By: Doug Lute
Last July, the 28 leaders of NATO’s member states met in Warsaw, Poland, to confront the most severe challenges to security in Europe since the end of the Cold War. A series of disorienting events began in 2014 with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, a part of sovereign Ukraine. This was the first instance of using force to change borders in Europe in over 70 years. President Vladimir Putin had violated blatantly every agreement that had governed the long peace, including the United Nations Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, and the NATO-Russia Founding Act. A few months later Putin moved further, using the Russian military and covert means to sponsor separatist proxies and destabilize two key provinces in eastern Ukraine. Russia also challenged NATO more directly with an ambitious military modernization program, aggressive new doctrine, and numerous large exercises that violated agreements designed to promote transparency and stability. At the same time, to NATO’s south, the instability in Syria and Iraq enabled the Islamic State to declare a caliphate after seizing large swathes of territory including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. Meanwhile, the largest mass migration since World War II arrived on the borders of Europe.
These events combined to stun NATO, bringing a sense of urgency to the summit. The 28 NATO leaders gathered at Warsaw were forced to respond to the most severe set of security challenges in Europe in over 25 years. NATO stood at a pivotal moment, faced with diverse challenges coming from outside the alliance.
Over the two-day summit, the program featured NATO’s traditional format: long sessions focused on discrete topics in which the leaders were all given the floor for several minutes. In these sessions, NATO members took decisions to refocus on collective defense, resetting deterrence for the new conditions in the East. To the South, they agreed that NATO had to do more to promote stability among the weak or failed states along its periphery. They extended support to Afghanistan where NATO had led the coalition since 2006, committing 12,000 troops and financing for Afghan forces. Closer to home, Ukraine’s president gave a firsthand account of his nation’s struggle against Russian aggression. To provide the resources required for all this, leaders reaffirmed their commitment to move toward providing 2 percent of GDP to defense. It was a full agenda, focused outward beyond NATO.
Late on July 8, President Barack Obama joined the other leaders, after a long day of travel and tackling a substantive agenda, for a formal working dinner. The setting was symbolic: they dined in the room where the Warsaw Treaty had been signed in 1955, setting up the 8-nation alliance led by the Soviet Union that faced off against NATO during the Cold War. Poland’s leaders were proud to point out the irony. While the leaders met alone for the dinner, a few key staff from each nation gathered tightly into a small adjacent room equipped with an audio-video link to the dinner room, modest sandwiches and too little wine.
The dinner was to focus on NATO’s relationship with Russia, its largest and most militarily capable neighbor. A vibrant discussion unfolded, making clear the diverse perspectives across the alliance. There was consensus that NATO’s attempt since the end of the Cold War to fashion a strategic partnership with Moscow had been hijacked by Putin’s aggressive actions. In response, some allies placed first priority on strengthening NATO’s defenses. Others were challenged more directly by the threats of terrorism, mass migration, and instability to the south. Some believed there were still areas in which to engage Moscow; others were skeptical. As the dinner discussion moved slowly around the large table, a compromise emerged. NATO agreed to strike a balance between strength and dialogue: the alliance would do what was required to deter Russia while also remaining open to dialogue to attempt to reduce risks. NATO would remain the mature, responsible player in Europe.
Near the end of the dinner — while those of us the crowded staff room were counting the last interventions and hoping for brevity — came the most important message of the summit. Obama had spoken early and then listened to all the others. Many leaders lamented Putin’s actions and the Russian challenge to Europe, including disinformation campaigns and malign influence among domestic political parties. Some implied that illegal migrants, not Russia, posed the most severe threat and justified strong responses. At the end of a long dinner and a very long day, Obama unexpectedly raised his hand to speak a second time. He spoke without notes. He said that the United States would respond to Russia, but that the more severe threat to our democracies comes not from outside, not from Putin, but from inside our own societies. He said that xenophobia, anti-migration policies, and unconstrained nationalism could erode our democracies from within. He said that if we drift from our core values, we could lose all that has been built up over the past 70 years. This was not about Putin; it was about us. Everyone fell silent as the dinner concluded.
As President Donald Trump prepares to meet his counterparts for the first time at NATO headquarters in Brussels this week, it is worth recalling this message from a year ago. Troops, tanks, ships, and planes are not the core of NATO’s strength. At the core of the strongest, most durable, most successful alliance in history are its common values — democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law. Values are the glue that binds NATO’s 28 diverse nations together. Today these values are being challenged from multiple directions, including from the inside. Protecting these values is vital to America’s security and it’s a process that begins at home — in all 28 member capitals. This is again the message NATO needs to hear.
This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy on May 23, 2017.