Though there are many questions about the future direction of President Biden’s foreign policy, the U.S. role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is not among them. America’s participation in the alliance is the cornerstone of the common defense of the transatlantic community. That isn’t likely to change. Meanwhile, expect the United States to continue to prod NATO into being better prepared for providing collective security in an era of great power competition. It’s a worthy agenda, and there are some important must-do items on the list.
Making Nice with NATO
President Biden has called America’s commitment to joint defense, as outlined under Article V of the NATO charter, a “sacred trust.” Lloyd Austin’s first phone call as Defense Secretary was to the NATO Secretary General. Recently, Biden called the secretary as well. Clearly, Biden wants to reassure our allies that America’s commitment to NATO will be as solid as ever.
Also clear is that there will be a change of tone in U.S. dealings with the alliance. President Trump often framed demands for NATO reform and burden-sharing in transactional terms. Biden won’t do that.
Further, the Biden team is more than likely to review the last administration’s decision to withdraw troops from Germany. That will calm Europeans worried about America First meaning America gone.
Finally, Biden has signaled he wants a balanced relationship with Russia. Europeans don’t want Putin to think the alliance is a pushover. In his first phone call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden raised concerns about a range of Russian misdeeds, from election meddling and the SolarWinds hack to the Kremlin’s treatment of dissidents. On the other hand, Biden agreed to extend the New START treaty for five years. Many NATO members see the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms agreement as a stabilizing force.
Still, as the Biden team must know, nice words, won’t solve much. The U.S. may speak more softly, but it won’t stop pressing the case for burden-sharing. Every modern president has raised the issue with NATO allies. Biden will be no different. Indeed, burden-sharing is more important to U.S. strategy than ever.
America is a global power with global interests and global responsibilities. In an era of great power competition, the Pentagon doesn’t have enough armed forces to cover all of them without partners. The shortfalls are well documented in The Heritage Foundation Index of U.S. Military Strength.
There are other issues as well. Brussels often found Trump’s haranguing useful, bolstering its argument for European strategic autonomy and emphasizing its calls to invest within the European Union (EU). Their quest for autonomy, however, transcends Trump. They won’t stop with his departure. The tug of war between NATO and the EU will continue to generate friction. The EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which seems more about propping-up European defense companies than expanding regional defense capabilities, could remain a source of tension.
Finally, there are real challenges that have nothing to do with tone. As much as NATO would love to have stable relations with Russia, there no reason to believe that a real reset is in the offing.
The problem was always Putin, not Trump. There is zero likelihood Putin will ever give up repression and corruption at home, his interest in establishing a hard sphere of influence Europe, or his destabilizing activities to undermine his neighbors. Further, Russia will continue to threaten short-war scenarios, where Russia does a quick-land grab of NATO territory hoping to short-circuit a NATO response (out of fear of escalation) and make a mockery out of the Article V commitment.
Then there is the challenge of China. China’s encroaching influence could undermine the solidarity of NATO. There are a growing concerns about Beijing’s meddling in alliance infrastructure and its pressuring of alliance members to thwart collective action. Europeans are all over the map on their response to China. That wasn’t Trump’s fault either.
Building a Better NATO
Since there are real issues to be addressed that can’t be palmed off on Trump, expect Biden’s NATO honeymoon to be a short one. The U.S. administration will have to get down to the business of building a NATO ready for the contemporary challenges the alliance faces.
Biden has a good foundation to build on. Trump left NATO better than he found it. The alliance is investing more in its own defense. NATO allies have made real and sustained increases in defense spending in recent years. By the end of 2020, non-U.S. NATO members will have invested an additional $130 billion since 2016. The U.S. has more forward presence forces. Washington has helped build allied capability through the European Deterrence Initiative ($5.9 billion alone in FY20). This foundation provides no shortage of opportunities for building a better NATO.
Biden can take several additional steps to improve the alliance. Here are three steps that should not be much of stretch for the new team.
Focus NATO on its area of responsibility. The age of out-of-area operations is over. In the new era of great power competition, NATO must stick to Job 1: ensuring the transatlantic community is safe, stable, and at peace. In particular, NATO must focus more on making the alliance resilient from the malicious and destabilizing meddling, particularly in securing infrastructure, cybersecurity, and information warfare and other “gray zone” threats.
Help the alliance meet the challenge of China. The recent NATO reflection process has strengthened the consensus that the alliance must pay more attention to the threats raised by China. Once there’s agreement on the nature and scope of the threat, NATO can move on to mitigation planning. The key question is: How do we ensure that China has little or no capacity to mess with NATO’s ability to exercise collective defense? The U.S. can certainly play a strong and constructive role in moving that dialogue forward.
Keep burden-sharing on the table. NATO still needs more collective capacity. The conversation about how to do that must continue. There is likely no one-size-fits-all model for boosting capacity. Romania offers one great example of how to build up joint capability in partnership with America. There are other constructive options for enhanced U.S.-German cooperation.
There are also steps that need to be taken that might make the Biden team a bit uncomfortable. Still, they are too important to ignore. Here are three.
Keep NATO’s Open Door Open. Even small nations have the capacity to make positive contributions to the alliance. It would be a strategic disaster to give Putin a veto over what free nations should be allowed to join an alliance of free nations whose only interest is their own collective security. Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina all have legitimate aspirations for membership in NATO. Moving the membership process forward won’t happen without the leadership of the United States. Mustering that leadership will require commitment, energy, and political capital from Washington.
Extended Deterrence Matters. Strategic deterrence is a critical stabilizing factor in the dynamics of great power competition. NATO needs to rest easy under a capable, modernized strategic deterrence that includes strategic, theater, and tactical nuclear weapons as well as missile defense-robust offense-defense mix. This will require not only a strong commitment from Washington, but overcoming anti-nuclear voices in Europe—not an easy lift.
Conventional Deterrence Matters. A mix of robust strategic and conventional deterrence is the most stable geo-political state. In particular, NATO needs to take the prospects of another short war land grab being successful right off Putin’s table. An adequate conventional deterrent would include effective forward-deployed forces and the capacity to reinforce them (even in the face of enemy efforts to deny reinforcements). That requires more, not fewer U.S. forces in Europe.
Trump was willing to invest in peace through strength. Even his movement of U.S. troops stationed in Germany was not about reducing forces; he just wanted to move them around. Committing to sustain investment in defense in the face of all the other demands on the administration will be a real challenge for Biden.
This piece originally appeared in The National Interest https://nationalinterest.org/feature/what-will-joe-biden%E2%80%99s-nato-look-177209