Now Comes NATO's True Test

Standing alone?

As usual, the latest summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was a good one for stenographers. The gathered heads of state issued not one but two official declarations, making 122 points in all. But as NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen also said: "One thing is a declaration and quite another thing is implementation."

He was referring to the declared cease-fire in Ukraine, yet his words could also apply to the just-concluded meeting. The shared sense of purpose among the alliance's 28 leaders was impressive, and it is well and good for NATO to "reaffirm our continuing and unwavering commitment to defend the populations, territory, sovereignty, and shared values of all Allies in North America and Europe." Now it must back up that commitment.

It certainly has the incentive. The 28 countries of the alliance are increasingly under threat, with disorder lapping at their borders -- from Russian aggression in Ukraine to Islamic State's savagery in the Middle East. What NATO lacks is a willingness to spend.

Asked, for example, to make good on their long-standing pledge to spend at least 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, NATO's leaders said they would "aim to" reverse the decline that has reduced their collective defense spending by 20 percent in five years, then reach the 2 percent target -- sometime in the next decade.

The horribly named Readiness Action Plan to secure NATO's easternmost members from any potential Russian aggression was less than Poland and the Baltic states wanted, but it was nevertheless a vital step. And it will be expensive. NATO's commanders are fired up to revamp everything the alliance does to ensure its pledge of collective defense, as well as to create and deploy the new "spearhead" force in the Baltics and Poland. They must be allowed to do so.

One reason to fear compromise in an alliance so large and geographically diverse is that members have different threat perceptions. When U.S. President Barack Obama sought to persuade allies to take part in a coalition to battle Islamic State, the response was tepid.

The alliance endorsed Obama's effort to "degrade and destroy" Islamic State and provide some support, but it is unlikely to be part of any coalition that carries out airstrikes. Asked if Poland would be willing to get involved in any such coalition, for example, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski's response was telling: "We'll do so, as long as we feel safe on the eastern front."

This kind of bargaining is inevitable if inglorious. So was NATO's less-than-heroic offer of largely rhetorical support for Ukraine, which is not a member of the alliance. More worrying is the long record of reluctance among NATO's European allies, in particular, to respond to new threats quickly and unambiguously.

All the details of the Readiness Action Plan, for example, have been left blank: how many soldiers the force will include, what scale of infrastructure will be built, what kinds of equipment will be needed (and where) to supply that size of force. NATO must not let its committees whittle away at this project, because the result must be strong enough to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that he cannot afford even to attempt to do to a NATO member what he has done to Ukraine.

NATO said all the right things about Putin's aggression and Islamic State's terrorism. Now it needs to be able to do things about them -- and pay for them, despite the ill effects of the financial crisis, and a lot sooner than a decade from now.

--Editors: Marc Champion, Michael Newman.

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net