It didn’t take Russian President Vladimir Putin long to smell a vacuum.
It was just four and half years ago that the Obama administration’s Pentagon issued its strategic guidance white paper, “Sustaining Global Leadership”, which formally announced the military’s rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific Theater, justified in part because “most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it.” With Europe no longer a contested arena, “our posture in Europe must also evolve.” Put more bluntly: the US was cutting what little remained of its forces in Europe in half.
It didn’t take Russian President Vladimir Putin long to smell a vacuum. With the invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, and the militarization of Russian policies toward the West, Europe has once again become a contested space. Washington and NATO are now playing catch up. Just how well the alliance is catching up will largely be the standard for determining whether the NATO Summit taking place in Warsaw on July 8-9 has been a success — or not.
Not that NATO and the US have been sitting on their hands since 2014. There are new commitments to deploying more forward-deployed ground forces in Poland and the Baltic States, ramped up allied air patrolling, expanded naval and marine rotations in the Black Sea region, expansion of allied “rapid” response forces, creation of new headquarters in Poland and Romania, and increased exercise activities.
In addition, in the wake of last year’s summit in Wales, the downward trend in defense spending among European allies has largely stopped. And no less important, the alliance has begun to talk less about “reassurance” when it comes to NATO members in the east — as though they were children to be calmed about the dangers lurking in their bedroom closet — and more directly about the need to “deter” Russia.
But is all of this sufficient? No.
As the most recent commander of the US European Command and Supreme Allied Commander for NATO, Gen. Philip Breedlove, has put it, “neither the United States’ military nor those of its allies are adequately prepared to rapidly respond to overt [Russian] military aggression. Nor are they sufficiently ready to counter the kind of hybrid warfare that Moscow has waged in eastern Ukraine.” Between years of low defense budgets and a focus on stability and counterinsurgency operations outside of the alliance’s territory, neither the US nor its allies have either the force structure or the appropriate equipment and platforms to deal with a Russian threat.
No surprise then that, in war games, NATO comes out the loser in a confrontation with Russia.
The hole NATO finds itself in vis a vis the Russian threat is compounded by the fact that, for the United States, its military is already stretched to the maximum as it deals both with the continuing crisis in the Middle East and the increasingly aggressive behavior of China in the Far East. As they say, “when it rains, it pours.” There appears to be no real resolve either in the administration or the Congress to put an end to cuts in defense spending required by the Budget Control Act (2011) that might begin to alleviate this strain.
Transatlanticists shouldn’t kid themselves that vague promises and policy generalities coming from this year’s summit will be sufficient.
Complicating matters further is that our allies in Europe are divided between those who see Russia as the security problem versus those, principally the member states of the south and west of Europe, who believe instability in the Middle East and North Africa is the most cause for concern. With economies that putter along at best, combined with much reduced military capacities after two decades of declining interest in sustaining their militaries, it will be interesting to see how, if at all, this circle is squared in Warsaw.
Undoubtedly, our European allies have taken note of the sour mood in the US when it comes to the view that its allies are “free riding” on American security guarantees. In the past, experienced diplomats and elected officials from both sides of the Atlantic were adept at keeping that distemper from turning into counterproductive policies. However, that generation has by and large retired from the scene.
Absent serious and concrete policy commitments to turn alliance’s capabilities around, there is a real danger that politicians this side of “the pond” will indeed “pivot” to interests elsewhere. It’s not in America’s interests, and certainly not Europe’s, for that to happen. But transatlanticists shouldn’t kid themselves that vague promises and policy generalities coming from this year’s summit will be sufficient. While Americans historically have had a positive view of NATO, the last few years, according to polls taken by Pew, the “unfavorable” view of the alliance has increased by a third and less than a majority now sees the alliance in a positive light. In short, NATO has entered dangerous waters and NATO members can ill afford to take the public’s support for the alliance for granted.
One hopes that Warsaw, in years hence, will be seen as the beginning of newly invigorated NATO—and not the start of its end.