Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

Why NATO is worth preserving for US, Europe — and even Russia 
© Getty Images

President Donald Trump is in London today for a short summit tomorrow with fellow leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Auspiciously it lands on the 70th anniversary year of NATO’s founding in the tense early days of the Cold War where it — along with the Marshall Plan — signaled a deep and long-term American commitment to Europe’s democracy-based freedom and stability. This investment allowed fellow democracies and peaceful nations to safely evolve, creating a global environment where U.S. interests and businesses could flourish.

The summit comes at a pivotal time — accentuated by French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent declaration that the alliance was “brain-dead” — where the United State’s traditionally guiding role and philosophy appears more confusing than affirming for our allies in NATO and worldwide. The Trump administration’s transactional messaging and unilateral actions, often broadcast publicly rather than negotiated privately, are shredding allied confidence in U.S. reliability and creating malign openings for potential adversaries. They weaken an extraordinary assemblage of allies and partners that — despite differences — have mostly supported the United States since WWII through thick and thin. This is strategic.

As a long-time NATO interlocutor, I want to relate the following experience that buttressed to me that the U.S. military — despite the current political noise — still maintains strong, credible relations with their allied counterparts. A month ago, I revisited NATO’s mostly-forgotten Kosovo Force (KFOR) mission after participating in a progressive security conference in Belgrade, Serbia. I served in Kosovo during 2003-2004 as the senior KFOR intelligence staff officer during a difficult period that culminated in violent riots that left 35 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries destroyed by Albanian mobs. For balance, we must recall that KFOR was established in 1999 after the U.S.-led NATO intervention to stop the ethnic cleansing of mostly Kosovar Albanians at the hands of dominating Serbia.

During my week in Pristina I was heartened to see troops from multiple NATO and Partner nations working in close coordination to ensure a safe and secure environment for all the citizens — Albanian, Serbian, Roma — living in Kosovo. Unknown to many, there are still over 600 American soldiers, mostly New Jersey National Guardsmen, currently serving there, an integral part of NATO’s 3,500 soldier multinational force of 28 nations. Commanded by an Italian Major General, KFOR’s Deputy is a Swiss, and Chief of Staff an American, both Brigadier Generals.

The alliance matters to this still volatile Balkan region. So does the American presence within and anywhere the alliance serves. I can’t overstate how moved I was to see American soldiers literally assaulted in South Mitrovica with hugs and tears by wizened Albanian gentlemen after seeing our small group with their U.S. flags on their shoulders.

Over my 38-year military and government career, I served with allies in diverse locations worldwide such as West Germany, South Korea, Kosovo, Afghanistan and within complex Moscow. An unforgettable personal moment while working NATO policy issues on our Joint Staff was in March 1999 when I stood proudly with our new Polish allies in Warsaw’s Pilsudski Square the exact second they entered the alliance. NATO came to our aid after 9/11 and served with us in Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous other locations. A little-known fact is that there has never been conflict between NATO members over its long 70-year history, except for the clash over Cyprus in 1974 between Greece and Turkey. Based on these hands-on global experiences I am an unabashed “Atlanticist” … and internationalist.

I fervently believe that after the natural creativity and adaptability of our population and our nation’s natural resources, that our greatest strength, precious really, is the network of mostly like-minded allies and partners worldwide that we’ve worked with in unison to ensure a better and more stable planet.

We learned the bitter lessons of isolationism after WWI, where after Pearl Harbor we entered WWII unprepared for an existential no-quarter fight against a vicious array of dictatorial states. As the post-WWII and Cold War eras increasingly wobble, we dare not make that mistake again.

For our Russian counterparts, I will simply say that NATO does not want conflict but will fight hard if pressed. Ideally the stability it brings Europe benefits Moscow too … NATO’s existence is not just about Russia. Working to weaken, corrode it and the European Union from within and without, only strengthens resolve. There will always be coalitions of the willing.

I also caution that a Europe bereft of credible security structures as the blood-soaked 20th Century has proven, would likely break into right-leaning mini-pakts, ententes and treaties that over time could boomerang badly for a stretched Russia. Better to identify positive convergences of interest and work collectively on those, while also focusing on root causes where we remain at dangerous loggerheads. The next generation, all of us, will face difficult mutual challenges.

As we move to this week’s London NATO Summit, the overall alliance — while physically strong — seems wounded, perplexed and unsure of its direction. NATO’s and Europe’s mission priority — whether focused east toward traditional Russia threat concerns, south toward the roiling Mediterranean, or on terror — is debated. Looking worldwide, at a critical time in Asia our ties with traditional allies such as Japan and South Korea are also eroding and being exploited.

I worry that the imperfectly unique quality of altruistic hardness our country has exuded for most of the past century — our magnificent “American Brand” — is fading, replaced by a perception by some that we are becoming a more domineering and transactional hegemon. Are some traditional allies and partners still knitted to us because they feel they have to, rather than because they want to? A core question I think. We must at all costs cherish our allies and reverse this debilitating perception.