Is Anyone Home at Either End of Pennsylvania Avenue?

Two of America’s most vital interests are represented and colocated in Brussels, Belgium. The European Union is one. And NATO is the other. NATO is by far history’s most successful military alliance that, Afghanistan aside, has won every war it has waged, notably presiding over the demise of the Soviet Union nearly a quarter of a century ago without firing a shot in anger. Unfortunately, few Americans appreciate how important both of these institutions are for our security and for global prosperity and stability as well. Of these few, how many occupy the most senior echelons in government with American foreign policy dominated by the Middle East and Persian Gulf and with the Obama administration’s strategic pivot eastward to Asia?

Despite Chinese and Indian growth, Europe and the United States still dominate the economic landscape.  In that regard, the most important single step the EU and US can take to enhance mutual economic growth is to conclude agreement on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Sadly however, TTIP is now in serious trouble provoked by revelations over National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs, i.e. spying on friends and allies with consequences that imperil more than just economic intercourse. It is also not helpful that the US Treasury Department seems unready to support TTIP.  However, the larger issue is NATO.

NATO labored mightily to reorient itself once its Soviet nemesis and raison d’etre disappeared. Fifteen years ago, the cry was “out of area or out of business,” meaning that the alliance had to address responsibilities and dangers well beyond its proximate borders.  The second Iraq and Afghan wars tempered those ambitions considerably. So too has fiscal austerity brought on by the 2008 economic crises made huge cracks in the defense budgets of all but three NATO member states. 

Next fall, Britain will host NATO’s biannual heads of state and government summit.  Last year’s summit held in Chicago was more social than transformational. The major alliance initiatives of “smart defense” and “connected forces initiative (CFI)” energized by NATO’s soon to be outgoing Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen are more sound bite than substance. For example, regarding smart defense, who is for stupid defense (although some will rightly argue that the disproportionately destructive impact of the American sequester is its poster child)?

CFI is ensuring forces are interoperable meaning that they are able to operate and when needed fight together in highly coordinated and “seamless” ways to maximize wartime effectiveness.  While missile defense will receive kudos at the next summit as the US establishes missile bases in Poland and Romania as well aboard ships in the Mediterranean, far greater strategic innovation and creativity are vital to re-motivate the alliance as NATO withdraws from the war in Afghanistan over the next year and national defense spending continues to decline, possibly precipitously.

One can argue that perhaps NATO’s time has passed; that the alliance’s key value is as an insurance policy to be used when and if needed to counter new or re-emerging older threats. As America turns both to Asia and inwardly to put its house in order, its leadership role diminishes, not helped by political domestic debacles that almost make the image of a once hapless American Gulliverian giant rendered impotent by Lilliputian-sized adversaries look good by comparison.

But who in the administration is prepared to make Europe and NATO top priorities?  The president is preoccupied with domestic crises and politics—i.e., winning the 2014 Congressional elections.  Vice President Joe Biden, a powerful advocate for NATO when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seems sidelined by the White House. Secretary of State John Kerry, also former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, is too busy putting out a seemingly endless number of foreign policy crises. National Security Advisor Susan Rice is not a Europeanist.  And Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is consumed with running a Defense Department that on his watch will only shrink.

Worse, Congress lacks voices who see and can explain Europe and NATO in strategic or terms relevant to America’s national security.  The result is not reassuring. The good news is that virtually no matter how badly the administration fumbles, ignores or downplays NATO or the EU, it will not be a foreign policy disaster equivalent to the roll-out of the Affordable Health Care Act or the stinging reactions to NSA’s incursions into the domains of cyber space and personal privacy. 

The bad news is that, ironically, given the vectors of international politics and threats and dangers that largely emanate from non-state actors and individuals, NATO’s importance as a stabilizing global foundation, though possibly as crucial as when it contained communism and the Soviet Union, will be ignored or missed—to our collective peril.

But is anyone at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue listening?

Harlan Ullman is a senior advisor at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of business and government.


Image: Pennsylvania Avenue Corridor at 7th Street, NW, Washington DC . (Photo: Flickr/Elvert Xavier Barnes/CC License)