The NATO conversation we should be having

Let's talk about where NATO is headed, not where it's been, says Adm. James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander.

Story highlights

  • James Stavridis: NATO needs to improve its strategic posture in the Arctic
  • When I was NATO's supreme allied commander, cyber threats were what kept me awake at night, he says

Adm. James Stavridis served as the 16th supreme allied commander at NATO from 2009 to 2013. He is now dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)In the wake of the brutal Brussels bombings, and amid the heated rhetoric of the presidential primaries in the United States, there is an unlikely conversation emerging: What is the appropriate role of the United States in the venerable North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

Presidential contender Donald Trump questioned the existence of the alliance and thinks this is a good time to "renegotiate" with NATO to get a better deal in terms of the balance of spending. Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton both slammed Trump's NATO comments as naïve and ignorant. John Kasich, meanwhile, agreed with Cruz and Clinton, and reaffirmed a central role of the United States in the alliance.
James Stavridis
But is this the right debate to have?
    A better conversation would be strategic: Examining the strengths and weaknesses of NATO broadly, and in particular focusing strategically not on where NATO has been, but rather where it is heading. As the alliance gears up for a highly anticipated summit in Warsaw this summer, now is the time the candidates should be laying out their vision of where the organization should direct its energy and attention in the decades ahead; what needs to change in the structure and approach of NATO; and where the probable geopolitical challenges lie. We need to look up at the stars ahead of the ship, not at the wake behind us.
    Let's begin with geography. In terms of charting a course for this nearly 70-year-old organization, it is clear that geographically there are two principal fronts that will warrant NATO's attention over the next several decades: One to the east and the other in the south.
    To the east, the alliance is faced with a resurgent and aggressive Russian Federation led by Vladimir Putin. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, and annexed Crimea. Its defense budget continues to increase (albeit more modestly than in the last few years) despite a falling ruble, sanctions levied after the invasion of Ukraine and catastrophically low oil prices. While we are far from the massive troop deployments of the Cold War, you can see the beginning of one not so far away. The alliance needs to improve its military capability on the NATO-Russia border by rotating forces through national bases, increasing the level and realism of exercises, and ensuring that Russia understands that NATO borders are sacrosanct -- a true "red line."
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    In the south, the alliance faces a broad bouquet of challenges that have emerged after the so-called Arab Spring. The instability that has swept across the Arab world, especially given the virulent civil war in Syria and the rise of the so-called Islamic State, has led to massive refugee flows and new terrorist incidents. NATO must be involved in patrolling and defending the borders of the alliance, sharing information and intelligence, and assisting in humanitarian efforts to deal with the refugees.
    In addition to the concern about the geographic challenges in the east and south, the alliance will need to improve its strategic posture to the north, in the Arctic. Hopefully, the High North will evolve into a zone of cooperation, not conflict; but at a minimum, the alliance -- with five of the six nations holding significant Arctic coastlines (the United States, Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Iceland, and Norway) -- must conduct surveillance and track the region closely.
    But important threats are not always geographic. When I was the supreme allied commander, the thing that kept me awake at night was not Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, the Balkans, piracy or a restless Russia -- it was cyber. In the cyber world, we face the greatest discrepancy between the level of threat (high, especially against our financial, transportation and information sectors) and the level of preparation (low). We must devote more resources to this in an alliance context.
    Additionally, the alliance also needs a more coherent strategy for both membership (which ought to be granted extremely sparingly) and partnerships, which is the key area of expansion. In particular, NATO should seek stronger partnerships with Sunni Arab states (Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states) and Israel. The Eastern Mediterranean will be a more significant flashpoint than the South China Sea over the next several decades, and NATO must be ready.
    Finally, there is the organizational and fiscal direction that the alliance must take to maintain its relevance. The minimum defense spending goal of 2% of GDP -- which only a handful of members meet today -- must become bedrock in the alliance. If the Europeans fail to meet that level, the cries of "free riders" will only increase and it will undermine the alliance's standing in the United States, no matter who is elected president. Additionally, the NATO standing command structure, which was reduced from 14,000 to about 8,800 several years ago, should be further reduced and streamlined.
    NATO is a powerful and capable alliance -- its 28 members together account for over half of the world's gross domestic product, and it can field millions of soldiers, thousands of combat aircraft and hundreds of sophisticated warships. Nothing can match its reach, and even with the failure to reach the 2% of GDP goal by most of the members, the Europeans still spend close to $300 billion on defense annually, more than China and Russia combined.
    But like any international organization, NATO has to deliver real value to all of its members, and that will require continuing leadership from the United States and more willingness in Europe to contribute. Hopefully, the attacks in Brussels will bring this reality home to both sides of the Atlantic.