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NATO Cannot Fail Now
David Mdzinarishvili/ Pool Photo via AP
NATO Cannot Fail Now
David Mdzinarishvili/ Pool Photo via AP
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Ivo Daalder’s reply to my introduction when I called the former NATO ambassador last week aptly sums up the mood among global leaders: “You really think so?” Daalder said with a laugh when I introduced myself as an editor for RealClearWorld. “Real clear? Do you know something I don’t?”

As the aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union on June 23 gives way to NATO’s summit in Warsaw on July 8, there is indeed very little at the moment that seems clear at all. Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, offered us his take on what to expect from a two-day summit in Poland that is charged with significance. The interview below has been slightly edited for brevity and clarity.

RCW: We just had the United Kingdom vote for Brexit. How do you see that affecting NATO?

Daalder: I think there’s two factors to consider, all with the caveat that there is uncertainty right now about what will happen with Europe, what will happen in the UK, and what will happen between the UK and the European Union. There’s just too many things we don’t know. I think there are two aspects in which this affects NATO. The first, no matter what the outcome of the Brexit process, the United Kingdom is going to be spending all of its energy, all of its focus, and all of its time figuring that out. As a result it will be a less forceful, less outward-looking, less prominent ally in the NATO council. The Warsaw meeting, the decisions that are to be made will be made, including the British decision to be the lead in one of the four NATO battalions that will be deployed (in Eastern Europe). But it’s going to be delivered by a prime minister that just suffered one of the greatest defeats of any prime minister in the history of Great Britain -- and who has also just said he is a lame duck. British influence is going to go down, at least for the initial phase.

The second impact, and it’s more something that should be than something that is, is that the United States will try to emphasize the vital importance of maintaining if not strengthening the Transatlantic link. And NATO is the institution that enables one to do that, because it’s the only institution in which the United States, and, should it leave the EU, Britain, are both part of the European dialogue. That’s why it is vitally important as an institution. So I think you’re going to see a reinvigoration of the United States in NATO, even if at this time the British influence within the alliance is inevitably going to be less.

RCW: Does NATO assume a greater political importance now?

Daalder: Well, it won’t be able to do politically let alone economically what the EU does, but it will become a more important institution to which the United States, and to some extent the United Kingdom, will pay its attention. It’s interesting and important that [U.S. Secretary of State John] Kerry went to Brussels and immediately went to NATO to emphasize the importance of this institution. It can’t be the substitute for the European Union, but it will be an institution on which the Transatlantic relationship will be focused more than it might have been in the past. This was already happening because of Russia’s actions, but this just reinforces it.

RCW: NATO faces additional challenges to unity and cohesion. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s statements on the alliance can’t come as any comfort, while there are diverging views on Russia between a confrontational Eastern Europe and a more accommodating Western Europe. How can leaders patch up any gaps, and how worried are they about the ability to stay unified?

Daalder: I think the events since [June 23] emphasize the fundamental importance of unity and strength. And I think everyone will come to Warsaw with a commitment to leave stronger than they arrived, and more united. I think the incentive to patch up differences and to focus on being stronger together has increased significantly, because a failed summit would be truly a disaster for European security and for Transatlantic relations.

This will manifest in three ways. First, already agreed to in large measure but now (to be) formalized at the summit, is a strong commitment by NATO to bolster the defense of Eastern Europe by having a permanent rotating presence of U.S., German, British, and other NATO troops in the Baltic States, in Poland, and in the Black Sea region -- including air forces, and naval vessels and troops, with a very strong, united message that whatever the Russians might be thinking, the defense of NATO territory is job one for old NATO members. And that should mitigate any differences between Western European allies and Eastern European allies.

[Secondly] I think there is likely to come out of the summit a greater commitment to involve NATO in addressing the threats that are coming from the south. What specifically that could mean, I could guess, but I don’t know. It could be things like greater intelligence cooperation and using the NATO civilian and military intelligence infrastructure to share information, including on terrorists; a greater presence of NATO, particularly maritime, capabilities not only in the Aegean, but throughout the Mediterranean to address and assist the European effort to deal with the migrant flow across the Mediterranean now from Libya. It could involve the dedication of NATO air assets to support the counter-ISIS coalition, so that there is in fact a role for NATO as a member of that coalition, not as the leader, but as a member. It might include a closer look at what NATO could do in terms of training and security assistance to Libya. It will likely include an agreement to have the NATO training mission that is currently in Jordan deployed to Iraq. So a whole variety of steps that says we understand that the threat from the south and the Middle East to NATO territory is real, and we are committed to NATO being an actor in that. Not the lead actor but a supporting actor.

Point number three is I think you’re going to find a very strong declaration of the strength and essentiality of NATO as a Transatlantic institution. That whatever may be the issues between the North and the South and the East and the West, the EU and some of its current member states, NATO as a Transatlantic institution is vital to the security and prosperity and freedom of all the now 29 member states [including Montenegro].

RCW: What would a failed summit look like? Could it happen?

Daalder: No I don’t think it’s possible. A failed summit would see disagreement about fundamental things, like deploying forces forward to Eastern Europe. I forgot to mention, I think you’re not only going to get a reaffirmation of the 2 percent number for defense spending of GDP, but I think you’re going to find countries individually making commitments to increase defense spending in a way we haven’t seen in about 15 years.

RCW: But currently only five NATO members are at 2 percent of GDP.

Daalder: Five countries are at 2 percent, but you also have another seven or eight who are either very close to or are already committed to 2 percent in a number of years, including all the Baltic states. The Poles are at 1.96, the French [close to that], and you need to look to Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, maybe even Italy, to see what it is they’re going to say about their defense spending, which is well below 2 percent -- what they’re going to say in terms of procurement, in terms of investment in R&D. That’s what needs to shift. For example the Norwegians, though they’re not at 2 percent, their investment in terms of buying new equipment and R&D is extraordinary. It’s higher than ours. The actual numbers that go into buying new stuff, you know, they’re going to buy 52 F35s, new submarines, and a whole bunch of other things.

What does a failed summit mean? It’s that everything I just laid out fails to happen. And that’s not going to take place. The need not to fail now is higher than ever, because of the crisis.

RCW: Beyond what Eastern members have asked for from NATO and seem to be receiving, what have they themselves been doing in the last two years in terms of increasing capabilities and increasing their cooperation?

Daalder: The Poles have significantly increased their defense spending. The Estonians are at 2 percent. The Latvians and Lithuanians are on track to reach 2 percent I believe by 2020. So there has been a real commitment to do as much as they can to increase defense spending. That’s number one. Number two, all of these countries have demonstrated to be really good allies. So they have been involved for example in Afghanistan for a very long time. And they do that in order to demonstrate they’re good allies so that then NATO, when it comes to the crunch with their security problems, will be there. The third, particularly in Estonia and Latvia, countries with a significant Russian minority population have started to pay real attention to how the EU makes sure that population looks to their countries as well as to the EU for their future, rather than to Russia. So they have increased Russian-language TV that is not as propagandistic as what comes out of Moscow.

They’ve also taken a number of steps to deal with the threat of hybrid warfare. To be able to respond to either the cyber element of it, or ‘little green men,’ in a way that tries to cut off the possibility of subversion from within in a more active way. You can’t see that in defense numbers, you see that in intelligence, in the kind of cooperation that they have with other countries. So they’re trying, but they’re small countries. They’re not going to be able to do this themselves, which is why it is important that NATO demonstrate its commitment to their defense, which it is doing by deploying these troops on a rotating basis.

RCW: States like Georgia and Ukraine -- what kind of cooperation might we see unfold?

Daalder: I think there will be a meeting with [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko and the 29 leaders. The cooperation will be twofold: One, encouragement on Poroshenko to undergo the economic reforms and anti-corruption measures that will ultimately determine the success of the Ukrainian economy. And then a real commitment to defense cooperation in terms of assistance in the defense sector: Training, modernization, that sort of thing.

RCW: Ukraine is struggling with their military budget right now -- essentially close to being broke.

Daalder: Ultimately nothing can happen until the economy improves, and that won’t happen until there’s more investment from the outside, and that won’t happen until they clean up their act. They have some serious problems confronting them. That said, there is a commitment from NATO to help; to help on modernizing defense capabilities, to help on rooting out corruption in defense procurement and other areas. It’s a hard road, but that’s what NATO can do, short of offering membership, which it won’t, or a defense guarantee, which it can’t without membership. In the case of Georgia, I think you will find continued cooperation, joint exercises, assistance for the Georgian military. But it’s a tricky fact: The reality is, the Georgians are going to argue, that they have at least as much right to join NATO as the Montenegrins, and that their democracy is at least as strong; their commitment to NATO is at least as strong; their commitment in Afghanistan is much stronger; and they’re more capable; and the only reason why Montenegro is coming in and Georgia is not even offered a membership action plan -- which they won’t be offered -- is because the Russians are saying no.

So it’s a tricky set of issues that are out there. But they’ve been out there for a long time, and NATO will presumably deal with them in the same way we have before, which is to say the door is open and the time’s not yet right.

RCW: Shifting to Montenegro and the debate their membership sparked about how useful their membership really is, feeding into the greater debate about whether NATO enlargement is good or appropriate. What’s your position on NATO enlargement? Has it ceased to be a good idea?

Daalder: I think NATO enlargement was a very important strategy for helping countries to emerge from their dictatorial and in many ways occupied pasts, in the case of all the former Warsaw Pact countries, to become vibrant democracies and prosperous market economies. It was the prospect of providing for security that enabled countries to take the very difficult political and economic steps to transform their societies that enabled them to apply for and in many cases join the EU.

RCW: But that is a political mission. Doesn’t that dilute the idea of NATO being a military alliance?

Daalder: But that political mission is not unimportant. You enhance the security of the North Atlantic area by having more democratic and prosperous economies. They're more likely to provide for security in that region if that happens. So yes, it’s a political strategy, but it has a huge security impact, which is what NATO is all about. I mean, is Montenegro going to be the difference between success and failure in dealing with the Russian threat? No, of course not. Is Montenegro going to be vital to any military mission that NATO takes on? No. Can Montenegro and the prospect of membership for countries like Bosnia and down the road Serbia change the political calculus for these countries to an extent that they enhance security for a region that remember, in the 1990s, was a source of conflict? Perhaps, and that’s worth considering.