Commentary: Answer Trump's criticisms with a stronger NATO

Catherine Kelleher

is the College Park professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and was the secretary of defense's representative to NATO in the Clinton administration

Scott Warren

is CEO of Generation Citizen, a civics education nonprofit

Following Donald Trump's repeated expressed desire to end NATO, the future of the alliance is relevant and urgent for perhaps the first time in the Obama administration.

With NATO's Warsaw Summit looming in July, coupled with the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels, Trump's criticism provides the opportunity for an overdue strategic reboot, and President Obama should take it. The administration should provide a forceful leadership stance and articulate a new NATO that focuses on the challenges of long-term security, the role of Russia in Europe, and the principles of deterrence and defense in the 21st century.

In the wake of Trump's comments, the instinctual reaction has been to simply assert that NATO still has a purpose. This is not a sufficient response. Similarly, it is not adequate to simply reinforce the alliance's military capabilities that were yesterday's answers.

An actual recognition of NATO's challenges is a prerequisite for effective reform. And this starts with the acknowledgment that, throughout the last seven years, the Obama administration has consistently deprioritized Europe. In the midst of a still-incomplete pivot toward China and the Near East, and constant interruptions in focus caused by unrest in the Middle East and Russia, our oldest allies in Europe have remained on the sidelines, reduced too often to fringe actors in America's foreign policy.

In Obama's last months in office, it is imperative that the administration refocus on Europe using a new "cooperative security" framework. Rather than reverting to the traditional collective defense approach, this new NATO should collaborate and consult on key strategic initiatives like the response to the long-term unrest in Syria and the Middle East, the persistent refugee crisis, the questions of nuclear and conventional trade-offs, and the new conditions to sustain strategic stability.

Put simply, NATO must identify its economic and political realities, clarify its strategic goals, and adjust its membership priorities.

First, rather than solely focus around a collective threat, NATO should emphasize a collective defense of the Western values of peace and security. This approach, a redefinition of cooperative security, should rely on allies to continually work together to identify joint strategies to the thorniest policy issues. The lack of collaboration around current security issues may explain the troublesome reality that the United States did not provide antiterrorism information or support to NATO countries directly after the Paris attacks, and took months to send an American assistance team to the acknowledged weak state of Belgium. The exchange of intelligence and best practices, along with rapid-response capabilities, must be increased against a persistent set of dangers and risks.

A collective response to terrorist attacks from actors like ISIS is critical, but it is not sufficient. Perhaps the most pressing threat that NATO members face is the constant refugee migration from Syria and the rest of the Middle East. While it is the primary responsibility of the European Union to develop a response to this crisis, the United States should be heavily involved and invested, both in crafting a holistic strategy, and in facing and coordinating the operational challenges of screening and alleviating the humanitarian burdens of waves of refugees.

NATO should also provide leadership on other tasks: pursuing nuclear arms-control measures (including the removal of tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles), determining a long-term response to crises in Ukraine and Syria, and jointly leading on climate change. A cooperative security-focused alliance should be wide-ranging and responsive to lower-end threats, rather than solely a collective nuclear-dependent deterrence system.

Second, with Vladimir Putin's Russia determined to reestablish itself as a global player, NATO's own geopolitics must be reinforced. To the east, NATO must ensure that it is seen as an economic and military partner to states in danger of being usurped by Russian forces, so as to prevent the annexation of more territories. It is necessary that Russia sees NATO as a united alliance, not simply as a coalition of the willing. For this to occur, agreements between the United States and European countries should be promoted as alliance initiatives, rather than bilateral agreements.

Simultaneously, it is important to note that the ongoing power crisis provides an opportunity to strengthen potential arms-control initiatives. Russia should not be treated solely as a threat.

Third, to give Trump some credit, NATO must again agree, with teeth rather than creative accounting, that free riders in the alliance pay their fair share to maintain its relevance. Only a handful of states are meeting the minimum defense-spending goal of 2 percent of GDP, which was actually lowered during the recent global recession. With improving economics over the next five years, these goals should be easily implemented and must become a requisite for membership.

Perhaps most important, the United States needs to understand that NATO members are its most important partners in meeting increasingly complex global challenges. Rather than creating NATO's downfall, Trump has provided Obama with an opportunity to create a legacy of relevance.

ckellehe@umd.edu

swarren@generationcitizen.org