A NATO Agenda for President-Elect Trump
When President-elect Donald Trump takes the oath of office on January 20th, he will assume responsibilities of United States leadership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As one who has built and led significant business operations, he knows well that leadership requires the investment of time and capital. In the world of geopolitics, this translates into diplomatic engagement and military resources.
During the election, candidate Trump sent two messages. The first addressed a long-standing concern about European burden-sharing. If Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a forceful warning at his last NATO Defense Ministerial to Europeans regarding the need to spend and do more in defense, Trump drove that point home with blunt force during the campaign. Candidate Trump later stated that he valued the NATO Alliance, and President Barrack Obama said that President-elect Trump reaffirmed that in their initial meeting.
Upon taking the reins of the U.S. government, the new U.S. president will encounter an Alliance that has begun to transform its mindset and capabilities with the aim of better addressing the challenges posed by Russia and the crises affecting, directly and indirectly, Alliance interests in regions neighboring and well beyond the North Atlantic area.
However, that pace of reform needs to be accelerated and broadened. The President-elect should adopt the following priorities as part of his agenda as the de facto leader of the NATO Alliance:
1. Reaffirm the Transatlantic Bargain: In his first major national security address as a candidate for the U.S. presidency last April, Trump promised to convene a NATO summit soon after taking office. He should execute that pledge with the aim of reaffirming U.S. commitment to the defense of Europe and European commitment and readiness to stand with Washington in addressing security challenges beyond the North Atlantic region, be it the Middle East, Asia, or Africa.
2. Ensure the Credibility of NATO’s New Posture in Central Europe: The Trump administration should work to ensure that NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence – plans now being executed to place four battalions, including a U.S. battalion, one each in the Baltic states and Poland – is executed expeditiously and with the equipment and support necessary to provide a credible deterrent against Russian aggression.
He should also continue the U.S. European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) that will deploy an armored brigade combat team and an army aviation battalion to Central Europe and preposition an armored brigade equipment set in Europe.
3. Accelerate NATO Decision-Making: NATO's is a consensual organization of 28 democracies. That is a powerful source of strength, but it can also hinder Alliance decision-making. NATO needs to re-adopt the mindset of the political-military organization and be prepared to respond with dispatch in a world where a full spectrum of crises can unfold with great speed.
Toward that end, the Alliance needs to delegate more authority to NATO commanders so that they can better ensure the effectiveness of its Enhanced Forward Presence, to respond speedily to Russian provocations – if not to preempt them, and to test, refine, and demonstrate Alliance contingency plans and capabilities.
During the Cold War, the Alliance delegated such responsibilities to its NATO generals. It is time to return that trust back to its commanders.
4. Develop A Transatlantic Russia Policy: A NATO summit provides a good opportunity to promulgate or at least launch the development of a more effective transatlantic strategy regarding Russia.
To date, the U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia remain weak. NATO's response to Russian provocations and aggression has either been passive or glacial (how can it take almost a year to deploy four battalions?) And, the West's political isolation of Putin for his invasion of Ukraine has dissipated. Too many European leaders meet and welcome visits by Putin. Some engagement with Russia and its leaders is necessary, but it would have been more effective if it had been coordinated in a strategic manner.
5. Reanimate the Vision of a Europe Whole, Free, and Secure: The Summit should be used to signal U.S. determination to reanimate the vision of a transatlantic community featuring a Europe whole, free, and secure. Putin has attacked that vision with military force. The U.S. and its European allies need to stand together against this aggression and in support of this vision.
A Europe that is whole, free, and secure is in America's interest. A Europe divided between a community of free, sovereign, democratic states and a region defined by autocracy, hegemony and occupation will be a less capable and less willing partner beyond Europe.
The new administration should signal that it seeks to establish roadmaps that will facilitate Georgia's and Ukraine's transatlantic ambitions, including NATO membership – even these are longer-term ambitions. It should continue to welcome the prospect of Swedish and Finnish membership.
6. Accelerate the Refinancing of European Defense Capabilities: Europe has turned the corner when it comes to defense spending. Under the pressure of President Obama and the realities of today, NATO’s European allies have reversed the decades-long decline of their defense budgets. They are spending $3 billion more on defense than the previous year.
Now that the turn has been made, that uptick in spending should be accelerated. The threats are too urgent and ominous to accept the current pace of budget increases.
7. Update NATO's Nuclear Doctrine and Posture: This will perhaps be the most controversial priority for many NATO allies. The Alliance’s nuclear doctrine and force posture no longer provides the deterrent capacity necessary to confidently influence Moscow. Russia has been modernizing and diversifying its nuclear forces, exercising them provocatively, and using the threat of conflict escalation to intimidate the West.
The Alliance's nuclear force posture is limited to two offensive capabilities. Its gravity bombs now face sophisticated Russian air defenses. The Alliance’s missiles can now only deliver high-yield warheads. The latter’s use could be perceived as unrealistic by an adversary that trains to use very low yield weapons in a strategy of “escalation-to-deescalate” intended to force an opponent to submission in the midst of a conventional conflict.
There need to be other options available to the Alliance. NATO needs to initiate a thorough review of its nuclear strategy and capabilities.
This agenda will require strong U.S. leadership. Simply articulating it would be a definitive demonstration of determined U.S. commitment to the Alliance. Its execution would strengthen the Transatlantic Bargain by bolstering European capabilities and ensuring that NATO is credible against the full spectrum of threats in today's world.