What Does NATO Do, Anyway?Douglas Lute
(The New Yorker) – The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, the largest and most powerful military alliance in history, is not usually fodder for election-year politicking. But in an interview with the Times earlier this week, Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump said that the United States should not automatically honor NATO’s core principle of mutual defense, specifically if Russia invaded several newer members of the alliance, the three strategic Baltic states and former Soviet republics—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. In a sharp rebuke, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Thursday that the principle of mutual defense is “ironclad.” He told reporters, “There should be no mistake or miscalculation made about this country’s commitment to the transatlantic alliance.”
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned, “We defend one another. . . . Two world wars have shown that peace in Europe is also important for the security of the United States.” Solidarity among allies is “a key value for NATO,” he said, in a statement. Trump’s comments came under fire from fellow-Republicans, too. “Statements like these make the world more dangerous and the United States less safe,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, tweeted.
NATO grew out of America’s Marshall Plan to help rebuild a stable and secure Europe after the Second World War. It came from a bipartisan effort by President Harry Truman and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg, a Michigan Republican—and has had bipartisan support ever since. The original twelve members have since more than doubled to twenty-eight nations. One of the member nations’ biggest tasks today is the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (isis or isil). nato members have been in Washington this week, convening with the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, which is now preparing for the battle over strategic Mosul, Iraq, the largest city under isis’s control.
Since 2013, Douglas Lute, a former three-star general and graduate of West Point, has been the U.S. Ambassador to NATO, whose headquarters are in Brussels. In 2007, President George W. Bush appointed Lute to be deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, a position nicknamed the “war czar” during the U.S. surge in Iraq. He was one of three senior officials retained by President Obama, who later appointed him to be the top envoy to NATO. Lute talked to me on Thursday about the role and history of NATO. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What role does NATO play in global security today?
After the Second World War, the U.S. and a set of eleven other countries joined together and said essentially, “We’re not doing that again. There’s got to be a better way forward. We can work together to prevent aggression against us and to insure we don’t aggress against each other.” The Washington Treaty was signed in 1949. The foundation of it is the “mutual defense” clause, Article Five, that says an attack on one nation is considered an attack on all of them.
And it’s worked. NATO has kept the peace in Europe and bound together the U.S., Canada, and European allies in a way that has been fundamentally stabilizing for the world order. It has had an outsized influence beyond that territory. It’s really served as the anchor for world security over the last sixty-seven years.
When has Article Five been invoked?
Only once in sixty-seven years. Throughout the Cold War it was never invoked. But on 9/11, with nearly three thousand people, not all Americans, lost in New York and Washington, the Council at NATO headquarters, in Brussels, unanimously agreed to offer its assistance to the United States under Article Five. This is quite ironic. NATO was founded on the premise of preventing an attack by the Soviet Union in Central Europe, where the U.S. would have to come to the aid of Europe. But the tables were completely turned. The one historic example we have of NATO in operation for its founding purpose—which is collective defense—had NATO coming to U.S. assistance after 9/11.
Where has NATO been deployed, and why? How has it evolved?
I’d break down the history of NATO into three parts. For the first forty years, NATO focused on its greatest risk—the threat that the Soviet Union posed to Western European security. When the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, and, two years later, the Soviet Union broke apart, NATO took a few years to find itself. Its raison d’être had been removed. It became clear not long after 1991 that Europe faced new instability along its borders that could infect Europe itself, so NATO adapted. The earliest and most prominent case was the breakup of Yugoslavia. NATO was drawn in to stop the fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1995. Sixty thousand NATO troops left the central front and moved into the Balkans. Four years later, in 1999, NATO stopped the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo and then stabilized the security situation. NATO still has five thousand troops in Kosovo keeping watch on a fragile security situation.
Then, in 2001, 9/11 takes place and NATO launches into its largest ever and longest ever combat operation in Afghanistan. NATO has over twelve thousand troops still stabilizing Afghanistan, training Afghan forces, and making sure that Afghanistan does not revert to a terrorist safe haven. So there’s a period of about the last twenty-five years where NATO has tried to promote stability beyond its territories and taken its military capacity beyond its periphery.
Today we may be on the edge of the next phase of NATO. We have now a very different Russia than the Russia we were dealing with in the past two decades. It’s aggressed against a neighbor. It’s seized parts of Ukraine, the Crimean Peninsula, and destabilized other parts of Ukraine. It’s increased its military budget. It’s promoted more aggressive conventional- and nuclear-war-fighting doctrines. It has fundamentally torn up the rule book that has stabilized Europe since the end of World War II. It’s a very dramatic geostrategic shift of the security situation in Europe.
At the same time, just as this is happening, we’ve also seen the rise of isis—and isis borders Europe. Turkey has a fifteen-hundred-kilometre border with Syria and Iraq. And along much of that border we’re fighting, contesting isis.
Beyond that, all across the NATO periphery—east, southeast, and across the Mediterranean due south—you have a set of weak, failing, or failed states which further the instability for Europe. This is most prominently seen by returning foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq who have bombed European cities, but also from mass migration at a level which we haven’t seen since the Second World War. So the combination of Putin’s Russia and its aggressive actions, terrorism, and mass migration is causing NATO to go back to the basics—to the importance of security of the twenty-eight nations themselves and then looking at how we can promote stability among its neighbors. Today NATO is adapting again to these new challenges.
What forces can NATO mobilize? A few years ago, NATO had some hundred and seventy thousand troops active on three continents.
Five years ago, the majority were in Afghanistan. NATO peaked in 2010 and 2011 at a hundred and forty thousand troops in Afghanistan. We also had troops in the Balkans. We also had maritime operations in the Mediterranean, and off the Horn of Africa to counter piracy. NATO is a ground power. It’s a maritime power. It’s an air power, and NATO has very substantial special operations forces.
Most folks don’t understand that NATO doesn’t have its own forces. The twenty-eight allies own the forces. What distinguishes NATO is that it does have, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, a command-and-control structure which makes it easy for those forces to adapt to a new mission, come together, and operate together. It always has been led by an American four-star general, which traces back to Eisenhower when he first led NATO. Today, the Supreme Allied Commander is Army General Mike Scaparrotti.
What role does NATO play in American security?
NATO essentially says to every American: you won’t have to fight alone. That gives America the great confidence that it will always be able to operate in a multinational setting with diverse allies that not only bring military capacity but also political weight to whatever security challenge it faces.
How important is nato in dealing with extremism or terrorism?
There are two major contributions that NATO makes. First, the reason that NATO went to Afghanistan and remains today is to deny safe haven to Al Qaeda and other groups. Closer to NATO’s borders, it is a key contributor to the international coalition against isil, which is taking the fight into Syria and Iraq. All twenty-eight NATO members are members of the counter-isil coalition. Another twenty-six countries that associate with NATO—we refer to them as partners—are part of that coalition. So the vast majority of countries that are contributing to the coalition against isil are able to do so effectively because they know how to operate within NATO.
How does NATO divide financial responsibility?
Most of the defense spending in the alliance is national spending, not NATO defense spending. The military capabilities of NATO are owned, operated, and maintained by the nations themselves. NATO’s common budget—to which all allies contribute—is actually quite small, about two billion dollars, to keep the command-and-control apparatus operational and run the standing headquarters. So, for example, the U.S. defense budget is about six hundred billion dollars for all U.S. global commitments; all the other allies combined are at about two hundred and fifty billion dollars. On a day-to-day basis, very little of these vast sums is committed to NATO. Our cost share is twenty-two per cent. This is based on the agreed apportionment. The reality is that our G.D.P. is about equal to the other twenty-seven nations put together. If we did this strictly on the size of economies, our share of the common funding would be about fifty per cent.
What influence do the political principles embraced by NATO have on member states? Secretary Kerry reminded President Erdoğan over the past week that, as a member of NATO, Turkey has to commit, embrace, and practice its democratic principles. So what leverage does NATO have politically on its member states?
NATO is fundamentally a military alliance, but it is also a political alliance. It is an alliance of twenty-eight democracies. When a nation signs up to the Washington Treaty, as all twenty-eight have, they sign up to following principles, which are explicit in the preamble to the treaty and have been ratified by all members: democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.
Over the years, member states have gone through difficult periods, when democracy has been challenged. The preamble has served as a cornerstone or the bedrock of what is expected of a NATO member. We like to believe it has had an influence on all twenty-eight members abiding by those founding values. It’s playing a role today as some of our member states go through political challenges. This underlines that it is both a political and military alliance.
What are NATO standards for defense spending so that the burden is evenly shared?
NATO established that two per cent of national G.D.P. should be allocated for defense spending. Leaders of NATO countries—President Obama and others who met at the Wales summit, in 2014—established this benchmark. Today only five of twenty-eight allies meet that benchmark. The U.S. is one of them. Of the remainder, nineteen allies over the last two years have reversed cuts in defense spending and have made real increases. So, after a long period of defense cuts among its members, NATO has turned the corner. The program agreed to in 2014 is a ten-year program. We’re at least headed in the right direction.
What would it take for the United States to get out of NATO? How would the United States undo a treaty?
Article Thirteen, the next-to-last article in the treaty, says that any member state may choose to depart the alliance and essentially give one year’s notice, and then other members will be informed. It’s one sentence. In sixty-seven years, Article Thirteen has never been invoked. It’s never happened.