It’s Time to Audit NATO
Dismissing a President Trump's reservations about the premier Western military alliance won't wash.
Donald Trump, the U.S. president-elect, has never made a secret of the fact that he holds NATO, in its current form, in low regard. He has called NATO “obsolete” and suggested the adoption of a sort of “pay to play” system in which America’s commitment to its allies is measured against their commitment to defense spending, and Washington could even ultimately charge allies for any military action undertaken on their behalf.
Advocates for NATO will now have to go back to basics. They do not have to accept the validity of Trump’s critiques of NATO, but they do have to accept their legitimacy. America’s continued leadership of this venerable institution depends on persuading the new president-elect that the alliance is good value for the money. There is a strong business case to be made in favor of preserving most — but, crucially, not all — aspects of NATO in its present form.
The case for NATO consists of four principal arguments. The first is a simple and pragmatic one: the non-U.S. NATO nations spend nearly $300 billion on defense. That amounts to a defense budget second only to the United States on its own. As a point of comparison, the Chinese spend somewhere around $150 billon (half of what the Europeans spend) and the Russians (whose defense budget is actually declining in the face of low oil prices and Western sanctions applied after their invasion of Ukraine) about $90 billion. Although the Europeans don’t meet their self-mandated goal of 2 percent of GDP (averaging around 1.6 percent in the aggregate), they still buy an awful lot of hardware, train and deploy troops, and build new complex military systems — from satellites to warships to airborne surveillance systems.
A second benefit of the alliance is that for all the frustration we have with its cumbersome bureaucracy and decision-making process, the Europeans have generally been willing to fight alongside us for decades in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and on counterpiracy missions at sea. The U.S.-European military coalition has been the nucleus around which larger global coalitions (like the one opposing the so-called Islamic State today) have been formed. Although their contributions have been uneven (with the Brits, Dutch, Canadians, Estonians, and the French doing more fighting than others), all the nations have played a role alongside the United States in true combat operations.
Thirdly, Europe’s geographic position remains important. Unless the United States intends on becoming completely isolationist (a disastrous idea that even Trump hasn’t endorsed), it needs to be forward deployed in European NATO territory. The old Cold War bases have evolved into the forward-operating stations of the 21st century and enable the U.S. military to project power into the near Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. Once we withdraw from those bases, they aren’t coming back. And although that might have a short-term financial benefit and afford a “feel good” moment, history suggests Americans would come to regret it, because the threats that they fail to confront at distance tend to eventually confront them at home.
Fourth and finally, the Europeans are technologically sophisticated and have well-developed capabilities in intelligence and cybersecurity. Although we could possibly tap those attributes with a series of bilateral arrangements, doing so in concert via the existing mechanisms of NATO is far more efficient and thorough. Using NATO’s Special Operations Headquarters, its growing cybercenters (notably in Estonia), and its robust intelligence fusion centers is efficient and pragmatic.
Could the alliance do more to improve its value proposition in the eyes of a Trump administration? Absolutely.
It should more rapidly and forcefully push all the NATO nations to reach the 2 percent GDP goal. Today, the countries that reach that mark range from the United States to medium-sized countries like the United Kingdom and very small countries like Estonia. It should be the norm throughout the alliance. Although defense spending is rising somewhat on average, the new administration would be in its rights to push for more member states to join the trend. Forcing frequent and detailed assessments of defense spending by all the nations — perhaps by a NATO inspector general — could publicize and push laggards.
It would also make sense for NATO to place a greater emphasis on three key elements of combat power: cyber, special forces, and unmanned vehicles. There is a good deal of work underway in the alliance along these three lines, and the synergies between them could be profound. NATO could expand its fleet of unmanned aircraft, which is already in use monitoring the Mediterranean. Cyber and Special Operations Headquarters, exercises, and training should also be increased. All of this could be done at European expense.
Finally, NATO should reach out for other partners who can be formally included in operations on a regular basis — Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Colombia, Finland, Sweden, and Austria all come to mind. Formalizing agreements with these non-NATO but highly capable militaries would increase the value of the alliance. Using NATO as a forum for further constructing partnerships to deal with emergent 21st-century challenges — the so-called Islamic State, cyberattacks from Russia, tension in the Arctic — would increase the alliance’s relevancy.
Given the undercurrent of disdain from the Trump campaign, NATO needs to put its best foot forward before a skeptical and business-oriented new administration. Arguments about the importance of shared values like democracy, liberty, and all the rest will not resonate. Neither will historical and traditional pleading. Now is the time for NATO to improve its return on investment in the face of some tough questions ahead. It is a winnable case, but “business as usual” will likely lead to new business decisions in Washington, to the disadvantage of us all.
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