NATO must work as a single, effective entity to protect its citizens, says FPI Policy Advisor John Noonan

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Thank you, and thanks to both CES and IRI for hosting this discussion. I hate to start by off asking the same question that has been asked ad naseum since 1991 –that is, what is NATO’s purpose after the dissolution of the Soviet Union?  But, given the unique security challenges the alliance faces, it’s a question worth revisiting.

When discussing NATO’s future, it’s important to ask a few basis questions. First and most importantly, what is NATO’s core function? What binds us as friends and allies? Are we an alliance based on simply on geographic proximity and a desire to preserve our territorial integrity? I think based on our discussions, the answer in this room would be unequivocally “no.” NATO is primarily an ideological alliance composed of free nations with shared values. The alliance exists to preserve, and I would submit to promote, those shared values of freedom, liberty, and prosperity.

So this drives the question: what threatens those values absent a Soviet juggernaut staring at us from over the Berlin Wall and through the Fulda Gap? This is a difficult question to answer. There is no consensus amongst member states on the severity or, in some cases, the existence of, threats. NATO’s eastern European members worry more about a resurgent Russia, while Western states are far more concerned about countering terrorism, climate change, and security of sea-lanes and economic nodes than they are with peer competitors like Russia and China. This mild dissonance, if read incorrectly, could undermine the principles of the alliance that were established in the 1940s and mastered in the years since.

NATO is principally a partnership of collective defense. Collective defense is predicated upon a collective understanding of where the enemy is, or as my friends in the Army would say, who we should be shooting at. This was simple during the Cold War. Every day that we kept the Soviet boxed in, contained, and isolated was a victory. In this sense, stability and the sustainment of peace was our common goal.

That threat of global instability hasn’t disappeared since 1991. It has fragmented. Consider NATO’s security challenges as they exist today: The spectrum of warfare’s margins are at their widest point in human history. We are fighting together in Afghanistan, as well as combating other low-intensity threats in Iraq, Yemen, the Philippines, and the Horn of Africa, where we’re also securing the sea lanes and freedom of transit from Somali pirates. When NATO was formed, there was only one nuclear power on the planet. Today there are 9. Iran’s steadfast determination to construct an atomic weapon could introduce a poly-nuclear Middle East and provide terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah with the protective aegis of a nuclear umbrella. The global commons have expanded to include space and cyberspace, both of which require an active –if not aggressive- defense and are both critical to the sustainment of international trade and prosperity. Russia still possesses a large nuclear arsenal which requires a carefully calculated deterrence equation to counter, resumed nuclear bomber flights along the coasts of Norway, Canada, the United States and Britain, invaded NATO aspirant Georgia in 2008, and has introduced a pressing need for a serious strategic discourse on natural resource security. China’s military build-up has been tied to bellicose statements about its ownership of that vital transit lane, the South China Sea, along with concerning references to its own national destiny. Their arms build-up focuses on purely destabilizing capabilities like advanced cyberwar and space-denial, both of which can seriously cripple the United States’ and Europe’s economies. The great Russian bear no longer dominates the global security discourse, instead replaced by the proverbial hornet’s nest.

So what is the way forward? In short, the United States and Europe must embrace jointness and interoperability in meaningful, tangible ways. To be sure, we’re already pretty good at this. There’s a great story from Afghanistan where a Canadian soldier was critically wounded by an IED blast in the Helmand, evacuated by a Danish helicopter, operated on by a British surgeon, and airlifted by a USAF transport to a hospital in Germany. That is precisely how a multi-national security alliance is supposed to function.

But more can be done. 9/11 taught us that instability in remote regions of the world pose a clear and present danger to our way of life. NATO must, in unambiguous terms, codify the relationship between the stability it provides an alliance and global prosperity. In the United States, politicians are fond of saying that our military power is derived from our economic power. But is that really true? NATO is the vanguard of realms like world’s oceans, space, and cyberspace, without which the modern, globalized economy could not exist. I would submit to you that our military power is not drawn from economic power, but rather is a symbiotic relationship. The quicker NATO can develop functional interoperability in the economic battlespace, on par with the cooperation that saved the Canadian soldier, the better.

 Further, soft power and humanitarian relief will be a critical new mission set in the 21st century. This makes many of my friends in the military squirm, but it is simple reality. Globalization means that instability brought on by epidemics like HIV in Africa can directly affect our security in Europe and the United States. So in NATO’s already crowded mission set, is there room for an ambitious promotion of stability and security? Absolutely, and I’ll you an example: In 1907, America’s Great White Fleet introduced the world to a new, muscular American foreign policy by virtue of a flotilla of white-hulled warships. A century later, some NATO navies field a slightly different class of white-hulled vessels: hospital ships. Perhaps it’s time for a new Great White Fleet, which combats global instability with needles and hand-sanitizer with the same vigor that NATO confronts instability in Afghanistan with infantry platoons and precision guided munitions. Both fights are worth fighting, and both are intrinsically wedded to the safety of our citizens in the US and Europe.

Finally, wherever possible, we should jealously guard missions which foster working relationships between US and European soldiers. The deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is the obvious example here. Whether you believe NATO nuke sharing is anachronistic or not, the policy is useful in the sense that encourages military cooperation between the US and European member states at an operational level and sends a clear signal to a world that includes a resurgent Russia, rising China, and potentially nuclear Iran that our collective security architecture is as strong as it was during the more harrowing days of the Cold War.

So, returning to my original question: now that the Cold War is over, what is the unifying factor that binds NATO together? What threatens our common values and way of life? Simply put, NATO no longer has to worry about the tyranny of communism, but must work as a single, effective entity to protect its citizens against the tyranny of chaos. Thank you.

These remarks were delivered at the Future of the West Conference, hosted by the International Republican Institute and Centre for European Studies

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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