I know you’re worried. You’re worried that the United States is about to have a commander in chief who has called the NATO alliance “obsolete.” You’re worried by Donald Trump’s campaign promise to defend NATO allies only if they meet their “obligations.” If you’re not spending the recommend 2 percent of GDP on defense, in other words, America’s next president may not meet our Article 5 commitments to defend you. And you’re worried about what Trump’s ever -amous “America First” slogan will mean in practice.
Don’t panic. Instead, use the coming weeks to put together a plan, both individually and collectively. That plan should have three core objectives: lay out the facts, get your house in order, and prepare for 2017’s NATO Summit in Brussels.
First, get back to basics. Trump and his team appear to have a complete lack of understanding of why we created NATO in the first place, what it has done to reform and adjust to the rapidly changing security environment, and what it is doing now to prepare for the future.
Don’t make the mistake of starting with the work it does in the Baltics — important as it may be. Start at the beginning. Outline for yourself and for others — not just in Washington but also in your own country — why nations like Russia and China wish they had had an alliance like NATO in the past and wish they had one now.
Remember what NATO has done in its neighborhood and far from its borders since the fall of the Berlin Wall: the years it fought in the Balkans, its multiple rounds of enlargement, its invocation of Article 5 on 9/11, the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan, the anti-piracy work off the coast of Somalia, the training missions in Iraq, its work on cyber security and energy security, among many other things. But don’t gloss over its failures. Engage in an honest conversation, for example, about the post-conflict phase in Libya and how we all could have handled it more effectively. Talk about capability gaps and plans to fill them. Admit that the alliance is imperfect but remember to explain why it remains indispensable.
Don’t stop there. You also must clarify the important changes that have been made to defense spending since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Remind Trump supporters, would-be appointees, the press, and the U.S. Congress as often as possible that two-thirds of the alliance have stopped the bleeding, that defense spending is on the rise even as far too many countries still fall below the 2 percent mark.
For those of you with plans to soon spend 2 percent, give folks the exact dates when you plan to hit that target. But remind people the 2 percent target is exactly that — a target (albeit a good one) and not an obligation, as Trump described it.
For those of you hosting U.S. forces, you also need to do some work to help folks across the pond understand the conditions that make this possible. Start talking in detail about the term “host nation support.” Remind people what your country does to ensure that U.S. troops are secure and supported. Ask retired U.S. military commanders to comment on the value of stationing troops overseas as well as the value of global alliances. Ask U.S. military personnel about being stationed overseas, what it meant to them personally both on the battlefield and in their daily lives.
After you’ve sketched out the facts, take a long hard look at your own defense budget.
Spending 2 percent already? Work with your neighbors to help them get there too. Plan to get to 2 percent sometime soon? Terrific. Stay the course and keep up the pressure on your finance minister and parliament to make those pledges real.
No plan to get to 2 percent? You’ve got work to do. You may have felt that you had the luxury to ignore U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates in 2011 when he warned of a “dim, if not dismal future” for the NATO alliance in his last foreign policy address overseas. Similarly, you may have felt you could ignore more subtle messages from Defense Secretaries Panetta, Hagel, and Carter. Those days are over.
If you care about the future of the alliance and want to see the U.S. remain an active, constructive and committed member, you will have get creative about moving the needle. If your domestic politics or budgetary paralysis make that impossible, you should at least take what you spend and ensure it is spent more wisely. Talk to the Norwegians about that. They spend less than 2 percent but make meaningful contributions to the alliance on a regular basis.
Finally, start now on preparations for the next NATO Summit in 2017. Think about ways to make it anything but a normal summit. Get rid of the endless rounds of prepared talking points. Engage in candid conversation both at the summit and at the ministerial meetings that precede it. Don’t only think about the alliance’s core message, but engage with the practical aspects of its capabilities: Focus on readiness, on counter anti-access, area denial capabilities, command structure, resilience.
Get creative and act like the future of NATO depends on it. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, it does.
Author: JULIANNE SMITH