The Deterrence Calculus: Where U.S. Goals Meet NATO-Russian Relations

One look at the news headlines in recent weeks is guaranteed to have produced questions about the role of NATO, the relationship between the U.S. and NATO, and whether NATO is really “holding up its end of the bargain” with regard to deterring Russia, combating terrorism, and working with the U.S. In this article by Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy Emeritus at CSIS [Center for Strategic & International Studies], he emphasizes the importance of good relations between U.S. and NATO, and indicates that while NATO needs to change, that change should not be prioritized to the detriment of the balance of deterrence between NATO and Russia.  On this, he says,

There are good reasons that the United States should ask more of several key NATO allies, should seek to modernize NATO, and should seek to expand NATO’s role in dealing with terrorism and Islamist extremism. At the same time, none of these goals justify the sort of U.S. efforts that could undermine the balance of deterrence between NATO and Russia, increase the risk of Russian adventures in Europe, or increase a risk to a return to the level of tension in the Cold War and increase the risk of a serious conflict.

Cordesman is clearly concerned about the deterrence balance, but also points out several key changes that NATO could make to improve.  He suggests that,

NATO does need to change, and put a more systematic emphasis on forward deterrence—in nuclear, conventional and irregular/hybrid warfare terms. It also can do more to fight terrorism and violent Islamic extremism, and carry out more effective out-of-area actions.

However, Cordesman cautions against advocating to simply “shift more of the burden to Europe or meet an arbitrary goal of spending 2 percent of the national GDP,” and instead, indicates that the goal should be, “increas[ing] NATO’s deterrent and mission capabilities.”

This caution by Cordesman is in opposition to current presidential tendency. In his conversations so far with European foreign leaders, President Trump has emphasized sharing the burden of defense spending with NATO. While Cordesman does not address the President directly, he speaks to wider U.S. policy, saying,

U.S. policy needs to be more realistic about the nature of burden sharing and the reasons why the United States cannot shift a major additional part of the burden of Western defense to Europe. Better bargains may be possible with several key allies, but radical shifts of effort are not credible, and threats to seriously weaken the U.S. commitment to NATO and European partners actively undermine U.S. strategic interests. The United States needs to stop trying to pressure its European allies into major increases in military spending that are both impossible to achieve and have no clear strategic purpose or focus. It needs to stop using absurd comparisons of the “burden” that compares U.S. global military spending to NATO European spending, as if all U.S. spending was devoted to NATO. It needs to understand that the present goal of pushing European states to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense is analytically ridiculous and has no clear strategic purpose.

It remains to be seen how the current Administration plans to negotiate the complex U.S relationship with NATO, handle the increasing tension with Russia, and balancing U.S. goals with regard to NATO with the NATO-Russia deterrence balance.  However, the Administration may do well to read Cordesman’s report.