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Where is NATO? And Where is Trump?

The virus is destroying economies and paralyzing societies in ways Russian military planners could only dream.

The coronavirus, this invisible enemy, has become the most comprehensive security challenge NATO nations have faced — destroying their economies and paralyzing their societies in ways Russian military planners could only dream. This week, NATO’s defense ministers will convene an extraordinary meeting via secure videoconference to discuss the alliance's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Will NATO be able to step up?

Unfortunately, NATO got off to a slow start. COVID-19 caught the alliance flat-footed and, like just about every government, caused a delayed response. U.S. leadership from the Trump administration was notably absent. Rather than galvanizing allies into action, U.S. officials initially signaled the crisis was not a NATO problem. China and Russia filled the void, successfully pounding allied nations with propaganda and filling the information space with elaborate (if ephemeral) displays of delivering medical supplies and assistance while NATO scrambled to make up for lost time.

But more than just ideas, this crisis has also had an immediate impact on NATO's exercises, force posture, and readiness. The NATO mission in Iraq is effectively paused. The biggest U.S. military exercise in the post-Cold War era — DEFENDER-Europe 20 — has been scrapped. The movement of troops from the U.S. and across Europe is seen as too risky. Even though there are no current signs of widespread contagion among allied forces, they are hunkered down and the emphasis is on force protection. Pentagon leaders insist the U.S. military is ready to fight through the pandemic, if needed, but clearly such paralysis underscores the fragility of NATO's military operations and deterrence posture.

NATO’s primary task is territorial defense. Russia initially tried to take advantage of the situation by poking at NATO's defenses, and has been pumping out disinformation to try to undermine unity and seed conspiracies (such as the lie that NATO is responsible for COVID and its spread.) This won’t stop. And given how this pandemic has catalyzed Russia’s own health and economic crisis, we should worry about a scenario in which Russia seeks to test the alliance further to distract from domestic problems.

If NATO does not seize this moment, the coronavirus crisis could undermine the alliance’s credibility and raise questions about its purpose yet again, only this time in a perilous post-pandemic world. If NATO fails to be seen as a player in alleviating the security burden caused by the pandemic — such as helping with airlifting supplies or demonstrating alliance solidarity — it will only give ammunition to those that want to weaken or dismantle it.  Given that every NATO economy will be under tremendous strain in the coming years, it is hard to see how the 2-percent issue of allied defense spending will get any easier. 

Fortunately, every crisis brings opportunities. First, NATO has a unique capacity to organize strategic airlift to support the fight against the pandemic both in ally and partner countries. Such capabilities have already helped deliver protective gear and medical supplies to numerous allies and partners in Europe. And as the pandemic spreads further in the Middle East and Africa, NATO should deploy its capabilities to help provide supplies and relief, which will be especially important given anticipated efforts by China to do the same. 

Second, the alliance needs to think more comprehensively about common security. NATO has tried hard to broaden the aperture of its efforts into domains like cyber to places from Afghanistan to the Arctic, but it’s now obvious that a pandemic can cause as much damage to NATO populations and economies as an armed conflict. Realizing this, the alliance must be better prepared for this kind of crisis in the future. NATO should develop standing defense plans for pandemic response, just as much as it needs plans against near-peer competitor or terrorist threat.

Third, this crisis must also jumpstart NATO discussions around crisis decision making.  NATO’s ability to make decisions quickly has been an enduring challenge. Yet the unprecedented nature of the COVID-19 crisis is forcing the alliance to adapt on the fly and work from home. The ability to deliberate remotely by secure videoconference, which NATO foreign ministers first did last week, demonstrates it’s possible. Improving the speed and accessibility of secure decision-making will bolster deterrence and enhance NATO’s ability to respond to the next crisis. 

None of this is possible without U.S. leadership, which is sorely lacking. The Trump administration’s silence on NATO’s role has been deafening, raising doubts among even the administration’s staunchest European friends. While every country is struggling to respond to this pandemic, the U.S. is hardly looking like the indispensable leader allies can look to for direction and rely upon.

It’s not too late. This week NATO’s defense ministers can take a number of practical steps to get the alliance on the right track to address this pandemic and better prepare for the next one. If NATO gets its response right, it can come out much stronger. We all can. 

Derek Chollet is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and senior advisor for security and defense policy. Michał Baranowski is the director of the GMF's Warsaw office. Steven Keil is a fellow in GMF’s Washington office.