Despite all the unsettling news coming out of Europe, not least Britain’s divorce from the common market, one traditional trans-Atlantic alliance remains essentially intact: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization. At its latest summit meeting in Warsaw, NATO did what it had to do to stay relevant and reasonably united. “We’re moving forward with the most significant reinforcement of collective defense any time since the Cold War,” was the way President Obama summed things up.
Even so, the alliance will remain under strain and in need of regular tending and adjustment. Its manifold social and political challenges include wave upon wave of migrants, the rise of right-wing political parties and terrorist attacks on European soil. (Scores of people were killed by a truck in Nice, France, on Thursday night in what President François Hollande called a “terrorist attack.”)
Meanwhile, to bolster the fight against the Islamic State, NATO has agreed to begin training Iraqi troops inside Iraq and Jordan. It authorized a center in Tunisia to coordinate antiterrorism initiatives, and the use of surveillance aircraft to support alliance operations in the Middle East and North Africa.
And then there is Russia. Decades after the end of the Cold War, Moscow, led now by the ambitious, aggressive and unpredictable Vladimir Putin, has returned as a major threat. And once again, NATO has said it is fully prepared to defend the alliance, and even pledged an increase in military spending.
Russia accused NATO’s 28 members of fixating on a nonexistent “threat from the East.” Such talk is typical of Mr. Putin, who has made a habit of playing the victim and pretending to cooperate with the West while doing just the reverse — invading Ukraine, annexing Crimea and playing a cynical hand in Syria, where he claims to want peace while enabling Syria’s leader, President Bashar al-Assad, to remain in power. (Secretary of State John Kerry was in Moscow on Thursday to again try to enlist Mr. Putin’s help on Syria.)
In response to Russia’s provocations on its eastern flank, NATO agreed to station battalions of 800 to 1,200 multinational troops each in Poland, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, in addition to a brigade of four more battalions to be based in Romania and Bulgaria. The United States will command the battalion in Poland, while the battalions in Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia will be commanded by Canada, Germany and Britain.
While such forces are too small to prevent a Russian invasion, they offer reassurance to the border states and should be big enough to give Moscow pause about provoking a wider war in Europe.
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Despite agreement on extra defense spending and the new military deployments, the alliance is not unanimous on how hard to push Russia and how long to maintain the sanctions imposed after Crimea was annexed. There should be little doubt that Mr. Putin is seeking to divide America and Europe whenever he can. At the same time, however, NATO must remain open to dialogue and cooperation should Mr. Putin decide to veer from his confrontational path. Toward that end, NATO and Russian officials met on Wednesday, and while the two sides did not resolve differences over Ukraine, they did discuss ways to avoid midair collisions as their forces build up in the Baltic Sea region.
NATO still has great value in an unstable world, including as an anchor for Britain as it prepares to leave the European Union. As always, this value — the value of the whole — depends on the commitments of the individual nations to deliver on their promises. In Warsaw, Mr. Obama ringingly reaffirmed America’s commitment. Going forward, he said, “Europe can count on the United States.”
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, shares this commitment. Donald Trump, her likely Republican opponent, has called the alliance “obsolete” and said the United States should reconsider its involvement. This is not the first time NATO has engaged in soul-searching about its mission and its future. It will not be the last.