Dan Alles is an intern in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.
At the 2016 Warsaw Summit last month, leaders from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced that they will deploy four multinational battalions to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. This decision sends an important and reassuring message to the world at a time when some, like Donald Trump, are questioning the reliability and sustainability of the alliance altogether. Although Trump’s comments about burden-sharing have some merit, his judgements are misguided; weakening the current deterrence posture or abandoning the alliance would be disastrous for U.S. and global security. NATO is not only a collective deterrent against Russian aggression, but also a political and military organization that has adapted to meet twenty-first century challenges. Through these developments, NATO has become an indispensable part of U.S. security, and despite some limitations, it should not be abandoned.
Although it was founded on the basis of collective defense, NATO broadened the scope of its missions over the past twenty-five years. Today, NATO is a leader in global crisis management and undertakes a wide variety of direct military operations to support this mission. These operations span the globe, from the alliance’s train and equip programs in Afghanistan, to its post-9/11 maritime surveillance programs in the Mediterranean Sea. This fall, NATO will also finalize plans to restart training and capacity building inside Iraq. NATO’s previous operation there, the NATO Training Mission-Iraq, concluded in 2011, but the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State has pushed the alliance to return.
NATO is able to take action to prevent conflicts in support of a United Nations mandate or at the invitation of a sovereign government. In accordance, NATO also maintains a peace-support presence of about 4,500 troops in Kosovo and continues to support the African Union in its peacekeeping and counter-piracy operations.
NATO’s evolution since the fall of the Soviet Union resulted in an immensely integrated military alliance system with a global presence. As such, the benefits of NATO now transcend its direct military footprint and incorporate a variety of tactical advantages as well. These advantages include:
- A ready-made multilateral coalition prepared to respond to crisis. A world without NATO would be one where, if the United States wanted to avoid acting unilaterally, it would have to construct a novel coalition for every conflict that arises. Not only would this take more time and cost more money, but it would also be less effective, as the alliance has already worked out its policies and procedures and shared its best practices.
- Joint training and deterrence exercises. Conducting training exercises allows NATO to maintain a force readiness and deter potential antagonists. Moreover, joint exercises offer zero-consequence trial runs to test and validate new concepts in demanding crisis situations. This in turn improves the interoperability of both military and civilian organizations.
- Consultation and sharing of assessments, military plans and intelligence. NATO is an effective vehicle for intelligence and information sharing among member states. Its mechanisms for intelligence sharing improves coherence among partners, including other international organizations like the United Nations and European Union.
- Sharing of military resources and infrastructure. During the Gulf War, NATO did not take a direct role in combat operations, but cooperated to provide logistical support to member forces in region, including organizing transportation, landing rights, port use, air traffic control, and medical support. Similarly, though NATO is not involved in the current coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, member states contribute resources and facilities to the fight. Turkey’s Incirlik air base, where coalition troops fly sortie missions over Syria and Iraq, is just one example. According to U.S. Air Force data, there was a thirty percent increase in bombs dropped after missions from Incirlik began in 2015.
The overwhelming evidence for NATO’s strategic importance to the United States demonstrates that Trump’s comments about NATO were misguided. Moreover, approaching the alliance with threats to withdraw does not increase U.S. leverage in negotiations. Instead, it merely downplays U.S. leadership and emboldens Russia. In light of Russian action in Georgia and Crimea, and the extension of the Eurasian Economic Union—a trading bloc comprising Russia and former Soviet satellites—the United States should maintain its leadership role in NATO and encourage members to meet spending goals. Today, experts believe a Russian invasion of the Baltic Republics would be successful in a mere sixty hours, leaving NATO with limited bloody options to respond. The agreements at the Warsaw Summit were steps to increasing NATO’s defense posture, but more could be done to ensure that its tactical strengths are matched with an equally strong foundation for deterrence.