Does NATO Need a New Ideology?

NATO heads of state will meet in Warsaw this Friday and Saturday at a time when the U.S. has been accused by some of pulling back from the world stage in general and from Europe in particular, as the Obama Administration pivoted to the Asia Pacific region and economic interests there.

However, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) event he believes the U.S is more engaged around the world than ever before – but, Blinken noted, it depends on how one defines engagement, which is not just about the military anymore.

A broader definition of “engagement” is requisite in a changing world, in which hybrid warfare and threats from terrorism are creating a new battlefield with multiple strategies necessary for response.

At the same CSIS event, Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Philip Breedlove talked about the DIME model of national power. DIME stands for diplomacy, information, military, and economics. Breedlove said today’s warfare is incorporating all of these elements, and NATO knows it must deal with this larger scale – and at times indirect – style of warfare.

NATO’s capability to adapt and strengthen itself largely depends on future U.S. involvement. Under a Donald Trump presidency, for example, it is likely the U.S. would scale-back its presence in NATO. Earlier this year, Trump suggested the alliance is “obsolete” and said it costs the U.S. too much. Just last month, Trump commented, “We spend a tremendous amount of money on NATO. We take care of countries that frankly should be taking care of themselves in terms of economically (sic).”

On the other hand, a Hillary Clinton presidency would likely maintain the status quo, if not bolster, the U.S.-NATO partnership. In response to Trump’s comments back in March, Clinton said leaving or downsizing involvement in the alliance would “make America less safe and the world more dangerous.” She also noted that abandoning NATO would play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who “already hopes to divide Europe.”

Indeed, Russia poses another major challenge to NATO. “For the first time in many years, Russia poses an active military threat to the alliance,” says Steven Hall, a former senior CIA officer and Cipher Brief expert. Hall, who oversaw intelligence operations in the former Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries, continues, “The alliance faces the distinct possibility that Russia might actually take aggressive action against a NATO country in the near term, most likely one located along Russia’s border.”

Most recently, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military support of separatists in eastern Ukraine provide support for Hall’s analysis. “Putin’s strategic goal is returning Russia to great power status, but how far he will go in this attempt remains unclear,” says Hall. It is this uncertainty that makes the current situation so threatening.

Christopher Chivvis, Associate Director of the RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center and Cipher Brief expert, echoes Hall’s concern: “Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, invasion of Eastern Ukraine, multiple aerial incursions into NATO territory, belligerent military exercises along NATO’s borders, and cavalier talk about nuclear weapons have demonstrated the Kremlin’s deep hostility and willingness to threaten Europe’s hard-won post-Cold War security.”

In response, NATO is shifting from a strategy of reassurance to deterrence, with the caveat that dialogue with Russia is also important to any kind of long term security. Breedlove says in the future, NATO must have some kind of meaningful relationship with Russia, but right now, “We need to continue to make our alliance militarily credible […] and deal [with Russia] from a position of a strong, united, defensive alliance.”

The unity of the transatlantic alliance is vital to its success as a security organization, and something the U.S. has the ability to bolster or fracture. NATO’s cohesiveness is inextricably linked with its ideology, which itself is historically aligned with U.S. liberal democracy.

This is a “time to strengthen” the core of that Western, liberal democratic order, says Blinken – an order that is already under pressure from the rise of nationalist populist parties across Europe, with echoes in the United States as well. Former SACEUR and Cipher Brief expert Admiral James Stavridis explains NATO’s core values as “democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, human rights, and other basic tenets of western tradition.”

“The most powerful tool the U.S. holds, over the long term, is our adherence to what makes us true to those values,” says Stavridis. Still, a global shift in power centers and, subsequently, value systems seems to be on the horizon. Blinken notes that NATO was founded on the values of democracy, but Europe and the world need a new idea – something to inspire hope. Ideology is what’s lacking, says Blinken.