Guest Opinion: NATO unity helps with Brexit blues

​Chicago Tribune
July 15
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Still reeling from Brexit’s cold slap, Europe sought salve in the form of NATO’s summit in Warsaw this month. The continent needed to show its resolve to unify in the face of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. As it happens, there’s an adversary to the east that amply serves as an entity to unify against.

NATO decided to answer Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressiveness in Ukraine with the deployment of 4,000 troops in Poland and the Baltic states along Russia’s western border. The deployment begins in 2017 and includes a commitment from President Barack Obama of 1,000 U.S. troops. It’s more of a tripwire than anything else — NATO would need more than 20,000 troops in those countries to ably defend against a Russian incursion, according to the think tank Stratfor. But putting NATO troops in the Baltics and Poland sends a blunt message to the Kremlin: Attack Poland or any of the Baltic states, and you risk conflict with NATO as a whole.

Think of it as a “Warning! Steep Drop-off!” sign plunked down in the path of the former KGB chief’s military machine. Soft-sell diplomacy usually doesn’t work with Putin, so we applaud the move. At the same time, NATO could help itself by getting just as blunt with 23 of its member nations who don’t pull their weight in defense spending.

It’s a problem that has vexed the alliance for much of its 67-year history. One of the guiding tenets of NATO asks member nations to spend at least 2 percent of their annual gross domestic product on defense. The idea is to ensure that the burden of providing military capability is spread out evenly among member countries and isn’t just shouldered by a small subset. But today, only the U.S., Britain, Greece, Poland and Estonia meet or exceed the 2 percent mark. Getting free-riding European states to do their part makes the alliance more of a collective security pact rather than a predominantly U.S. project.

NATO also announced that critical elements to its ballistic missile defense system, touted as a shield against an attack by rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea, were now operational. The Kremlin has long believed that the shield is actually meant as a defense against Russia, and given Moscow’s behavior in recent years, that’s probably a fair bet.

In their post-summit communique, NATO leaders didn’t hide their angst about Russian belligerence: “Russia’s aggressive actions … are a source of regional instability, fundamentally challenge the Alliance, have damaged Euro-Atlantic security, and threaten our long-standing goal of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.”

Behind that veneer of solidarity, however, dissonant voices have emerged. “NATO has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be,” French President Francois Hollande said at the summit. “For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat.” Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has also strayed from the script: He criticized recent NATO military exercises in Poland along Russia’s western border as “saber-rattling.”

Divergence within NATO plays into Putin’s hands. Moscow welcomed the vote for Brexit, principally because a weaker, fragmented Europe hews tightly to the Kremlin’s agenda. Driving wedges into Europe’s collective clout can, for example, seed opposition to continued sanctions against Moscow for its annexation of Crimea. And a squabbling Europe is less likely to wean its dependence on Russian natural gas — a commodity the Kremlin deftly wields as political leverage.

NATO owes its existence to the Cold War, so it was only natural that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, questions grew about the alliance’s relevance. Today’s it’s clear that Europe and the West again need a strong NATO. There’s the Putin problem, of course, but there’s also the conflict in Afghanistan — 14 years and still unresolved — and the Islamic State, with its solidified presence in Iraq, Syria and North Africa. With Europe weakened by Britain’s decision to cut ties with the European Union, a strong, cohesive NATO is essential.

That’s something our partners in France and Germany may want to remember as they balance economic tethers to Moscow with the need for European unity. And its something that should entice the 23 member countries that don’t invest enough in defense to ante up.