The North Atlantic alliance leaders will meet July 11–12, 2018, in Brussels—NATO’s first full-fledged summit since President Donald Trump’s inauguration. It follows the three-hour “getting-to-know-you” meeting in May 2017; that dinner gathering focused largely on themes President Trump had raised on the campaign trail—that NATO allies need to spend more on defense and that the alliance should do more to fight terrorism (particularly the Islamic State). President Trump’s criticisms of NATO and his tone sent shocks through the alliance. But the event was not intended to chart a comprehensive course for NATO or for U.S. policy; any administration would struggle with that task in its first four months, and particularly the Trump administration, which still has not filled out its national security team.
The Brussels Summit, which will take place more than one-third of the way through this presidential term, is different. The gathering will stretch over two days and will include detailed discussions in a variety of formats, some of which will involve non-NATO partners and representatives of the European Union. The summit also will take place after the Trump administration has concluded its major national strategic reviews (the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Ballistic Missile Defense Review) and with ample time for the U.S. foreign policy agencies to develop a coherent vision for the transatlantic security relationship. Elections will have produced by then, in countries that represent NATO’s four largest European defense budgets, governments with new security policy mandates in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy. The U.S. approach also will be informed by the practical experience of governing and conducting foreign relations—experience that takes much of the bloom off the rosy scenarios that administrations bring into office about the ability of Washington to order the world to its liking and achieve congenial policies from friend and foe.
In Northern Europe, the challenges confronting the United States and NATO are primarily the result of Russian efforts to undermine the European security order and break the transatlantic link; they affect the United States’ security as clearly as that of Europe. The United States and its allies therefore require an agenda that is broader than just defense spending and counterterrorism and that encompasses the spectrum of threats and vulnerabilities the transatlantic community faces.
There are four key areas on which the United States and its NATO allies should focus: posture, capabilities, structures, and partners.
Posture : Since the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO has instituted a security strategy on its eastern flank: a trip-wire presence, backed up by rapid-reaction and follow-on forces. NATO should focus on streamlined decisionmaking processes that will enable the secretary general and the supreme allied commander–Europe (SACEUR) to respond in a crisis while preserving crucial consensus-based decisionmaking. The battalion-sized trip-wire forces, which rotate in order to satisfy some allies’ concerns about the NATO-Russia Founding Act commitment on “permanent” combat forces, are appropriately sized for their mission. To pursue security through a larger, heavier NATO presence on the eastern flank would be chimerical. It would squander the alliance’s unity, because many would see a multiple-brigade presence in the Baltic states as provocative, needlessly expensive, or both. As NATO allies commit forces to cover three of the four “Enhanced Forward Presence” battalions, the United States should return permanently to Europe one of the two armored brigades that were withdrawn in 2012 and consider reinstituting the four-brigade presence. This should be accompanied by U.S. diplomatic efforts to secure long-term commitments by allies to staffing the forward presence and rapid-reaction forces like the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) and NATO Response Force—a “more for more” approach.
To make NATO’s deterrent more effective and credible, it is crucial that the alliance address the constraints that could impede rapid-reaction and follow-on forces from reaching a crisis zone in a timely fashion. This involves in part addressing Russia’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities in Northern Europe through strengthened air and maritime presence. The expected increase in U.S. funding for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to $4.8 billion in 2018 should support a greater U.S. presence of air and naval assets. The acquisition of advanced fighter aircraft by Norway, Denmark, and the United Kingdom, and of Patriot air/missile defense systems by Poland, provides an additional opportunity for strengthened air defense in the region. Investments by Norway and the United Kingdom in P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft represent new capabilities in the North Atlantic in view of Russia’s heightened submarine activity. The renewed NATO command focus on the North Atlantic and growing defense resources from NATO allies should focus as well on greater maritime domain awareness in the North Atlantic and Baltic Sea.
The credibility of NATO’s conventional deterrence depends on its ability to execute a reinforcement strategy in a complicated A2/AD environment. Rotations of U.S. armored brigade combat teams into Europe in 2017, and rotations of other U.S. and allied forces since 2014, have highlighted significant impediments to military mobility in Europe. Some of these are bureaucratic, such as diplomatic clearance hurdles for military equipment, personnel, or ammunition crossing national borders in peacetime. Others are logistical and relate to the capacity of European ports, airports, rail networks, roads, and bridges to accommodate the personnel and equipment that would need to flow quickly to a crisis location. Alliance defense ministers have agreed to create a new command focused on military logistics, which is a positive start that will help NATO exercise movements and identify problems to be resolved. But it is insufficient on its own. Achieving summit agreement to resolve these issues should be an alliance goal—one that will require careful diplomacy with key allies and a U.S. and NATO initiative with the European Union—more on which below.
Capabilities: The Trump administration has galvanized support within NATO to meet the defense investment pledges of the Wales and Warsaw Summits. This is reflected not only in rising defense spending in nearly all countries, but also in 100 percent agreement to meet alliance capability targets. The release of national plans by the end of 2017 for meeting defense resource commitments should solidify the alliance’s progress and provide a positive message of solidarity at the summit.
Structures: As NATO builds an Enhanced Northern Presence that goes beyond the land-centric responses of the past three years, it will need competence, organization, and focus. The new North Atlantic Command that NATO defense ministers have agreed to create within the NATO command structure has the potential to fill this role. The outlined purpose of the North Atlantic Command is the protection of the sea lines of communication between North America and Europe, a particularly vital task in the face of Russia’s heightened activity in the Barents Sea and the High North, which would threaten transatlantic movements in a potential conflict. The command’s mandate should further include the lines of communication through the North Sea, Danish Straits, and Baltic Sea, which connect to NATO ports and territory in the Baltic Sea region and especially to NATO’s forward deployments. This maritime space should be seen as a single theater of operations in the event of conflict with Russia in Northern Europe, and NATO should be structured to treat it that way. The alliance needs an updated Maritime Strategy that brings conceptual order and a higher level of ambition to NATO and member states’ maritime capabilities and activities, complementing the creation of the North Atlantic Command.
Partners : Some of the greatest potential security gains for NATO in the region involve security collaboration with partners and engagement on the civilian end of the civil-military spectrum. The alliance’s response in nearly any conceivable crisis scenario in Northern Europe will benefit significantly from cooperation with NATO partners Sweden and Finland. The NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partnership has given NATO a platform for intensified security dialogue, and the 28+2 meeting at the 2016 Warsaw Summit on threats to regional security is the most important example.
Building practical ties that close gaps in regional security will bolster deterrence. The Nordic countries already conduct regular cross-border air training and exercises, honing interoperability and expanding potential strategic depth. The agreement of the five Nordic countries to step up their air defense cooperation by sharing military air surveillance information is a further important step, as it involves NATO allies (Norway, Denmark, and Iceland) along with non-NATO members (Sweden and Finland). The alliance should explore the possibility to expand relationships of this sort to a NATO context, which would benefit all parties. Similarly, NATO should prioritize greater sharing of maritime surveillance data while countries in the region expand their capabilities. None of these measures would involve a collective defense guarantee to Sweden or Finland, which would be unwise to offer as long as they remain outside the alliance, a matter on which their publics remain divided. But it will broaden the foundation for cooperative efforts and present options in a crisis that would complicate Russia’s calculation of the transatlantic response to aggression, thereby strengthening deterrence.
The alliance’s partners also can play a crucial role in building European logistical capacity. The transportation infrastructure in Europe is central to the credibility of NATO’s reinforcement strategy, but the responsibilities and authorities reside mainly with national and EU authorities, since much of the relevant infrastructure serves primarily civilian purposes during peacetime. The initiative of the European Commission to improve military mobility in Europe is a welcome contribution, but it is in its early stages. The alliance should seek a political agreement with the European Union on an enhanced European contribution to dual-use infrastructure, engage diplomatically to obtain EU and national commitments, and feature this at the summit as a demonstration of growing practical burden sharing between Europe and the United States.
Russia is refining its tools at the lower end of the conflict spectrum and integrating them horizontally with more kinetic and coercive means, including information and influence operations often enabled by cyber intrusion and computer network exploitation. As NATO creates a Cyber Operations Center as part of its command structure update, it should take additional steps on its own and in conjunction with the European Union to close vulnerabilities and adapt. These include transatlantic information sharing on Russian-linked financial flows that are implicated in malign influence, monitoring and sharing information about Russian influence campaigns within NATO and EU member states, strengthening anticorruption and transparency measures at home, and increasing support for rule-of-law, anticorruption, and independent journalism in Euro-Atlantic aspirant countries. Such steps would further develop the NATO-EU Joint Declaration and demonstrate the commitment of the transatlantic community to reinforce democratic sovereignty and the integrity and responsiveness of their political systems.
The Russian pressure on the European security order and the Trump administration’s focus on allied burden sharing provides a prospect for mutually reinforcing increases in the transatlantic commitment and for a broader agenda that responds to the changing security environment while drawing on all Euro-Atlantic stakeholders. Early U.S. diplomatic and political-military leadership will be essential to create a twenty-first century deterrence and engagement for a modernized NATO.
Jeffrey Rathke is a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
This work is presented within the Security and Defense in Northern Europe research program, which is funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Defense and is a collaborative effort of the Norwegian Institute for Defense Studies (IFS), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), and the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Europe Program