As Madeleine Albright and the "Group of Wise Men" prepare to unveil a revised NATO Strategic Concept, attention is again focused on growing tensions in the East. The space between NATO and Russia appears to be entering a new era of geopolitical competition and instability.
North Central European allies have been concerned by marked increases in Russian revisionist rhetoric and behavior (remember Georgia?). They have been alarmed by the perception of U.S. disengagement, embodied by the Obama administration's decision to abandon plans for a ground-based Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system anchored in Central Europe. Their calls for "strategic reassurance" have sparked a debate in NATO about the security needs of the region, centering on the question of whether Polish and Baltic-State threat assessments vis-à-vis Russia are accurate.
This is the wrong question to be asking. Lost in the debate is the detrimental effect that insecurity among Central European allies has on the Alliance and U.S. national interests--irrespective of the nature and extent of Russian capabilities and intentions. This state of affairs is ultimately unhealthy for the United States, the Atlantic Alliance and European integration.
First, it fuels division in NATO and the EU, as the absence of a convincing security guarantee in Central Europe may act as a stimulus to intra-European strategic divergence and political disunity. Insecure members are more likely to focus exclusively on the pursuit of hard power guarantees at the expense of the "normal" politics of integration. The less these needs are met, the wider the rift between "older" and "newer" member states will become.
Second, insecure allies are less likely to support out-of-area U.S. and NATO military missions. On a per-capita basis, Central European states have been some of the most generous contributors to U.S. and NATO operations, most recently in Afghanistan. With changes in the regional security landscape, the perceived need for territorial defense has increased. Unless this need is met proactively, exposed states may begin to consider augmenting their own indigenous defense capabilities at the expense of out-of-area assets and training, potentially depriving the United States and NATO of support in future crises.
Third, insecurity in Central Europe could fuel uncertainty among geopolitically-exposed U.S. allies in other parts of the globe. North Central Europe is not the only region where small and mid-sized U.S. allies straddle strategic fault lines near potentially hostile neighbors. Powers such as Israel and Taiwan both depend on the United States as an off-shore security benefactor and closely monitor Washington's relationships in Central and Eastern Europe for cues on the reliability of the U.S. security link. Should these powers perceive a trend toward U.S. global retrenchment, they might re-evaluate their own strategic options, creating conditions that could contribute to the gradual reactivation of old regional security dilemmas best left dormant.
It is this wider strategic context through which Washington should view regional insecurity in Central Europe. The United States has begun taking steps to counter regional uncertainty in the form of contingency planning for the Baltic States, heightened regional security exercises (the upcoming U.S.-Baltic ‘Sabre Strike' 2010 maneuvers), a Patriot missile battery in Morag, Poland and pursuing next generation BMD with planned components in Romania and Bulgaria. These steps, however, are not sufficient. Strategic reassurance can take many forms; the emphasis should be on developing a package of instruments, including but not limited to military reassurance, which strengthen the embeddedness of regional states in Western institutions.
The United States would do well to approach strategic reassurance through the lens of NATO. In the 2010 Strategic Concept, the Allies should reinforce their commitment to territorial defense to complement the current emphasis on out-of-area operations, which will alleviate concerns of a rising Russian threat.
Political energy should also be channeled northward to membership for Sweden and Finland. These traditionally neutral states are becoming more open to the prospect of joining NATO in the aftermath of the 2008 Georgia War. Shoring up this northern shoulder would rally the Alliance around a practical and achievable goal, alleviating institutional gridlock over failed expansion to the East and bolstering confidence among the exposed Baltic States.
Finally, the United States should look for opportunities to field alliance military assets on the territory of newer NATO member states. Low intensity basing options, such as relocating NATO headquarters and training facilities, rotating equipment and prepositioning fuel and ammunition stores could prove to be a cost-effective risk mitigation tool, discouraging instability and conflict on Europe's periphery by demonstrating a commitment to the region.
Washington need not adopt a policy of confronting Russia to assuage its regional allies, but would be wise to take action now, or risk allowing allied concerns to fester and pay the costs down the road.