Has NATO become a paper tiger, trying (and failing) to stand up to a resurgent Russian bear? A speech by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday addressed this issue, discussing both the challenges facing the 66-year-old alliance, and Stoltenberg’s vision for its future in what he termed a “changed” security environment.
“The challenges we see coming from the south are clear and they are coming from Russia,” the Norwegian general said.
Stoltenberg argued that Vladimir Putin’s regime has brought armed conflict back to Europe.
“Russia has shown the will to use force or the threat of it to coerce its neighbors,” he said, calling recent Russian use of nuclear exercises and rhetoric “deeply troubling.”
Stoltenberg also highlighted the Russian government’s actions in Crimea and the Ukraine, and looked back to the seizure of South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008 and the movement of Russian troops into Moldova in 1999.
“We are not back to the Cold War, but we are far from a strategic partnership,” he said. “So we need to adapt to deal with problems which may be with us for a long time.”
To Stoltenberg, Russia’s “zone of privileged interest” was a throwback to the mid-twentieth century, when countries’ borders were determined by lines drawn by foreign diplomats.
Russia has not yet directly attacked a NATO member. However, Russian bombers have performed unannounced flyovers of NATO airspace. This, like the direct attacks on NATO allies, suggests that Russia is willing to use force or the threat of it to achieve its foreign policy goals. NATO has thus far focused on political resistance.
In part this is cost. In the “trans-Atlantic teamwork” between the US and NATO, American military spending in 2014 was ten times that of the U.K., the NATO member with the second-highest military budget. And the amount spent by all other NATO members combined was half the American budget.
“Everywhere I go across the alliance, I met U.S. servicemen and women,” he said. “Their presence sends a clear signal: America stands with Europe and European allies are in lock-step with the United States.”
Within the NATO alliance, the U.S. remains the most visible member. Even though he stressed that NATO members were redoubling their efforts to raise military budgets to 2 percent of GDP, much of the burden of NATO actions would fall on the U.S.
Perhaps the most difficult thing was determining exactly what specific changes Stoltenberg was implying with his repeated reference to adaptation. As American voters found out, change is a nebulous metric unless coupled with a direction and plan. Shifting from black and white TV to color does nothing to alter the fact that the man sitting on the couch is merely watching events rather than participating.
Stoltenberg said that he believes in military exercises and political leaders. Would NATO really be willing to meet force with force, should the Kremlin's provocations escalate? That remains to be seen.