges, and the war weary American public will simply not permit doing so.
Several European nations — Britain and France, notably — are at least sending small contingents to support and help in the anti-Islamic State campaign. Washington has begun to provide more assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition, and some military assistance is beginning to flow to the Kurds, while appropriate humanitarian assistance to Turkey is helping Ankara deal with the influx of more than 1 million refugees. But as the saying goes, "tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat." It is time for the alliance to craft a strategy and work coherently against what is clearly a clear, present, and real danger to the southern borders of NATO. The alliance must act against the Islamic State collectively as they would against any direct threat.
Given the level and spectrum of crises in the region, the fourth item agenda — the looming danger of cyber attacks — may seem less pressing. And yet perhaps nowhere else in the security arena is the greatest mismatch so great between level of danger and level of preparation. The threats include state actors (notably Russia, which has both capability and motive); non-state actors like jihadists, who are improving their abilities daily; cyber-criminals (while not strictly a military mission, protecting key infrastructure will require at least cooperation with military cyber forces); and anarchists and hacktivists.
The revelations of NSA spying over the past year have hurt the alliance’s ability to work together, share tactics and techniques, and integrate cyber defense. The NATO Cyber Defense Center in Tallinn, Estonia is a good start, but there is much more to do, including supporting robust and creative training and exercises; sharing information on threats; standing up an operational arm for counter-cyber defense under the supreme allied commander; and exploring the utility of offensive cyber weapons. All this programs should be on the table in Wales.
In Brave New World, the population is deceived into thinking their world is comfortable and acceptable. As Huxley writes, "One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them." Likewise, NATO must shake off the blinders of the old world and recognize that it is sailing into turbulent seas; and facing the changes with both action and unity under U.S. leadership is the only course to safely steer.