When Western leaders gather for the NATO summit in Wales next week, they will be expected to answer calls to revive the old alliance in order to confront Russia’s gradual invasion of Ukraine. Despite this new clarity of purpose, however, the alliance remains profoundly divided.
When NATO was founded in 1949, the alliance’s mission was obvious. In the words of its first secretary-general, Lord Ismay, NATO was designed “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
From the moment the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, skeptics began predicting that NATO would disappear. Of course, the alliance didn’t disappear—it adapted. It (controversially) took on a dozen former Warsaw Pact countries as new members, growing to twenty-eight countries. It absorbed unprecedented missions in far-flung places from Kosovo to the Gulf of Aden, Afghanistan, and Estonia—including humanitarian intervention, nation-building, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, counter-piracy, and cyber defense. Rather than going out of business, Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeier noted, NATO went global.
And yet, the alliance has never effectively resolved deeper debates about its strategic rationale in the twenty-first century. The governments and electorates of NATO members often hold dramatically different opinions about the importance of threats, from terrorism to cyberwar. Similarly, they are not equally willing to risk military or civilian casualties, nor do they agree about whether they should shoulder risk to protect increasingly distant allies. And finally, there is extreme variation among NATO members’ willingness to invest in national defense, including expeditionary capabilities.
In principle, Russian aggression in Ukraine should reinvigorate NATO, providing a renewed sense of purpose. For the first time in a quarter century, NATO members—notably the Baltic States—have legitimate cause to fear for their security.
But in fact, the ongoing Ukraine crisis has highlighted NATO’s fissures. Rather than rejuvenating the transatlantic alliance, Russia’s aggression threatens to underscore NATO’s divisions and vulnerabilities.
- Disparate threat perceptions: All NATO members oppose Russia’s destabilizing role in Ukraine. But they don’t place the same priority on stopping it, nor have they agreed on a strategy to address it. The annexation of Crimea has sent tremors through the Baltics, and rightly so: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are all home to sizable ethnic Russian minorities. Eastern European leaders have called on NATO for assistance, but the allied response has been mixed. Before arriving in Wales, President Obama will visit Estonia to “reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe” and “reaffirm our ironclad commitment to [Article 5] as the foundation of NATO.” Meanwhile, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced that NATO would begin building up its military presence along its eastern borders. But Germany, Italy, Spain, and France—far less vulnerable than the Baltics—are reluctant to further antagonize Moscow.
- The burden-sharing debate continues: Debates over burden-sharing have been a fixture of transatlantic relations since the Treaty of Washington was signed. In the past two decades, most NATO members have decreased defense spending to historic lows, leaving the United States to foot the bill while alternately cajoling, browbeating, and shaming free-riders—with limited results. In 2013, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending was 70 percent, and only four NATO allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, Greece, and Estonia—hit the agreed defense spending target of at least 2 percent of GDP. Some argue that the Ukraine crisis should spur Europeans to boost their defense spending. While this may be true for NATO’s Eastern European members, a number of Western European countries—still reeling from the financial crisis, squeezed by tight budgets, and plagued by slow growth and high unemployment—may be unlikely to want to spend additional funds, particularly if they are reluctant to alienate Russia.
- The changing nature of warfare complicates NATO’s mission: NATO was designed to deter Soviet aggression by providing a collective defense guarantee to all its members. This principle is enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which decrees that an attack on one NATO member shall be considered an attack on all. This provision is often credited with maintaining relative peace on the European continent throughout the Cold War. In the twenty-first century, however, Article 5 has its limits. The treaty is predicated on the Cold War-era assumption that war takes place between nation-states—and that aggression will be unambiguous, in the form of rumbling tanks or bombs dropping from airplanes. But the war brewing in eastern Ukraine is unconventional, like many present-day conflicts. Russian special forces, devoid of military insignia, are masquerading as local pro-Russian separatists, helping rebels occupy government buildings, seize strategic assets, and intimidate local populations. Western powers accused Russia of backing these so-called “little green men,” a fact Putin himself would later admit. Because the rebels are not formally under Moscow’s command, however, Putin has evaded responsibility for their actions. In Wales, leaders need to decide whether they would invoke Article 5 if little green men were to sprout up in the Baltics. And if so, against whom would they retaliate?
- NATO’s expeditionary future is unclear: At the Wales summit, NATO originally planned to focus on determining NATO’s future engagement in Afghanistan (and presumably assess the alliance’s operations there), as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission prepares to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014. Then, Russia annexed and proceeded to invade eastern Ukraine. Concerns about Afghanistan were quickly sidelined. An op-ed that Rasmussen coauthored with General Philip M. Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, fails to mention Afghanistan even once. It is unclear if the ISAF mission, which was NATO’s longest and largest operation ever, will even be discussed in Wales—or if the alliance simply wash its hands of that country. Nor is there any indication that the assembled leaders will discuss broader questions, such as when Article 5 should be invoked against threats from transnational terrorist groups or whether the Libya mission offers lessons for future NATO operations.
But shoring up the alliance will require more than projecting force and more than tough rhetoric. NATO faces challenges that are greater than Russia, urgent though it may be. Fortuitously, the Wales summit offers a timely opportunity for Western leaders to tackle these difficult questions and, if necessary, begin reevaluating the future of the alliance itself. They should not let this opportunity go to waste.