NATO’s Stoltenberg paradox
8 Apr 2019|

As it turns 70, NATO is facing its most severe challenges since the Cold War ended nearly three decades ago. The alliance has been rocked by Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its invasion of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, US President Donald Trump’s stinging criticism, and the United Kingdom’s Brexit-fuelled metamorphosis into little England. Despite these setbacks, NATO has significantly strengthened its commitment to Central and Eastern Europe in recent years. Yet it needs to do more.

True, the United States and its European NATO allies disagree on important issues such as defence spending, trade, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal—as the alliance’s current secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, acknowledged during a recent visit to Warsaw. But, as Stoltenberg correctly pointed out, military cooperation within NATO is better than it has been in years. This ‘Stoltenberg paradox’ is arguably most evident in NATO’s progressive strengthening of its Eastern flank, including Poland.

Stoltenberg justifiably highlights NATO’s recent reforms. For example, the alliance has built up its new ‘very high readiness joint task force’. In addition, NATO has developed a series of large-scale military exercises along its eastern flank to show Russia that the alliance treats its obligations toward each member state seriously. This is especially important for Poland and the Baltic states, all of which have a border with Russia.

The rotational deployment of multinational NATO battalions in the Eastern flank countries has also demonstrated the alliance’s resolve. This enhanced forward presence has included the transfer of American military personnel and equipment to the region.

As a result, there are now 4,400 US troops stationed in Poland. This marks a great leap forward from the initial agreements signed by Poland’s former foreign minister, Radek Sikorski (regarding a missile defence base in the town of Redzikowo), and by me as defence minister (regarding a permanent US Air Force establishment in Lask).

The allies took another step forward at the NATO summit in Brussels in July last year, when they approved the new NATO readiness initiative, or ‘four thirties.’ The initiative requires the alliance to have an additional 30 mechanised ground battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 combat vessels ready to deploy within 30 days. This is at the heart of NATO’s current doctrine of ‘deterrence by rapid reinforcement’.

And yet a key question remains unanswered: will allied deterrence prevent possible Russian aggression during those 30 days? NATO’s existing forward-deployed forces would not be able to provide protection, especially if Russia seized the Suwalki Gap (on the Poland–Lithuania border) or one of the Baltic states before reinforcements arrived. The alliance must do more to resolve this ‘30-day gap’.

Trump’s interventions, meanwhile, have raised other, knottier political questions. His statement that NATO was obsolete shook many in Europe and was a gift to Russia. And whereas Trump favours a business-oriented approach, the alliance is based on the binding principle of ‘all for one, one for all’. Without it, NATO would not exist. The UK’s decision to leave the EU further deepened European concerns.

But fears about the transatlantic alliance are not an excuse for Europe’s policymakers to float wildly unrealistic proposals, such as a European army independent of NATO.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of ‘strategic autonomy’ seems equally nebulous. Macron recently proposed a European security and defense treaty—a kind of defensive Schengen agreement—and the creation of a European security council that would include the UK after it leaves the EU. This concept would establish an alternative structure to NATO and go beyond the EU’s common security and defence policy, which is just being rebuilt.

Faced with new threats, Europe should use the mechanisms and tools it already has. These have been on the table for a decade, but only in the past three years have policymakers been willing to use them.

For example, in 2017, EU leaders established ‘permanent structured cooperation’ to increase defence collaboration among member states and invoked the EU’s ‘solidarity clause’ at France’s request in the wake of terrorist attacks in that country. Furthermore, the EU signed a declaration of cooperation with NATO last year and has agreed to create a European defence fund. All of these initiatives will strengthen Europe without undermining the alliance.

The EU can continue to improve its military capabilities without having to create new structures that go beyond its existing legal framework. For starters, European leaders need to decide on the future of the EU battlegroups, which have been on duty for years but have never been deployed. They should also seriously consider expanding the EU’s existing military planning and conduct capability in order to have a fully fledged EU operational command in place after 2020. The EU has undertaken over 30 military, civilian and mixed missions, and the bloc plans to be even more active internationally under the recently adopted EU global strategy.

All those initiatives within the legal framework of the EU would strengthen Europe without undermining the role of NATO. And this should be our principle for long-term strategy and policy.

NATO enters its eighth decade amid continued disagreements between the US and Europe. We must hope that the Stoltenberg paradox disappears, and that the alliance further strengthens its military efforts to deter possible Russian aggression while reducing political tension between American and European allies. Poland and the rest of NATO’s eastern flank will be watching closely.