NATO Refocuses on Home Defense, With a Helping Hand From Putin

It’s over time, over budget and, until Russia pounced on Crimea, it looked like NATO’s new headquarters would be underused.

Now, as it pulls back from Afghanistan, the U.S.-led alliance is rediscovering its original mission: defend Europe against threats from Russia. The shift is being driven by countries like Poland and the Baltic states -- former satellites of the Soviet Union that want the alliance’s military might as a deterrent.

“There’s been tension for a long time whether NATO should focus more on collective-defense commitments or do more global policing,” said Scotland-based Ian Davis, founder of NATO Watch, a research group that monitors the alliance’s activities. “There’s a strengthened sense now that NATO has to focus more on collective defense.”

The emerging division of labor is a lot like that of the Cold War, with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization providing the hard power and the European Union the softer, economic power to ensure the peace on the edge of the Eurasian landmass.

On his first trip to Brussels yesterday -- home to both the EU and NATO -- President Barack Obama called for an updating of contingency plans to defend eastern Europe and proposed “that we do more to ensure that a regular NATO presence among some of these states that may feel vulnerable is executed.”

Soviet Yoke

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and massing of troops on Ukraine’s borders led NATO to reassure eastern European states that started joining the alliance in 1999 after a half-century under the Soviet yoke. Fighter patrols over the Baltic states were beefed up, the U.S. announced the dispatch of more F-16s to Poland, allied AWACS surveillance planes were sent over Poland and Romania, and the U.S. joined Romania and Bulgaria in naval exercises in the Black Sea.

“A few years ago the hard truth was this: the world’s biggest, most powerful military alliance wasn’t capable of helping Poland quickly or effectively in response to a crisis on our eastern border,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said on Radio Tok FM on March 18. “Now we’re seeing progress practically every day.”

NATO cast about for a new mission after the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991. NATO’s post-Cold War arc took it first to the Balkans, where it intervened in the wars that broke up Yugoslavia. The policy was to go “out of area or out of business,” a slogan later tested in Afghanistan and Libya.

Alliance Doubters

Doubts over NATO sticking together are as old as the alliance, founded in 1949 after the Soviet blockade of Berlin cemented the division of Europe into two hostile camps. Writing in 2009, Wallace J. Thies diagnosed an “alliance crisis syndrome” of constant doomsaying.

NATO crisis-mongers abounded during the Anglo-French Suez invasion of 1956, France’s pullout from the alliance’s full-time military command in the 1960s and when the U.S. opposed a natural gas pipeline from the Soviet Union to western Europe in the 1980s, according to Thies, a politics professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.

The NATO-is-doomed industry peaked in 2003, when the U.S.- led invasion of Iraq forced European allies to take sides. The leaders of Germany and France at the time, Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac, forged a diplomatic alliance with Putin to try to frustrate U.S. war plans.

NATO now offers a realm “within which peace and prosperity prevail,” Thies said. “Russia will rattle nerves in western Europe, but it won’t do more than that because the Europeans are safe and secure in their alliance with the U.S.”

Managing Costs

The question, as with the alliance’s move across Boulevard Leopold III on the outskirts of Brussels, is how to manage the costs. NATO’s political staff, representing the 28 allies, has been housed since 1967 in a cluster of low-slung buildings near the main Belgian airport that could be mistaken for a pre-fab temporary storage facility.

The alliance that won the Cold War without firing a shot initially targeted 2012 for its move to a glassy complex that looks like a cross between airport terminal and shopping mall. Then the date was pushed to 2015. Now it’s 2016. The price tag went to 750 million euros ($1 billion) from 460 million euros, and hasn’t stopped rising.

Obama yesterday skipped the chance to check out the old headquarters, instead using a downtown hotel for a meeting with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen of Denmark, whose term ends in September. A successor may be appointed as early as next week.

European Free-Riding

Obama dwelt on who pays the larger bill for the armies, navies and air forces overseen from NATO’s head office, and from the alliance’s military command in southern Belgium.

American complaints about European free-riding are a recurrent feature of NATO history, captured when Robert Gates delivered his parting shot as U.S. defense secretary. Europe’s dwindling defense budgets raise “the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance,” Gates said in June 2011.

Since then, the euro debt crisis further eroded European defense spending. The European Commission estimated last year that military budgets fell 10 percent from 2005-2010 and another 10 percent since then. Only three European allies -- Britain, Estonia and Greece -- met an informal NATO target of spending at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense in 2013, according to alliance data. The U.S., which spent 4.1 percent, is now paring a Pentagon budget increased for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Chipping In

“Everybody’s got to chip in,” Obama said. “And I have had some concerns about a diminished level of defense spending among some of our partners in NATO -- not all, but many. The trend lines have been going down.”

In December, for the second time in a decade, the EU vowed to get serious on defense. EU leaders pledged to promote projects like research into unmanned drones and the improvement of midair refueling equipment, under the motto “defense matters.”

With spending restraint in the U.S. coinciding with Russia’s occupation of Crimea and menace to Ukraine, European governments have to live up to those commitments, said Jo Coelmont, a retired Belgian brigadier general.

“It’s about credibility,” said Coelmont, who represented Belgium on the EU’s military committee. “You have to be credible politically, diplomatically, economically, but on defense as well. And there is no such thing as part-time credibility.”

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