On the eve of the NATO summit in Warsaw last weekend, the Atlantic Council released a report declaring that the Alliance “faces the greatest threat to peace and security in Europe since the end of the Cold War.” The report’s authors, Ambassador Nicholas Burns, lead negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program and an advisor to Hillary Clinton, and General James Jones, a former national security advisor to President Obama, announced that NATO “needs more consistently strong, determined American presidential leadership.”
Well, now. One is at pains to ask what these national security mavens were doing when the Obama administration opted to effectively ignore NATO as it “pivoted” to the Asia-Pacific theater.
In January 2012, the White House released its strategic guidance white paper, “Sustaining Global Leadership,” which justified the new Asia policy by insisting that “most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it.” Since Europe no longer faced any serious security threats, “our posture in Europe must also evolve.” The already-dwindling number of U.S. forces in Europe would be cut in half.
We may add this strategic blunder to the laundry list of myopic miscalculations that have characterized the Obama White House and helped create the threats facing NATO and now so loudly deplored.
Four and a half years after that infamous white paper, the results are in: Russia smelled American ambivalence about European security and moved swiftly to violate Ukrainian sovereignty by seizing Crimea. The Islamic State—belittled by the White House as a “junior varsity” version of al Qaeda—has spread its murderous mayhem in Europe while redrawing the map of the Middle East. And the Syrian civil war, prolonged and deepened by presidential paralysis, has created a refugee crisis that endangers the security of NATO member states.
All of this has occurred as the military strength and preparedness of the 28-member Alliance has deteriorated. By 2015, average military spending among NATO states fell to its lowest level, at 1.45 percent of GDP. Despite a modest increase in 2016, just five Allies meet the NATO guideline to spend a minimum of 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Focusing much of its resources in areas outside of Europe—Afghanistan remains its primary operational theater—the Alliance has been caught off guard by the crises in its own backyard. Even President Obama, indifferent to the consequences of American retrenchment, nevertheless admitted at Warsaw: “In the nearly 70 years of NATO, perhaps never have we faced such a range of challenges all at once: security, humanitarian, political.”
The question now is this: will NATO act decisively to reverse these trends? NATO leaders promised to bolster Europe’s defenses against an “arc of insecurity and instability” from Moscow to North Africa. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared that “an independent, sovereign and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security.”
The most significant announcement during the two-day summit was the decision to maintain roughly 13,000 troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, and to continue funding the Afghan National Security Forces in their fight against the Taliban. Still, troop levels remain inadequate to the task. The other commitments offer scant evidence of a NATO reformation at hand. A proposed “comprehensive assistance package” to Ukraine—including money for cyber defense and the “rehabilitation of wounded soldiers”—lacks the military assistance needed to actually deter further Russian aggression. Summit leaders pledged four battalions of roughly 1,000 soldiers each to be stationed in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania: states with painful memories of Soviet occupation. But this is a baby-step that would prove laughably inadequate in the face of a significant military threat.
The Warsaw meeting marked President Obama’s final NATO summit and, despite nearly eight years in office, he and his national security team remain in denial: “NATO is as strong, as ready and as nimble as ever.” That sounds like PR pabulum from Obama advisor Ben Rhodes, and no one believes it. Worse still, Obama and much of the liberal foreign policy establishment seem largely ignorant of the reasons for NATO’s success through the Cold War.
The political-moral premise of NATO was that the Soviet Union, rooted in a malevolent political ideology, could only be deterred from further aggression by the credible threat of overwhelming military force. Every aspect of American diplomacy during the Cold War proceeded from this moral principle.
The North Atlantic Treaty, signed on April 4, 1949, signaled a radical break from American isolationism: a peacetime alliance with the democratic nations of Europe in defense of Western security. Such a treaty became possible only because Soviet ambitions—its absorption of Czechoslovakia and blockade of Berlin the same year—stirred Americans out of complacency. And, from the very beginning, the Alliance required a dominant U.S. leadership role. “The Atlantic Alliance,” writes Henry Kissinger in World Order, “while it combined the military forces of the allies in a common structure, was sustained largely by unilateral American military power.”
Critics of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union have warned, with near hysteria, about its effect on European security—as if the EU brought about the stability and prosperity of modern Europe. In fact, it was NATO, united in its opposition to communist tyranny, that allowed democratic values and institutions to take root and flourish. The premier role of the United States in this military-political alliance helped to contain and ultimately defeat the Soviet Union, while avoiding another war on the European continent—a remarkable achievement.
How did they do it? NATO members, prodded by the United States, confronted honestly the ideological threat facing them during the Cold War. The character of that threat was described in detail in NSC-68, the National Security Council’s manifesto that defined the struggle with a philosophical clarity lacking among today’s policymakers:
Thus unwillingly our free society finds itself mortally challenged by the Soviet system. No other value system is so wholly irreconcilable with ours, so implacable in its purpose to destroy ours, so capable of turning to its own uses the most dangerous and divisive trends in our own society, no other so skillfully and powerfully evokes the elements of irrationality in human nature everywhere, and no other has the support of a great and growing center of military power.
The leaders who gathered at Warsaw are acutely aware of the problems facing their member states. There was much talk of the continuing threat of Russian belligerence, as well as the ongoing refugee and migrant crisis. But the focus seemed to be on the symptoms of these problems, rather than their causes. Their official communique acknowledged that the Islamic State “reaches into all of Allied territory, and now represents an immediate and direct threat to our nations and the international community.” Yet they managed to avoid any discussion of the political theology animating this threat or suggest a strategy for actually defeating it.
At the NATO summit the president declared the “unwavering commitment of the United States to the security and defense of Europe.” But like so many of Obama’s words, they had a vacuous and unconvincing ring about them, betrayed by an administration that still fails to grasp the relationship between power and diplomacy. As Anne Pierce wrote recently in this space, Obama’s flawed approach to deterrence has transformed American “soft power” into the “softening of American power and democratic leadership.”
It is ironic that Warsaw thus became the setting for another round of liberal bromides about peace and security. For Warsaw once represented the last outpost of resistance against Nazi tyranny before Poland’s liberation at the end of the Second World War: the Warsaw Uprising by Polish freedom-fighters. And yet, at the moment of its liberation, the city of Warsaw played host to the Soviet absorption of Poland into the Communist bloc, made possible by its betrayal at the Yalta Conference in 1945. A decade later came the Warsaw Pact, cementing Moscow’s military stranglehold over Eastern Europe.
Warsaw thus represented a defeat of the forces of democracy, authorized by another naïve American president who imagined that his diplomatic prowess could tame Joseph Stalin and the barbarism of Soviet communism. “I believe that we are going to get along very well with him and the Russian people,” declared Franklin Roosevelt, “very well indeed.”
Though once symbolizing the spirit of democratic defiance in the West, Warsaw fell under a shadow of self-delusion and defeat. With Europe and NATO at another crossroads, it is too early to tell which direction the West ultimately will take.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence. He is the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: A U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress leads a formation of aircraft including two Polish Air Force F-16s, four U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons, two German Eurofighter Typhoons, and four Swedish Gripens over the Baltic Sea, June 9, 2016. The formation was captured from a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 434th Air Refueling Wing, Grissom Air Force Base, Ind., as part of exercise Baltic Operations 2016. (Source: United States Airforce, Senior Airman Erin Babis)