European leaders have heard it before—again and again and again: Every U.S. administration since that of Dwight Eisenhower has asked our NATO allies to pay for their own defense. And every administration has failed to persuade them.
Now it’s Joe Biden’s turn. Over the next week, President Biden will meet with NATO leaders and attend the annual U.S.-EU summit (in addition to the G7 meeting and his planned summit with Vladimir Putin). Instead of repeating the tired old spend-more-on-defense refrain, here are five more productive issues that Biden should prioritize:
1. Infrastructure week for Europe! If the need arose to quickly put U.S. or European troops in the Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which are the key to the naval containment of Russia at the Baltic Sea should a crisis arise—getting the troops there quickly would be harder than it should. Currently, there is no permanent troop presence in the former Warsaw Pact countries, only small rotational forces. In case of an emergency, if the Baltics ever need reinforcement, it could take months for forces across Europe to mobilize and reach the Baltics due to infrastructure challenges and a set of domestic laws in individual European countries on the way. As Michael Birnbaum has reported, in case of “a conflict with Russia, the most powerful military in the world could get stuck in a traffic jam.”
One way around the problem of getting Europeans to pay more for defense is to remember that infrastructure overlaps with defense. In Europe, paying into infrastructure is not a controversial stance like paying for the military—but good roads are as much a military necessity as good tanks. So the president should encourage our allies to beef up their infrastructure. This is low-hanging fruit: a win-win.
2. Start a debate over the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Back in the 1990s—during the Boris Yeltsin era of good feelings, when there was hope that Russia would liberalize if it converged with the free world—NATO and the Russian Federation signed an agreement called the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security. It established military cooperation between NATO and Russia—subsequently suspended after the annexation of Crimea in 2014—and banned the permanent deployment of NATO forces and nuclear weapons to Warsaw Pact countries. According to the agreement:
NATO reiterates that in the current and foreseeable security environment, the Alliance will carry out its collective defence and other missions by ensuring the necessary interoperability, integration, and capability for reinforcement rather than by additional permanent stationing of substantial combat forces. [Emphasis added.]
The security environment has changed. Russia is in violation of the agreement and has invaded two of its neighbors, while waging information warfare all over Europe and North America, and Vladimir Putin’s dream of annexing the Baltics is hidden to nobody. With the new security environment, it is time to think of new strategies. The old agreement is in tatters, and NATO should formally abandon it.
3. Elevate the Baltic states. Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election made clear for any American who didn’t already know it: The Russian threat is not just military. Russia is also engaging in information warfare to weaken democracies from within.
The Baltic states have been living with Russian disinformation campaigns for decades, and have become quite effective in fending them off. The French also did a reasonable job during their 2017 presidential election of neutralizing Russian disinformation. The United States, Canada, and Western Europeans have a lot to learn from the youngest members of the NATO family and from France. Biden should ask the Baltic states to take the lead on educating other members on how to combat Russian disinformation—whether by spearheading a new agency within NATO dedicated to the issue, or forming a multi-country taskforce, or some other method.
Another key way that the Baltic states can help is intelligence. Due to their geographic proximity to Russia, and the fact that large portions of their populations are Russian-speaking and Russian-looking, the Baltic states know more about Russia than any other NATO members. This makes them extraordinarily valuable for intelligence-gathering and covert operations, and Biden should seek ways to take advantage of this.
4. Start discussing bringing Finland and Sweden into NATO. Norway was a founding member of NATO, but its Scandinavian neighbor, Sweden, is not in the alliance. Neither is Finland, despite its fears of Russian aggression. But in recent years, their heads of government and cabinet ministers have begun attending NATO summits, and they have been sending signals of a willingness to officially join the alliance.
The geography of the two states is incredibly important to defend the Baltics. The Suwałki Corridor—the narrow area between Belarus and Kaliningrad—is how NATO reinforcements could enter the Baltics from the south. If conflict erupts, however, this will be very difficult, especially given Russia’s anti-access/area-denial capabilities, and the casualties will be too high to stomach. Reinforcement from the north and through the Baltic Sea might prove much more convenient, especially if there is already a NATO presence in Finland and Sweden. President Biden should get that ball rolling.
5. Live up to the administration’s promise of democracy promotion. Biden promised that strengthening democracy around the world would be the center of his foreign policy. So far, he has done nothing in this regard. Two members of NATO and the EU, Hungary and Poland, are moving toward autocracy. The Czech Republic has also been sending worrying signs. This is in addition to Turkey, another NATO member, which is a full autocracy. It is too late to save Turkey’s democracy as long as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan remains in power, but this is not true of the other three countries. The United States and the European Union need to draw clear redlines and engage with the governments of these countries, as well as with the civil societies and the political oppositions, to reverse the trajectory. Especially because, as these states become more autocratic, they are more willing to carry water for Putin (except Poland, for now) and China—which is especially challenging when they are treaty allies of the United States, as Turkey has shown.
Here’s hoping President Biden and the diplomats flanking him in Europe next week seize the opportunity to set the agenda for great power competition in a meaningful way.