Repairing and Rebalancing NATO

This commentary is part of CSIS's Global Forecast 2021 essay series.

NATO and EU leaders have high expectations for the new U.S. administration. In President Joe Biden, they see a long-standing transatlanticist who believes allies and partners magnify U.S. power, views multilateralism as the best means for tackling transnational security challenges, and shares their focus on the importance of democracy and universal rights.

Several partners, including the European Commission and a group of German transatlanticists, have already offered concrete proposals for how to shape a new, forward-looking transatlantic agenda. NATO too is looking to the future, with Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s NATO 2030 initiative wrapping up and a new Strategic Concept planned to launch this year.

What these initiatives share is an acknowledgement that a return to past practices is neither desirable nor feasible. Changes in the international security environment, coupled with shifts in the nature of the transatlantic relationship itself, make NATO and the U.S.-Europe relationship a prime candidate for application of Biden’s “build back better” mantra.

In the short term, the Biden administration will need to move quickly to repair the transatlantic relationship. A recent poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations revealed that a majority of European countries believe that Europe can no longer rely on the United States to defend it. Most now consider Germany their most important partner.

A simple but essential step in restoring allies’ trust in the United States will be for Biden to make NATO the initial stop on his first visit to Europe and visibly reaffirm the U.S. commitment to NATO’s collective defense guarantee. He should also use this opportunity to confirm the U.S. intent to sustain its contributions to the alliance’s deterrence and defense posture through a robust forward and rotational presence. A commitment to return to the standard practice of consulting with NATO allies on any U.S. force posture adjustments in Europe would be particularly well received, as would more coordination and transparency on arms control given the expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

A final issue to address up front is U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has already signaled his intent to review troop levels in both countries. While many allies and partners share the U.S. desire to drawdown, NATO has stressed the need for a coordinated, conditions-based approach in order to preserve the gains made. Taken together, these steps will demonstrate a transparency and predictability in U.S. foreign and security policy that begins to repair trust.

Longer term, the United States should lead efforts to rebalance the transatlantic relationship to better reflect today’s realities. Three immediate efforts spring to mind.

First, NATO should rebalance values and interests. NATO is at once a political and military organization whose unity derives from the shared commitment of its members to the common values and principles enshrined in the North Atlantic Treaty, including democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. While NATO has adapted militarily, it has failed to address the erosion of democratic norms in some of its member states, such as Hungary, Poland, and Turkey. These democratic deficits are problematic in that they enable external actors, especially Russia and China, to take advantage of intra-alliance differences and exploit the societal vulnerabilities of individual allies. Left unaddressed, they also weaken NATO’s reputation as a trustworthy actor and force for good. While the NATO reflection process offers a start on by suggesting a “code of good conduct” for members, this will need to be accompanied by enforcement mechanisms—ideally a combination of incentives and disincentives—to compel good behavior.

Second, the alliance needs to rebalance its use of military and non-military tools. While both state and nonstate actors continue to present a conventional threat to NATO, these competitors often deliberately seek to compete below the threshold of armed conflict. China, for example, presents systemic challenges to NATO across the political, security, economic, and technological domains. To deter and respond more effectively to such gray zone threats, NATO should define competition more broadly in its doctrine, planning, and training, and rebalance its capabilities to make use of both military and non-military tools. Fortunately, a number of allies, including the Baltic states and Norway, have successfully done this at a national level and can guide the alliance in this rebalancing, supported by the United States. Strengthened cooperation with the European Union can also be beneficial given its recent development of tools to counter China’s assertive behavior in non-military fields (e.g., foreign investment screening, 5G, disinformation).

Finally, the United States should rebalance the relationship with European NATO members and NATO’s relationship with the European Union. On the one hand, European countries are pushing for more independence of action (so-called strategic autonomy) to exercise their political and economic strength even as they continue to rely on the security umbrella the United States provides. At the same time, the United States is looking for ways to shift some international security responsibilities to Europe in order to devote more time to pressing social and economic issues at home and continue its reorientation toward the Indo-Pacific. These objectives create space for a rebalancing of responsibilities both within and outside of NATO. Rather than opposing the European Union’s efforts to enhance its security and defense capacity, the United States should back these efforts and actively channel them in a direction that supports NATO, U.S., and European interests. This includes demanding a great focus on output, for example, pressing European NATO members to meet their collective defense commitments, fill long-standing NATO and EU capability shortfalls (often the same), and reduce their overreliance on certain low-density, high-demand U.S. assets.

Moreover, the United States should welcome the European Union taking the lead in areas where they have comparative interest and advantage (e.g., capacity building in Africa, counter-piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, counter-trafficking in the Eastern Mediterranean) with enabling support from the United States, if required. While much of this cooperation can take place in the existing NATO-EU cooperation framework, cooperation on some issues, such as digital and technological security, would benefit from direct U.S.-EU cooperation through a trade, technology, and security council.

In the first days of his administration, Biden has underscored the U.S. commitment to NATO and his intent to rebuild trust among allies. Yet going forward, adaptation is also in order to address changing internal and external dynamics affecting the alliance. Early attention to rebalancing NATO’s values and interests, military and non-military tools, and the U.S.-European relationship will improve the alliance’s long-term health and ensure its relevance for the future.

Rachel Ellehuus is deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Rachel Ellehuus