With the seeming unraveling of the European Union the worry across the continent is whether NATO can survive and whether this post World War II organization linked to the EU is prepared to deal with the challenges of the 21st century. There is little doubt the NATO alliance faces security challenges more complex and demanding than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
Russia has flexed its military muscle in Crimea, the eastern Ukraine and Syria. It has tried to intimidate the Baltic states with the aggressive use of cyber-attacks and disinformation and has modernized its military hardware consistent with its hostile nature.
NATO has added to its defense portfolio with a clear anti-terror program against ISIS, al Qaeda and Boko Haram – modifying its traditional mission.
And in a gesture to President Trump, it vowed to live up to the Defense Investment Pledge of spending 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
NATO 2.0 is a combination of the old and the new, missions that have recently converged. Since 2014 NATO has conducted the most elaborate reinforcement of its collective defense since the end of the Cold War. This includes: forward presence in the eastern part of the alliances; rapid reinforcement capability; the strengthening of nuclear deterrence and cyber defenses and creating a Joint Intelligence and Security Division.
Are these steps sufficient to deter possible Russian aggression and terrorist threats? The only way to tell is by enemy inaction. For example, cyber-attacks are becoming more frequent and sophisticated than in the past. They have reached a threshold where they can become as harmful as a conventional attack. Recent cyber incidents, including the WannaCry and Petya attacks, indicate the increasing threat posed by malicious state and nonstate actors. According to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) there are more than 30 sovereign states that have offensive cyber operation programs. Furthermore, these capabilities are increasingly in the hands of criminal and other nonstate actors.
Ensuring the security of Allies is not only about deterrence and defense in Europe. It is also about what happens beyond European borders. NATO has had extensive experience in projecting force through operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan. It is also involved in dealing with the continental migrant crisis. In fact, the steep decline in illegal migration between 2015 and 2016 is due to NATO’s presence in the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas in a program called Operation Sea Guardian. NATO claims to have formal partnership with over 40 countries and a range of international organizations.
Despite cavalier statements made during the campaign season, NATO is as important today as when it was created in 1948. However, any organization with a seven-decade history requires reexamination. NATO’s mission should be carefully assessed along with troop deployments. The financial commitment of members should be reasserted.
Since the U.S. doesn’t have resources or the inclination to be the world’s policeman – to cite an unfortunate cliché – it can enhance its influence through multilateral organizations like NATO. In fact, NATO could serve as a model for fledging organizations in other parts of the world. In President Trump’s Riyadh speech he made reference to an Arab NATO in the Middle East. Clearly this would probably not include Article 5, the proposition that an attack on one is an attack on all, but in most other respects the NATO architecture would be duplicated.
As I see it, NATO as the bulwark of defense for democratic institutions is critical. Europeans may believe they are capable of an independent force, but this view is misguided. Europe needs NATO as its first line of defense and the U.S. needs NATO to hold back the tide of terrorism.