Radically Rethinking NATO and the Future of European Security


As the future of Europe becomes less certain, NATO now needs a new strategic concept that places less focus on new membership, and more attention on honoring the Article 5 guarantees it has already extended. This initiative should occur together with a formal recognition that the U.S. “reset” policy with Russia, whatever its possible merits at the time, has failed and of the need for a new sustainable pan-European security architecture. As NATO prepares for the Warsaw Summit in July, it has an important opportunity to lay the groundwork for these changes.

NATO faced the first major setback to its “Open Door” policy with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, this in the immediate aftermath of a NATO summit in Bucharest that declined to extend a Membership Action Plan to Georgia. While the immediate catalyst for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea in 2014 was the prospect of a closer association between Ukraine and the European Union, the invasion had the effect of ending any serious possibility of Ukraine joining NATO. Later in 2015, Russian destabilization activities against the Baltic states and a wide range of provocative actions against other NATO members signaled a broader rejection of the Alliance’s ambition of a “Europe, whole and free.”

Meanwhile, NATO continues the charade of inexorable eastward expansion, even though it exhibits no serious intention of admitting qualified strategically relevant applicants, like Georgia. While the recent admission of Montenegro marked an important and useful step forward towards the long project of consolidating the Balkans, the addition of this lovely seaside country nestled across from Italy about 500 miles west of the eastern border of NATO does not represent a difficult decision by the Alliance. NATO has also struggled to reassure newer members that any Russian hybrid warfare they face will be met with a meaningful response. An alliance with security guarantees that suffer from any doubt or misperception is much more dangerous than no alliance at all.

At the Munich Security Conference last month, there was a pervasive sense of drift in the transatlantic community, with a wide divergence on how the Alliance should respond to these events and on the future of the alliance. The Russian intervention in Syria was, in part, a skillful way for Putin to change the narrative away from Ukraine, but this deft act should not distract the United States and Europe from the big decisions they face. The Warsaw Summit should be used to get the alliance back to the basics: collective security and territorial defense in Europe and a new stable security system for the region. While this is no new Cold War — and it is counterproductive to think in those grand historic terms and exaggerate the challenge — the alliance should recognize that at least for now, the most significant and capable threat to its core interests is a resurgent and revanchist Russia that is intent on destabilizing Europe and dividing the transatlantic community.

President Putin is certainly central to these Russian policies. He masterminded the invasion of Georgia as prime minister, saw to the annexation of Crimea, and ordered the invasion and destabilization of eastern Ukraine. He has adroitly exaggerated the overlap of United States and Russian interests in Syria, while exploiting American frustrations with Turkey, a NATO ally. He has been plain about his disdain for liberal Europe and has actively sought to build support for European right wing movements and political parties. Whether his intervention in Syria was in part intended to generate more refugees is impossible to determine, but he has demonstrated no concern for the effect of these refugees on an increasingly fragile Turkey and mainstream political leaders in Europe.

But the dynamics are larger than Putin. There is large and sustained Russian support for pushing back against NATO and its perceived infiltration of Russia’s “near abroad.” Economic factors in Russia make much of the population easy prey for any form of nationalism that blames problems on external foes, real or imagined. Russian elites, too, tend to share in the resentment of their country’s decline and decade of weakness. While Russia is a much weaker version of its former self, it is a capable nuclear-armed actor that is strong enough to resist and foil any further expansion of the transatlantic community.

This is a problem for those who believe in the transatlantic community, but some of this is self-inflicted. For too long, NATO has been permitted to continue to operate as if it were still in the “holiday from history” of the 1990s. NATO is burdened with a set of unresolved ideas at the heart of post-Cold War NATO expansion. The eastern boundaries of the alliance were never defined and the strategic identity and interests of Russia were never seriously contemplated nor allowed for. Even the name of the alliance was unchanged — a name that will always be implacably associated by Russians with the Cold War — and their defeat in it. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq temporarily postponed the need to deal with these issues, as the Alliance was repurposed for providing forces for “out of area operations.”

None of this is to say that the United States and Europe cannot cooperate with Russia where it might make sense to do so. But such cooperation should be focused on situations where Russian capabilities truly matter for the resolution of pressing international problems. If the transatlantic community was more effective at deterring, or at least not inviting, subversive Russian behavior in the first place, Russia would have fewer opportunities to create crises it later promises to try to solve in exchange for otherwise needless compromise and accommodation.

The following steps comprise an agenda for the Warsaw Summit, the preparation and messaging for which should begin immediately.

Step Up Deterrence

First, the alliance should double down on deterrence. The United States has announced a “quadrupling” of military spending on Europe, bringing the total to $3.4 billion in new operational & maintenance funding. While a welcome initiative, the relatively small size and temporary nature of the funding risk undercutting the impression of commitment it is otherwise intended to give.

Using these funds to maintain continuous rotational presence of a brigade combat team will create a new tripwire (as if one was really necessary?) but will not be viewed by Moscow as a credible form of deterrence. Depending on the geography of the rotational deployment, the brigade could actually be unnecessarily provocative. A brigade combat team does not have any obvious uniquely defensive characteristic. Russian air defense systems and ground-to-ground systems are also already being deployed to Russia’s western boundaries to minimize or negate the real utility of a NATO brigade.

Instead, the United States and NATO should invest in new permanent and explicitly defensive forces, reinvigorate and modernize their nuclear capabilities, and renew attention to theater missile defense, with an explicit focus on not just Iranian missiles, but any non-strategic missiles that could threaten the region. Notably, tactical nuclear weapons were excluded from New START and should be addressed by a new NATO defense posture.

All of this should be done with baselined budgets that mark a long-term commitment to deterrence of aggression in the region. Some of these things are already being done to different degrees. It is just a matter of advertising them correctly and giving them greater strategic purpose.

Get Real with Georgia and Reform the Membership Process

The pretense of Georgia’s alliance application should be discarded in favor of a process towards a negotiated non-member relationship that is clear and viable. Seeking security through political-military integration with the West over the past 20 years, Georgia was again rejected by the alliance when the December 2015 NATO Ministerial meeting declined to initiate with Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP) and declined to permit direct accession talks.

The Alliance should use the occasion to discard the MAP process entirely — for Georgia and for all future aspirants. Defense specialists widely agree that Georgia has already accomplished more defense reforms than many other successful NATO applicants and that another intermediate step would likely be an invitation for new Russian aggression.

MAP may have been a useful tool in extracting and cajoling reforms in a permissive, uncontested security environment. But that environment is gone. All membership applications should now proceed through a negotiated bilateral process that is less bureaucratic and more transparently reflective of strategic interests of the Alliance. As part of that change, the Alliance should reframe its ‘Open Door Policy’ not as inevitable expansion, but as a highly selective tool that the Alliance will only seek to use to narrowly advance its security.

It is extremely unlikely NATO would take any steps towards the integration of Georgia into the alliance, given that Russian forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia would implicate Article 5 guarantees immediately upon admission. The continued pretense that NATO might extend MAP and that it “remains committed to the Bucharest protocol” is sowing confusion, squandering scarce resources and attention, and causing needless risks. Fortunately, however, there are other ways the Alliance can engage with Georgia.

Support for Territorial Defense

NATO has many other highly effective ways it can work with non-NATO allies to advance shared interests against Russian military adventurism. U.S. and NATO support to Georgia should move away from counterinsurgency training and constabulary force development and immediately begin to focus exclusively on making the country harder for Russia to invade, occupy, or digest. NATO military assistance to countries like Georgia is unlikely to be able to deter Russian aggression. But it could easily make it a lot more expensive and risky, changing Russian decision calculus.

Anti-air and anti-armor systems, coupled with new investments in command-and-control as well as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance for Georgia — and for Moldova, and maybe one day, Ukraine or even Belarus, and any other country in between NATO and Russia — would help create a zone of countries that were neither part of Europe or NATO nor subject to constant Russian coercion, subversion, and intrigue.

Consider it a pragmatic modern approach to the enduring strategic problem of Mitteleuropa, a fragmented region suspended between larger powers by virtue of geography, language, and culture. As it emerged from the last age of empire, Woodrow Wilson sought to re-anchor the region through self determination, a short experiment as weak states were preyed upon by more capable neighbors. A perpetual source of instability at best, Tim Snyder described it as the “Bloodlands” at its worst. Robert Kaplan, quoting Josef Pilsudski, founder of the second Polish Republic, refers to the need for an “Intermarium” group of unaffiliated democratic states between the Baltic and Black Seas.

While it is obviously desirable if these countries are also democracies, it would mark an important step towards a sustainable security system if they had a reasonable ability to defend themselves and were at least not constantly in play between larger alliances. At a minimum, this could buy time, giving Russian strategic culture an opportunity to mellow, grow beyond its post-imperial ambitions, and learn to live within the boundaries of a modern nation state.

Obviously, any such comprehensive military assistance strategy would need to be accompanied by constitutional stability, a high degree of transparency, and by civil-military and command-and-control reforms, to ensure the capabilities were responsibly managed in support of uniquely defensive postures.

Back to the Drawing Board on European Security

The alliance should use these initiatives to highlight the need for a new pan-European security architecture that is stable, sustainable, and realistic. As attractive and inspiring as many find the motto “Europe, whole and free,” NATO’s “Open Door Policy” did not ultimately provide a sufficient avenue towards achieving and retaining that goal. The only other pan-European security agreement, the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE), died in 2015 when Russia unilaterally withdrew.

The Warsaw Summit could be used to pose the question about what succeeds the CFE Treaty, as well as wrap the question of tactical nuclear weapons together with conventional weapons into a broader question about the balance of forces in Europe. The Alliance could also take this opportunity to investigate how collective security guarantees need to be reformed to operate in an environment of asymmetric threat and hybrid warfare.

As part of this, the Alliance could even suggest the need to rename itself. It would be foolish to diminish or discard the extraordinarily valuable political-military system of the alliance, with its value based decision-making and technical interoperability. However, NATO does not need to gratuitously aggravate Russia — and the Russian population — by continuing to impress on them their defeat. Imagine what it would be like to live in Europe, surrounded by a Warsaw Pact!

Looking Ahead

While Putin has repeatedly proven himself to be a risk taker, he takes calculated risks. Lest we blunder into new conflicts that no one intends, NATO should take this opportunity to proactively shape the agenda for a transformational Summit in Warsaw that announces bold new willingness to think about the future, while doubling down on deterrence, increasing transparency, reducing confusion and opportunities for misperception, and arming allies that are ready and willing to defend themselves.

By helping Georgia focus on its territorial defense rather than placating it with reiteration of theoretical openness to Georgian membership in the alliance, NATO would both reduce the incentive for Russia to engage in renewed aggression in the near term, as well as restore in Russian minds the sense of cohesion and solidarity within the Alliance.


Job C. Henning (@jobchenning) has worked for the Pentagon and intelligence community on European security and strategic planning. He was a co-director of the Congressional Commission the Project on National Security Reform and is a Truman Fellow and CEO of Grid Energy.

Douglas Ollivant (@DouglasOllivant), a retired Army infantry officer, is an ASU Senior Fellow in the Future of War project at New America, a managing partner of Mantid International, and a national security contributor to Al Jazeera America.


Correction: This article originally said that Montenegro is 2000 miles west of NATO’s eastern edge. The correct distance is approximately 500 miles.