Three NATO ships steam in the Baltic as part of exercise Baltic Operations 2015.

Three NATO ships steam in the Baltic as part of exercise Baltic Operations 2015. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda S. Kitchner

After Ukraine, NATO's Chance for a New Normal

Can Defense Secretary Ash Carter and European leaders turn NATO's historic Ukraine response into a new future for the alliance?

Listening to politicians and pundits on both sides of the Atlantic, it would be easy to conclude that U.S.-European relations are suffering a major crisis. There is a surplus of breathless talk about frayed alliances, a vacuum of leadership, and European jitters about American withdrawal. Yet the reality is better than it seems — and at the same time, it is also more complicated.

While some see the Ukraine crisis and the threat of a revanchist Russia as exposing fundamental weaknesses in the transatlantic security alliance, NATO’s response has revealed more of the alliance’s strengths than its shortcomings. It has also been a reminder of NATO’s indispensability. That will be a key message next week during Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s first major trip to Europe at the Pentagon’s helm, where he will make important stops in Germany, Estonia and Brussels for his first NATO meeting of defense ministers. What’s to be seen is if NATO can turn the temporary attention of the Ukraine crisis into a permanent evolution of the alliance. Has NATO found a new norm?

Let’s start with the good news. The past year has seen the most significant shift in the transatlantic security relationship since NATO’s entry into Afghanistan after 9/11. First, from the moment the Ukraine crisis erupted, U.S. and allied forces have maintained a persistent land, air and sea presence in NATO’s Eastern front-line states. None of this existed before. For the United States, this includes a rotational presence of troops in the Baltics and Poland. Now the discussion is whether to preposition heavy armor and equipment in those locations—a possibility that President Barack Obama’s $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” put on the table last year—and whether such deployments should be permanent.

Second, U.S. and European leaders have pursued an aggressive sequence of major military exercises. This year has seen the most significant American military training in Europe since the end of the Cold War. Right now approximately 15,000 troops from 19 NATO countries are participating in “Allied Shield,” an exercise to enhance interoperability, readiness, and responsiveness. This builds NATO’s capabilities to work and fight together, and sends a clear message to Russia that the alliance’s commitment to collective defense remains robust.

Third, the Ukraine crisis has jump-started the NATO discussion about military capabilities. For years, U.S. defense leaders have been hectoring their NATO partners to increase spending, a message Carter will certainly echo again. But too often, this was perceived as more of a theoretical debate against an ill-defined foe. Now, the wide acknowledgement of Russia’s military threat has caused many NATO partners, particularly countries like Germany, Poland, and the Baltics, to step up and invest more in defense.

Finally, the past year has seen a shift in the debate about the purpose of NATO itself. While the concern now is whether NATO will maintain the will to meet these new challenges, it was not so long ago, just before the Ukraine crisis, that some wondered if NATO was still relevant at all. In the early days of planning for last year’s NATO Summit in Wales, those of us in the U.S. government worried that the Summit would be dominated by existential questions like whether we still needed NATO and what the Alliance’s purpose would be after its withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet the crisis in Ukraine (as well as the exploding crisis to Europe’s south and the insecurity emanating from North Africa) clearly demonstrated NATO’s enduring relevance.  Vladimir Putin did more to make NATO relevant than any of us in government at the time could have wished.

But therein is the challenge. NATO’s responses over the last year have been reactive and by definition (when measured by budgets) temporary. So the question NATO leaders must answer — and that Carter should push at next week’s ministerial meeting – is to decide how to transition these steps into a sustainable, fully-resourced “new normal.”

And this is where things get complicated.

Although U.S. officials and pundits often assert it is all about us Americans—and there remain plenty of policy issues for Washington to sort out—the main complication is the divisions within Europe. It is neither America’s military posture nor its commitment to Europe.

At the most abstract level, the biggest divide lies between Europe’s East and South. For good reason, the Baltics and Poland see Russia as the predominant threat, something that Carter will hear in spades when he meets with his three Baltic counterparts gathered in Estonia. But they compete for attention with those on NATO’s southern tier who are more worried about the refugee crisis, which is the worst in Europe since World War II.

More specifically, the top European contributors to NATO’s defense are on a different strategic page. The UK is consumed by its own existential question about its future in the EU, as well as a defense budget that is being drastically cut. France has emerged as one of the most reliable and steadfast defense partners but is intensely focused on Africa’s Sahel, where it has over 3,000 troops deployed. Italy also worries mostly about the crisis to its South, especially Libya, where it has seriously talked about inserting a peacekeeping force. Poland is seized with the threat from Russia, as its 18 percent increase in defense spending this year shows.

And Germany, which has asserted itself as Europe’s leader on Ukraine, still wrestles with the role of its military in projecting German influence. As I have argued earlier in Defense One, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is one of Europe’s most interesting (and active) defense leaders, and has emerged as one of Carter’s closest counterparts. Carter will be the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Berlin in nearly a decade, where he will deliver the main policy speech of his trip.

These divisions—between East and South, about competing priorities and interests—create a strategic cacophony that raises questions about Europe’s ability to sustain its end of the bargain in providing for a shared defense. For all the Alliance has accomplished in the past year to show its resolve, and for all the earnest rhetoric about common purpose, how these tensions are managed will define the transatlantic relationship. As Henry Kissinger put it nearly four decades ago, the alliance must be held together by more than “the highest common platitude.”