NATO 2.0: More important now than ever

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — In a sense NATO has been a victim of its own success. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also known as the Atlantic Alliance, has rested on its post Cold War laurels and the afterglow of the fall of the Berlin Wall and political freedom throughout Eastern Europe.

Now a generation after these epic events of 1989, and a number of defining missions such as Afghanistan, and an expansion of its core membership, NATO has refocused on its roots and central mission; the defense of Europe from Russian expansionism. NATO’s Warsaw Summit, will attempt to reinvigorate the now twenty-eight member military alliance and reboot the NATO mission.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), founded in 1949, as well as the European Union (EU) form the vital security and economic foundation on which Europe’s peace, prosperity and freedom have rested on in the post-WWII era. The multinational NATO shield provided the deterrence while the EU’s emerging institutions have allowed for free trade, unparalleled prosperity, and political freedom for its members, many of them ex-Soviet satellites.

The NATO summit, held in Warsaw Poland, not so coincidentally the headquarters of the former Soviet military alliance, shows that history can manifest irony.

At the heart of NATO’s dilemma remains a plethora of widening regional threats and a corresponding lack of sufficient military resources to address them.

If even five years ago pundits asserted that NATO’s mission would be to confront the blunt reality of Russian military threats to the Baltic states and Poland, smirks of derision and disdain would be forthcoming.

Yes NATO was, and still is involved in far away Afghanistan, but the idea of a reinvigorated Russian bear stomping Ukraine’s sovereignty, or menacingly pacing the frontiers of the Baltics and Poland, would be viewed as crackpot alarmism. Today it’s a stark reality.

Washington’s feckless and unfocussed foreign policies and Moscow’s newfound nationalist hubris is colliding along the geopolitical fault line between East and West Europe. Equally, a chaotic global situation confronts NATO with expanding Islamic state terrorism, refugee flows from the Middle East, and rumblings in Ukraine.

Few NATO members besides the United States, Britain and Estonia are keeping to their minimum 2 percent defense spending commitments.

When the West won the Cold War over the Soviet Union, many pundits foolishly asserted we don’t need NATO. The blossoming “peace dividend” made such a multinational military alliance superfluous.

Others argued NATO should seek out of area missions from its traditional mandate namely to protect Europe and the North Atlantic states.

Before long NATO was involved in still ongoing missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and anti-piracy operations off the coast of East Africa.

The difficult defense of the Baltic states rests on pre-positioned military equipment which can be used for rapid reinforcement in time of crisis.

The Atlantic Alliance has agreed to deploy one battalion of 1,000 troops in each of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania as well as Poland as a “trip wire” to forestall Russian aggression. But with American, British, German and possibly Canadian military units stationed in the region will this deter or provoke Vladimir Putin?

Basing token military units in the Baltic states sounds good, but according to a RAND think tank survey, real deterrence needs more like 37,000 troops physically based in the region.

Back in the 1980’s I recall covering NATO’s annual military maneuvers Return of Forces to Germany, REFORGER. The mission focused on rapid reinforcement of U.S. troops in West Germany to fend off a theoretical Soviet invasion. That concept worked because of massive numbers of American troops already based in Germany which would be augmented.

The rebirth of Baltic sovereignty with the freedom of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania from Soviet control was a miracle on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful reunification of Germany. The Baltic states are geographically exposed and very vulnerable on the shoulder of Russia’s landmass, and easy prey to mechanized infantry/armor units.

A PEW public opinion poll shows widespread 57 perccent support for the Alliance, with 71 percent in the Netherlands, 70 percent in Poland, 59 percent in Germany, but only 53 percent in the USA, and 25 percent in Greece.

Political commitment throughout the Atlantic Alliance remains firm but now also faces the nervous aftershocks of Britain’s Brexit vote.

Moreover, NATO should not seek to expand its already overstretched defense mandates.

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated the mission succinctly, “Strong defense, strong deterrence, and NATO unity are the best way to avoid a conflict.” I most certainly agree.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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