The annual North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit in Brussels is typically a time for every member of the alliance to take stock of where they are, what capabilities are lacking, and what each can do better. It is also an opportunity for the organization to demonstrate to Russia that, despite internal schisms over burden-sharing and defense spending, NATO very much remains a united force and a happy family. When the alliance meets on July 11-12 in front of its new glassy, expensive headquarters, you can bet that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will deliver a conciliatory speech that espouses the virtues the alliance has shown throughout its sixty-nine years.
NATO heads-of-state will devote a considerable period of time discussing the nuts-and-bolts issues that turn the gears of the NATO machine. Much of the agenda will be spent on codifying a new readiness plan whereby thirty mechanized battalions, thirty fighter squadrons, and thirty combat vessels will be ready for active duty on thirty days notice. The presidents and prime ministers in attendance will also be sure to address a logistical and transportation system across the European continent that desperately needs repair and streamlining. And it is a certainty that President Donald Trump will do everything in his power to ensure that the twenty-eight other members of the alliance—particularly the vast majority whose defense budgets remain well below the 2% GDP threshold—begin to take their spending commitments as seriously as the United States.
But the United States and its partners in NATO would be making a mistake if they simply used the summit next month to tackle the maintenance, financing, and political issues that have bubbled up to the surface. There are far deeper and indeed existential questions the alliance must begin to discuss, all of which are extremely uncomfortable, but remain absolutely essential if NATO is to remain relevant in the twenty-first century:
1. What is the mission?
NATO was established in 1949 for a very clear, straightforward, and worthy purpose: to preserve, protect, and defend Western Europe from an invasion by the expansionist Soviet Union. By solidifying a transatlantic relationship on both sides of the Atlantic and working towards a common objective, NATO demonstrated itself to be a highly effective deterrent against possible Soviet encroachments west of the Fulda Gap.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union, however, ushered in an entirely new geopolitical environment. A world dominated by superpower competition for over four decades became rapidly more diffuse in a short period of time. Moscow’s descent into a second-tier, regional-power status eliminated NATO’s raison d-etre virtually overnight. As a result, over the last quarter-century, NATO has morphed from an anti-Soviet bloc into an ever-expanding group in search of a primary mission.
The alliance has turned into a jack-of-all-trades expected to step up to the world’s most serious challenges. Deterring the Russians from a hypothetical thrust into the Baltics now stands side-by-side with a multiplicity of other missions, from saving stranded migrants in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas to training the Iraqi army to assisting an anarchic Libya in constructing its security institutions. The alliance is no longer confined to European soil, but is rather a global military force—heavily dependent on U.S. military power—that is increasingly engaged in out-of-area missions.
To say that NATO has lost its way may be too hyperbolic a statement. But it is more than reasonable to question whether the transatlantic military alliance can continue taking on so many tasks at the same time—many of which have nothing to do with preserving a Europe whole, free, and at peace. If NATO members do not begin prioritizing what is most important to transatlantic safety and security, the alliance will further undergo a severe overextension.
2. Should America reassess the open-door policy?
NATO enlargement has long been a favorite concept in the minds of the most committed transatlanticists. NATO’s long-standing “open-door” policy allows any European or Eurasian country can become a formal member of the alliance if it succeeds in democratizing its political system and reforming its defense institutions. But questioning that policy is interpreted by a large segment of the foreign-policy establishments in both Washington and Europe as an assault on the organization’s very relevance or the peddling of a Kremlin narrative.
This kind of stereotyping, however, is not only intellectually lazy—it is detrimental to the collective military capability of NATO and to U.S. and European security more broadly. There is a good argument to be made that expanding NATO’s defense umbrella closer to Russia’s borders is at least partly responsible for the frostiness in U.S.-Russian and European-Russian relations today. Whether justified or not, the blunt fact of the manner is that Moscow views NATO enlargement in Eurasia as a direct national threat to Russia’s national security interests. Moscow sees such expansion as a transparent attempt by the United States to encircle Russia in its own backyard.
This perception is not an unreasonable one when seen from Moscow’s vantage point. While America, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany would reject the premise of hostile encirclement on its face, Russia continues to regard NATO as a largely adversarial military force. In fact, Russia believes NATO is bent on constraining Moscow’s freedom of movement and on limiting its foreign-policy flexibility. Therefore, the larger NATO becomes, the more aggressive the Russians have been. It should not be a mystery why President Vladimir Putin decided to use military force in Georgia and Ukraine. Those two countries have historically been well within Russia’s orbit but were interested in joining one of the most predominant western institutions the world has to offer. By using force, Putin sought to prevent that.
At some point, hopefully sooner rather than later, NATO’s political leaders will have to determine whether the benefits of accepting more member states into the club is worth the cost of adding more anger and suspicion into an already poor NATO-Russia relationship. And in Washington specifically, political leaders must seriously analyze whether they are willing to deploy America’s men and women in uniform into active combat for the sake of protecting small countries with very little geopolitical significance.
3. How can NATO hold its members accountable?
NATO offers plenty of advantages to its members, the most important being that any attack on one member state is considered an attack on the alliance as a whole. But there are also glaring deficiencies in the NATO founding treaty, the most prevalent being the complete lack of accountability within the group. Currently, the alliance has very little power to discipline a member that is failing to uphold its military spending commitments. The best punitive tool is undiplomatic public statements in an effort to name-and-shame a country that is either breaking the rules or not making progress towards its obligations.
By the end of this year, only eight of NATO’s twenty-nine members will have reached the defense spending benchmark of 2% GDP. By 2024, it is estimated that only half of the alliance’s membership will meet this target. While it is true that 2% is an arbitrary number, it is nevertheless a concrete commitment every NATO member made during the 2014 summit in Wales. Besides, alliances mean nothing if the states that form those treaties refuse to maintain them.
Unbelievably, there are no means for countries that have aligned their defense budgets to NATO standards to reprimand those nations that do not. No respectable sports or social club would allow a member to retain the privileges and status of membership if he or she violates the club's rules or consistently fails to pay the annual dues on time. The world’s biggest military alliance should be no different. NATO members should at least discuss a punitive mechanism, one which holds all members accountable to the same expectations and punishes or reprimands those which do not live up to their promises.
None of these topics will be easy or pleasant for NATO to talk about. Indeed, each one goes to the core of what NATO represents. There will be heated political disagreements among the family, some of which could very well create animus within the alliance. But just because a conversation is emotionally difficult does not excuse NATO military and political leadership from having it. It is beyond time for the world’s oldest and most successful military collective to stop avoiding the hard issues. And there is no more appropriate venue for turning the corner than the annual summit at NATO headquarters.