It’s Time to Rethink NATO’s Deterrent Strategy

December 6, 2019

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron don’t agree on much. During a tense joint press conference ahead of the NATO leaders meeting, the two sparred over the fate of captured ISIL fighters, Macron’s recent comments about the “brain death” of the alliance, and Turkey. Some of their disagreements are less important but just as serious. Trump thinks America has better wine than France. Macron, presumably, doesn’t. The two leaders do, however, appear to agree on one thing — something is wrong with NATO.

Both leaders are right to point out that NATO is ailing, but their diagnoses are wrong. The real issue isn’t European shirking on defense expenditures, and neither is it a lack of American commitment. These, rather, are symptoms of a larger disease: NATO’s long-lived attachment to a presence-heavy model of deterrence that a new study suggests may no longer be necessary.



Whinging and whining about burdens shared and unshared aside, NATO endures because all parties to the alliance recognize they gain more from the arrangement than they lose. The Europeans get an American security guarantee, while the United States gets a foothold on the Eurasian landmass to prevent threats from emerging and projecting power. The question therefore is much less whether NATO will persist into the future, and much more whether it will do so as an expensive object lesson in inertia or as something more useful.

NATO’s deterrent strategy and posture is not well-matched to the contemporary threat environment. It is too focused on presence and not focused enough on mobility. Holding stubbornly to a presence-first approach appears to be a formula for gridlock as the costs it imposes become less tolerable: large financial expenditures on both sides of the pond, wearying grind on U.S. servicemembers and families, and tiresome internal frictions about burden-sharing. It is time for NATO meaningfully to consider alternative strategies that might achieve the same deterrent effect while offering a different balance of costs and benefits. The cure for impending brain death, in other words, is thinking.

Location, Location, Location

NATO is not primarily a warfighting alliance. Its purpose, in fact, is to not fight war. During the bad old days of the Soviet Union, thinking about how to do deterrence in Europe focused by necessity on the balance of forces, addressing such questions as how many military assets and of what type, used either for denial or for punishment, would be enough to persuade Moscow that any effort at encroachment would not be worth the salt.

The collapse of the Soviet Union changed continental power dynamics entirely, yet the U.S. presence-heavy deterrent posture in Europe persisted. Although the permanent stationing of ground and air forces were scaled back, reductions ultimately were, and continue to be, largely offset by “heel to toe” rotational deployments. In 2008 and 2014, far from jarring NATO into a rethink of the strategic dynamics on the continent, Russia’s actions in Georgia and in Ukraine — non-NATO members, it bears noting — instead precipitated a reflexive call to bolster the U.S. footprint in Europe.

NATO’s posture thus persisted out of inertia, without the careful tuning successful deterrence requires. Today’s Russia is not yesterday’s Soviet Union. Its actions in Georgia and in Ukraine arguably have addressed its most acute Cold War territorial complaints, and its other motivating interests are fairly inoffensive by historical standards — it is a major power that wants to be acknowledged as such.

The current NATO deterrent strategy is expensive, and there are important areas in which it is unlikely to be useful. The United States and NATO, for example, profess great concern about Russian so-called gray-zone activities — behaviors such as information operations and disinformation campaigns that challenge the West’s interests in ways other than outright kinetic action. So too are alarms being raised about the possibility of another fait accompli on the order of Russia’s maneuver in Crimea. A presence-focused strategy, however, is ill-suited to preventing gray-zone malfeasance, and the lingering agitation about a fait accompli in the Baltics derives primarily from the proposition that such a move is operationally possible, rather than that Russia finds it especially appealing.

So what is NATO buying with its continued commitment to presence, and do alternatives exist? The empirical record indicates that they do.

Mobility, Mobility, Mobility

Effective deterrence depends upon convincing an adversary that one has both the means and the motivation to make good on a threat. During the Cold War, denial by presence made sense — the scale of Soviet land forces meant that a late-arriving Western counter simply could not catch up. Today, while a late arrival would make pushing a Russian intervention back costly, it could be done. NATO does not need presence in amounts able to stop a Russian incursion into the Baltics, it just needs to convince Moscow that any such attempt would be met with immediate resistance and rapid reinforcement. The challenge in convincing Russia to keep its powder dry, in other words (assuming it is even inclined in the first place), is not to demonstrate NATO’s ability to respond but rather its willingness to do so.

A forthcoming study by the Stimson Center and the University of Maryland Center for International Development and Conflict Management produced statistical evidence that when it comes to conveying one’s resolve to an adversary, the most persuasive indicator is the movement of forces from outside the theater of contested interests into it. That is, flowing forces from outside in, whether ground, air, or naval, increases significantly the likelihood of achieving deterrent or compellent policy objectives. This finding, moreover, is consistent and robust across multiple tests of potentially confounding contextual features, including, notably, the nature, type, and size of forces already stationed in theater. Pre-existing presence, in other words, does not seem to answer questions about resolve, but the movement of new or additional forces does.

This insight suggests an alternative deterrent strategy for NATO, one based not on presence but on agility. Such an approach would prioritize continental mobility — getting forces quickly forward. In addition to retaining deterrent effect, this shift could have the added benefit of easing ongoing tensions about the contributions made by European partners to the collective defense. Allowing the allies to invest in the roads, bridges, tunnels, seaports, airfields, and rail lines needed to move personnel and material across the continent would constitute a win-win-win scenario. Infrastructure enhancements would increase NATO’s capability; Russian awareness of enhanced NATO mobility, and even more so its demonstration, would have a deterrent effect; and such spending is more politically viable for European governments, making the now-infamous 2 percent reach seem not so far from grasp.

What’s more, this adjustment would not cause any degradation in overall NATO, or U.S., readiness. To the contrary, it fits neatly with the new U.S. emphasis on so-called dynamic force employment. The defense community awaits a clear operationalized definition of what exactly dynamic force employment entails, but for these purposes it is adequate to interpret it as a nimbler force, able to move assets quickly either to take advantage of opportunities or, if needed, to respond to threats. In the European context, this would mean holding U.S. presence steady for now, and eventually reducing it, in favor of buying increased continental mobility, and running the drill if ever there are indicators Russia is readying to take its chances.

For the United States, a mobility-based deterrent strategy should have prima facie appeal if for no other reason than that the math works so decidedly in its favor. In 2018, U.S. direct funding for NATO was $6.7 billion, and the cost of the full retinue of U.S. presence in Europe — that is, maintaining the current allotment of operating bases — was $24.4 billion. In 2019, U.S. spending on its European Deterrence Initiative, designed to bolster post-Crimea presence, reached $6.5 billion, marking a sixfold increase over only four years’ time. These outlays, or roughly 5 percent of the U.S. defense budget, notwithstanding, fears that Russia will make a move persist, and the ability of NATO forces to move from where they are, with the things they need, to where they need to use them, remains an unsolved problem.

Washington certainly can continue to foot-stomp about the 2 percent goal, all the while increasing its own expenditures — and wear-and-tear on servicemembers and families — to beef up presence, but it should not expect more return in deterrent effect or force mobility than it has already seen. Or, it can work with its partners to consider alternative deterrent strategies. This one offers the benefits of allowing the United States to conserve money, enhance readiness, and give advice and counsel on NATO construction planning and execution while asking in return only that the United States relax its insistence that NATO partners buy equipment. Other strategies will offer different tradeoffs.

A Better Strategy for NATO

There is great comfort in the familiar, and so the tendency to hold tightly to an understanding of deterrence in Europe as dependent primarily on size and strength is understandable. It also, however, will continue to lead the United States to spend a lot of money and to the continuation of the long-past tedious infighting about partner expenditures, neither of which will achieve more than marginal gains in defense. NATO does not need more eastern presence to convey its resolve; what it needs is for Russia to believe that its forces have the ability, and that its governments have the willingness, to get there fast. In a world where the West continues to see presence as panacea, a smart Russia will poke and prod to induce more, and more and more, of it. In a world where it is the West that’s smart, NATO will stop bickering, start thinking, and find new ways to remind Russia that there are some lines that still should not be crossed.



Melanie W. Sisson is senior fellow with the Stimson Center Defense Strategy and Planning Program and editor of the forthcoming book Military Coercion and US Foreign Policy.

Image: U.S. Air National Guard (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Patrick Evenson)