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What an ambitious NATO summit could accomplish

Romania NATO Britain Fallon-2

A Romanian serviceman furls the NATO flag after Britain's Defense Minister Michael Fallon's visit at the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base in Romania in 2017.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Ordinarily when NATO's 29 national leaders get together, everybody involved pushes for all the good things they want the alliance to do. At this week's summit in Brussels, they'll mainly be hoping to keep anything bad from happening.

The center of Europe's current concerns will come as no surprise: It's the United States. Is the Trump administration about to end military exercises in Eastern Europe, cut funding for the U.S. European Command, or even pull American troops out of Germany?

Count this among the great costs of Donald Trump's presidency. Though NATO faces urgent challenges in the Baltics, the Arctic, the Middle East and Afghanistan — to name just a few — its leaders will probably spend little time on those issues. Instead, they expect to be upbraided by Trump for spending too little on their militaries, all the while dreading that the U.S. president will give away the farm when he meets with Russian president Vladimir Putin days later in Helsinki.

Imagine for a moment that the U.S. had a president who wasn't hostile to America's friends, dismissive of the world order the U.S. has shaped and led since World War II, and apt to be charmed by tyrants. In this alternative reality, what might the Brussels summit accomplish?

It would reassure the most vulnerable members on Europe's eastern flank that aggression by Moscow — even so-called hybrid warfare that doesn't rise to the level of military intervention — will be treated as an affront to the entire alliance. The most significant step would be quite simple: The U.S. would reaffirm its commitment to Article 5, the alliance's "an attack on one is an attack on all" guarantee — something Trump conspicuously failed to do at last summer's meeting.

To that end, the summit would announce the start of contingency planning for converting its current rotations of troops in and out of Poland and the Baltic states into a permanently stationed garrison. It would say this was a response to Russian saber-rattling toward those nations and Ukraine.

Next would come cyberwarfare — defensive and offensive. The summit would announce new joint investment in the alliance's Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn, Estonia. It would promise more money and manpower for NATO's special-operations force headquartered in Mons, Belgium. Those troops could be needed to tamp down a crisis, such as infiltration of the Baltics by Russia's "little green men." And the leaders would agree to ramp up unmanned air operations out of Sicily. More drones are needed over the Mediterranean in response not only to traditional threats but also to the spread of terrorism and the migration crisis afflicting North Africa.

A productive, correctly focussed summit would also move forward on admitting Macedonia to the alliance. This is possible now that the former Yugoslav state and Greece have resolved their quarrel over its official name. Macedonia along with new member Montenegro would give the alliance near-consolidated control over the Balkan Peninsula.

Finally, the right kind of summit would acknowledge that Trump, though making far too much of it, does have a point on burden-sharing. All members should commit to spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by a specific deadline — five years seems reasonable — while increasing the share spent on major equipment to more than the current 20 percent floor. Very important: Smarter budgeting requires ensuring that nations aren't all spending money on sexy things like jet fighters and submarines, while neglecting essential but unglamorous equipment such as troop transports. It's a matter of comparative advantage: NATO needs to make the fact that it's a broad alliance a strength, not a weakness.

Perhaps Trump will surprise his critics and move some of this agenda forward. One hopes so. Right now, though, success in the coming summit might mean no more than maintaining the alliance in some kind of working order, as opposed to aiding its adversaries by actually undermining it.

Bloomberg Opinion

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