Last Wednesday, NATO announced that it would be opening two new command centers and creating a new cyber operations center, signifying the alliance’s biggest revamp in decades. The announcement was made during Secretary of Defence Mattis’s five-day trip to Europe to reaffirm the United States’s commitments to NATO countries. One of the new centers will focus on coordinating troop movements in Europe, and the other one will handle maritime security in the Atlantic.
While the announcement was presumably made in response to increased Russian aggression, alliance members are jittery about the different messages the US is sending their way. Consider on the one hand the smiling pictures of General Mattis in a tie shaking the hands of NATO allies and on the other hand President Trump’s favorite habit of NATO bashing. Can our allies be expected to ignore what the president says (or tweets) because of the reassuring diplomatic presence of his Secretary of Defense?
Kori Schake, former director for defense strategy and requirements on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush agrees that this is a problem, telling me last Thursday:
I was at a big defense minister’s meeting in Singapore in May or June… where Jim gave a speech that was genuinely wonderful…It would have been unexceptional in any other American administration in the last 70 years, but in this administration, when he was saying allies are our great strength…all the normal America in the world stuff, every single question he was asked was a version of ‘How can we believe you?’
Nevertheless Schake remains optimistic. She believes that despite the fact that the president often talks “reckless nonsense” in areas concerning national security, the president has allowed himself to be persuaded by the secretaries of state and defense to take positions contrary to what he campaigned for.
“Both of the new centers are really practical,” she says. ”They are not sexy but they will help the functioning of the organization be more streamlined, be more responsive when we need to get stuff done.”
While many sighed in relief, the announcement of the new cyber command center was of particular interest to a group of university students who made up the NATO table at the annual Student Conference on U.S Affairs (SCUSA) at West Point Military Academy in New York. Four days before the announcement, they argued that NATO should take a leading role in the cyber realm and were pleased to see how similar NATO’s announcement was to theirs.
“Provided that member states commit fully to this,” said Adam Fofana, one of the table delegates, “It will be useful in terms of safeguarding elections and countering the spread of false information.”
But is it enough? Can NATO take a leading role in the nebulous field of cyber? According to Schake, the alliance will be most effective in raising the floor in terms of cyber “hygiene” — the little fixes such as two-step authentication that ensure resilience to low-grade attacks. She also stressed that we have much to learn from the Estonians who have become leaders in the field after they learned ‘the hard way’ that cyber security matters, following a Russian cyber attack 10 years ago.
General Mattis’s reassurance trip and the three new command centers are promising. However, our European allies are still being placed in a very difficult position. They are receiving mixed messages from the United States and will only be able to deal with this through large doses of cognitive dissonance. “This is not the first time it is difficult and arduous to be an American ally,” says Schake. She is confident that the alliance will weather the storm. We’d better hope our European allies feel the same way.
Anat Peled, a sophomore studying history, is a member of the European Security Undergraduate Network (ESUN). Read ESUN’s column, Cardinal Richelieu, every week in Stanford Politics.