In Praise of NATO’s Dysfunctional, Bureaucratic Tedium


A year after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, the furor around his approach to transatlantic security has predictably calmed. Part of the reason is saturation. Like antibiotics, provocation of one’s allies loses its potency when used excessively. Part of the reason is that the president has found a more willing and compelling foil, in the form of Kim Jong Un, than those buttoned-up European leaders he accuses of freeloading. Certainly, part of the reason includes the administration’s Russia-related scandals and Robert Mueller’s investigation. The president’s hostility toward NATO has always felt more like a sop to Moscow than a matter of principle and thus not a good look with indictments swirling.

But much of it has to do with the nature of the alliance itself. NATO’s bread and butter is cooperation on activities like planning, doctrine, interoperability, and logistics — things which are uninteresting to the general public discourse and largely resistant to the rhetorical or policy whims of even the president of the United States. Cooperation in these areas, while camouflaged to all but the most intense NATO watchers, can move the needle to the benefit of the United States in concrete and practical ways. As Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis heads to Brussels for his third meeting of NATO defense ministers in ten months, it is precisely to ensure such work continues.

Perception Is Not Policy

If it is fair to stipulate, without a hint of irony or partisanship, that the president makes decisions based on a rather shallow understanding of the pertinent facts, then his initial posture towards NATO and Russia makes sense. In fact, as someone who watched an episode or two of The Apprentice, Trump’s embrace of Russia was predictable. Equipped with a disposition that necessarily invites competition between opposing factions, nerdy NATO with its committees and communiques never had a chance against a tiger-hunting former KGB agent who invades countries with impunity and without a shirt. Putin is ready-made television.

Yet, as others have ably pointed out, viewed through the lens of genuine policy, Trump’s complaints about European security and its key players have some basis in fact. And while it is tempting for policy professionals like me to seek some novel, far-reaching meaning from the impolitic veneer of his tweets and applause lines, the most remarkable thing about Trump’s censure of NATO is how quotidian it is as a matter of policy. Questions about NATO’s obsolescence date from at least the 1960s and have been a proverbial albatross for the alliance since the end of the Cold War. That the United States is over-invested in NATO relative to the Europeans and Canada is an acknowledged fact by nearly everyone working transatlantic issues. And while I grimaced at the graceless pluck of invoicing Angela Merkel for Germany’s pedestrian defense spending, if true, it was a gambit rooted in cause.

Even in tone, Trump’s complaints alternately echo Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s grouchy demonization of “Old Europe” in 2003 and Secretary Robert Gates’ headmasterly admonition of European defense spending in 2011. Similarly, Trump’s flattery of Putin shares policy fingerprints with both President George W. Bush’s plumbing of the Russian leader’s soul and President Barack Obama’s unfulfilling reset, even if the “Pale Moth’s” growing rap sheet since those halcyon times makes the recent spectacle hard to stomach.

What is unique about the Trump era is the juxtaposition of his views on the allies and Russia. The natural correlation is something akin to the Cold War and Obama’s second term: The United States is harmonious with NATO and frosty with Moscow. Disagreements with France and Germany about the 2003 invasion of Iraq occasioned another possibility whereby the United States is at cross-purposes with both sides. Obama’s first term was characterized by a Medvedev-inspired bonhomie with Moscow that was palatable as long as relations with the allies were equally durable. Trump has introduced the final option: threatening estrangement with traditional allies while currying favor with a Russia clearly hostile to U.S. interests. It is this dynamic, among others, that is most responsible for the disconsolation of America’s foreign policy elite.

Yet this unusual state of affairs is more histrionics than a deliberate policy course correction. Even holding out the quixotic possibility that Putin is willing and able to support some of Trump’s foreign policy goals (or, heaven forbid, electoral aspirations), there is no reason this should come at the expense of cordial relations with the Europeans. Unless, the logic goes, that is the price of Russia’s help, or more sinisterly, that Putin can otherwise manipulate Trump’s actions. The former requires malice aforethought inconsistent with most evidence about how the president operates. The chances of the latter, however implausible, are non-zero, and should Mueller find hard evidence to suggest anything of the sort, we would find ourselves in a scandal so serious as to make these matters quaint. In any case, the Congress, a substantial portion of American public, and Trump’s post-Flynn national security officials have all resisted any quid pro quo with Moscow that undercuts our allies. Which leads me to the conclusion that Trump’s enigmatic stance toward NATO and Russia is unlikely to change unqualified American support for the alliance, even when his public actions suggest otherwise. That Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have attended regular ministerial meetings, that NATO’s secretary general has visited the White House, and that Trump himself has shuffled off to Brussels like his predecessors before him lends credence to the theory that practical cooperation with the alliance continues apace — in ways often directly in conflict with Russian interests.

Vapid, Vexing, Valuable

As a young Pentagon staffer, I was seconded to Brussels for a few months in 2003 to work at the U.S. Mission to NATO. Naturally excited and looking to make a positive impression, I rushed to backbench a NATO committee meeting at the first opportunity. The topic, I vaguely recall, was related to NATO capability development. I remember the imposing conference room, the translation booths, the flags, and the bevy of well-tailored colleagues from around Europe. I can still conjure the anxious pride of sitting behind the placard stamped “United States” for the first time. This was a dream. About 20 minutes later, it literally became one. I had to repeatedly stab myself in the leg with a pen in order to prod my jet-lagged body into consciousness. I could not have imagined, until that moment, how detailed and dull the daily discourse of NATO often is. And lest you are unconvinced by this reminiscence, I highlight a former secretary of defense’s habit of doing crossword puzzles during NATO meetings or the Weekend at Bernie’s jokes, prominent among senior Obama officials in the Pentagon intended as a metaphor for an alliance seen as moribund.

Moreover, NATO, like any large institution (hello Pentagon!), is raft with dysfunction and internal contradictions. My particular hobby horse is NATO’s requirement for defense spending. Not that, infamously, only a handful of members will ever meet the 2 percent of GDP target, but that in spite of this obvious reality, NATO continues to promote the 2 percent goal as one of its core principles. In high school, I worked summers at a drugstore where the staff would take turns getting lunch for the group. One weekend, I arrived at the chosen spot, order in hand, to be told that because of a delivery issue, the establishment was not serving beef. Incredulous, I proclaimed, “but you’re Burger King.” I likewise imagine a generation of earnest transatlantic scholars staring at their textbooks, perplexed and mumbling, “but you’re the 2 percent people.” To brand your organization with a characteristic that it will never realize takes a chutzpah that Trump can appreciate, but is nonetheless marketing malpractice of the first order. Compounding this folly, Greece, whose military is antiquated, bloated, and oriented toward conflict with another NATO ally, is championed alongside the formidable militaries of the United States and the United Kingdom because it meets the 2 percent threshold. NATO crediting Greece for its military spending is tantamount to House Stark thanking House Frey for hosting the Red Wedding. There are better ideas out there.

Nevertheless, I come here to praise NATO, not to bury it. I detail the aforementioned grievances to assure anyone reading this that those of us experienced in the alliance’s mysterious arts are not ignorant of its problems. Much of our work, over many years, has been dedicated to fixing or mitigating them. And that same experience allows us to appreciate the benefits that NATO membership accrues to the United States. The cynical nature of our times and politics makes it easy to criticize an organization like NATO, whose day-to-day work does not translate readily to the masses. Even so, to have well-founded frustrations with an elaborate and esoteric bureaucracy is one thing. To conclude such an organization is unworthy of American participation or investment is another. Such a posture is at best impetuous and at worst antithetical to the cause of “America First” that NATO naysayers are intent on restoring.

At its core, NATO is a culture of intensive, banal cooperation. It is a swanky headquarters building with Euro-looking conference rooms and passable coffee where mundane meeting after mundane meeting takes place on logistics, standardization, and capability development. It is command centers and watch floors and training areas where alliance militaries practice the monotonous regimens so critical to the science of arms. It is the Alliance Command Transformation — A.K.A. the really boring part of NATO — where the agonizing particulars of interoperability and doctrine are worked out. It is the operational realization of the inane political aspiration to cram soldiers from 14 different nations into a single brigade. It is a collection of customs and habits that dictate how decisions will be made when the balloon goes up. It prescribes where to meet and the rules for discussion. It ensures that you can trust the colleague next to you because you’ve worked with her in such a setting a hundred times before. It structures discourse and operations such that, by ritualizing behaviors and in making a thousand minor decisions, you build the blocks of strategic dexterity that NATO sometimes demonstrates.

The most poignant example I can point to of NATO’s potential is its mission in Afghanistan. Over 15 years, and two distinct American administrations, the United States, through this tool called NATO, coaxed more than a quarter of the world’s countries to participate in a far-flung and elusive mission that had nearly nothing to do with their own national interests. That political feat, however, is rivaled by the operational one, where NATO allies and partners sustained overlapping security, capacity-building, and counter-insurgency missions across an enormous geographical expanse for nearly a decade and a half. The complexity of military operations is often undersold to the public in popular characterizations of war, not to say anything about war by a coalition of militaries measurably different in size, capability, and aptitude. That something the scope, scale, and duration of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was ever realized is rather breathtaking. We could, and should, argue about the strategic success of ISAF, and the costs, and whether it would have been easier operationally had United States gone it alone, but those are different debates. To appreciate ISAF is to recognize the nameless technocrats and servicemen who, through muted craftsmanship, navigated cranky parliaments and inordinate logistical puzzles to achieve a political and operational tour de force. This NATO — obscured to the public and the politicians that charge it with obsolescence — substantiates a faith in the power of process that would make Sam Hinkie smile.

Fashionably Old-Fashioned

Ask some Middle East or Asian security experts about NATO and they inevitably roll their eyes. That old thing. But have a deeper conversation about how they are going about defense cooperation in their regions and you quickly recognize what they want, however impractical, is NATO in all its blessed, bureaucratic glory. Like vegetables to a child, NATO is never what you want, but usually what you need. If you are a purveyor of soft power, NATO should be your thing. Where else can you force common purpose and consensus on scores of dissimilar nations by wont of incessant badgering (i.e., pretty much the job of American officials at NATO)? If you are a hard-power type, I remind you again of ISAF and the fact of 52 militaries operating with solidarity to impose their martial will. In either case, you begin to understand Vladimir Putin’s hostility toward the alliance — of what it is and what it could be should it ever have occasion to turn its withering gaze to Moscow. Is Putin’s disdain not proof itself of NATO’s indomitable relevance and potency?

Ultimately, I suspect Putin’s paranoia is both about the methodical reach of alliance hard power into his perceived sphere of influence as well as the fact that that alliance nations, on the whole, aspire to live in a world defined by classic liberal values. Putin begrudges not only NATO’s endurance and adaptability, but the goody-two-shoes Western order it represents. He certainly delights in Trump’s anti-liberal tendencies and hopes they will weaken NATO, but recognizes they are unlikely to change its deep-rooted puritan culture. To wit, consider again the 2 percent issue. In a world obsessed with image and status, any number of European defense officials fight to maintain the target because it is useful for keeping pressure on their own parliaments and politicians for increased defense spending. That is, the alliance chooses to look impotent in an attempt to do the right thing rather than revise its blueprint to look better. NATO, bless its heart.

So yes, NATO has its problems. The United States pays too much in financial, human, and intellectual resources. On many days, participating in alliance business is an exercise in herding cats, where the United States, for all its trouble, gets to listen to countries with militaries smaller than the office of a Pentagon undersecretary regale everyone with their views on defense planning. Yet, every previous administration has concluded the benefits of NATO for the United States outweigh these costs — that the potential NATO has, and at times, realizes, is too valuable to our security to go without. Recognizing that NATO’s costs are taxpayer funded, Rumsfeld, Gates, and all of us should demand more of alliance members and partners. However, we should not let a sense of grievance confuse our understanding about NATO’s value to U.S. interests — of the benefits that accrue from the yeoman’s work of professionalizing the world’s militaries and security institutions such that they can work competently with Washington to promote American interests. I doubt whether the president can upend this calculus, even if that were his conscious intention. Instead, I imagine the president as a sort of Erlich Bachman whose bravado and opportunism occasionally prove a useful spur to Mattis’ driven and visionary Richard Hendricks and Tillerson’s Big Head. That should be enough for NATO to publicly navigate the Trump era while practical cooperation grinds on systematically beneath the surface.


Christopher Skaluba served as the principal director for European and NATO policy in the office of the secretary of defense from 2012 to 2015.  He assiduously avoided as many NATO meetings as possible.

Image: NATO photos