Ignore the shenanigans of social media and click-bait videos, there’s serious substance to pay attention to coming out of the NATO summit that took place on December 3-4, 2019 in London. The alliance is at a crossroads as the tide of world events continues to shift the economics, power and threats on the planet; some concerns, far beyond the North Atlantic.

The official accomplishments of the summit are boringly dull, in keeping with the preferences of the NATO establishment in Brussels. The two-page summary notes the following: 

  1. NATO is spending more and counting on everyone to fulfill their 2% GDP pledges; but acknowledging some are behind.
  2. Brussels has expanded the definition of what constitutes a NATO threat to include not just Russia, but terrorism, defiance of rules of order by state and non-state actors, the consequences of regional instabilities in other parts of the world including migration, cyber and other things.
  3. NATO intends to improve conventional and nuclear forces to defend the entirety of it growing membership; with emphasis on deterring Russia.
  4. NATO sees its security mission as global; meaning involving the alliance in other parts of the world is valid.
  5. The cyber warfare is now a theater of NATO warfare; and that China is an emerging threat the alliance.
  6. Finally, that they have orders to rethink all of the above and will make an effort to do so.

You can read the ministerial version of that here.

If all you read was that boring synopsis, you would completely miss the magnitude of the demands that the leaders of the nations of NATO placed on the organization in London. Let’s break some of that down.

US president Donald Trump chided four NATO countries for being short of their 2% of GDP Commitment to defense spending. These countries were Germany, Canada, Belgium, and the Netherlands. despite the medias pension to portray Trump as a heavy-handed bully in the process, all these countries were part of the reaffirmed NATO commitment to achieving their spending objectives. There really wasn’t much for the United States to do other than to remind everyone to keep pushing forward on cost sharing.

The real rabble rouser of this NATO Conference was French president Emmanuel Macron. Macron has been complaining that he believes the Strategic vision of NATO is “brain dead”. Given the massive increase in scope creep as noted in points 2, 4 and 5 above, Macron is not out of line In questioning whether or not the Brussels establishment has become an alliance version of the American Deep State running on automatic for its own bureaucratic benefit.

The platitudes of Brussels do indeed sound very much like NATO is volunteering for the job of next global policeman to the planet supplanting, if not assuming, the leadership role once held by a more aggressive United States.

The US has been signaling to the world that it is moving away from that stance for quite some time. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have, in their own ways, pulled back from the Bush-Clinton-Bush dogma of saving the world from evil. Both latter presidents have had to put up with their shares of superpower America faction resistance; which has turned out to exist on both sides of the American political aisle.

On the world stage, the United States and the European Union have no choice but the learn to work with the spheres of influence of the Russians and the Chinese. That’s not really an option anymore. The one thing that the global economy has created is global codependency. We have to work out differences in economic models, social models, technology models, and financial models. This is an area where picking sides based on lobbying and influence just gets everyone into deeper trouble. Dogma is not a friend in this coming world order, pragmatism is. 

Regarding the European theater, note that the Obama and Trump administrations differ primarily on how to deal with Russia. Obama was confrontational with Russian president Vladimir Putin electing to support the expansion of NATO influence eastward including favoring the interests of Ukraine as the issue of Crimea heated up. Trump sought to work with Putin; a policy shift that has proven difficult to pursue as the US neocons have resisted making peace with America’s old Cold War foe.

Sidelined by his own country’s politics to that point that his weighing in constructively on NATO would prove futile, the US president left the schooling of NATO’s future to his French counterpart.

Hence we get the point number three and NATO’s resolve to build conventional and nuclear forces to confront the Russians. Brussels won approval to develop a rapid mobilization force capable of mounting a conventional warfare defense of countries like Poland that are part of the geography the former Warsaw Pact. 

In so doing, NATO is moving the location of a future war east of the Fulda Gap into the next choke point to the East that old war planners like myself used to call the rail gauge changeover point. It’s where the rail lines of Western Europe and the rails lines of the old Soviet Union used to change size so that your tank armies had to unload and load.

It’s a terrible place to stage a future war because each side will be able to bring massive amounts of military force to the front by rail. It’s a scenario that is more likely to result in something that looks like the trenches of World War I. The kind of thing where suffering will turn to desperation, and desperation into theater nuclear warfare.

I do not like such a future for Europe. I do not like it, not one little bit. But this is where Brussels is going.

It is not where France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Andrea Merkel are going. Like America’s Donald Trump, they are looking for ways to ease tensions with Russia. Macron and Merkel are arranging a summit between Ukraine and Russia where, to the chagrin of the world’s neocons, there is speculation that the pair may be seeking to convince Ukranian president Volodymyr Zelensky to concede to some of Putin’s agenda in the name of lowering regional tensions.

That would make it three of the four primary NATO sponsor nations with agendas that are strategically in conflict with the Brussels agenda as stated in the London memo.

That makes organizing a defense of Poland against Russia a very interesting football indeed. Is it a pillar foundation of the alliance? Or is its leverage to be bargained away very much the same way that the United States and the Soviet Union used to build up nuclear forces as bargaining chips for arms control treaties?

Ignoring Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comical attempt to get all of Europe to support his Ottoman agenda against the Kurds in exchange for his support to defend Poland, this is a serious question of future mission and commitment that NATO must face.

At the core, it boils down to the question of whether a strategic initiative works to promote calmer global stability or if it provokes instability. My impression is that the forces of instability may outweigh the benefits to the alliance. My gut says Macron is right, it needs a set of independent eyes doing a multilateral net assessment to really examine where NATO’s interest in finding difficult peace really are.

On his part, Putin has said that he is not interested in another arms race. The fact of the matter is that he doesn’t have the money for it which is why he is investing directly in intermediate range nuclear missiles. As a deterrent, they cost a lot less than conventional tank armies.

Aside from which, the future viability of such armies is suspect in a battlefield that’s going to be dominated by robots anyway. It’s kind of bad investment in sabers to be rattled while waiting for somebody to shoot a Duke.

The more things change in Europe, the more things stay the same. Human hubris and frailty are the only true constant.

It’s probably a moot exercise. Putin is coupling more tightly with Europe anyway. And he’s not relying on military means. No. Putin has learned from Trump about how to use economic as a tool of statecraft. What Russia needs in foreign investment in their economy and he’s found a tool to get it. Russia’s sovereign debt pays around 4% coupon. US treasuries pay around 0.8% coupon. European sovereign debt is running negative rates. Using financial markets, money, which has no morality, is coming his way. Trump wanted to do this too as a way to accelerate US reinvestment in infrastructure and industry by getting the US to move beyond Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) and quantitative easing; but again, he is resisted domestically creating an opportunity for another to fill the vacuum. Like I said, money is immoral.

What will come next for the north Atlantic Treaty organization? Time will tell if Brussels accepts or resists the emerging realities of the world in which its sponsoring nations must live.