NATO in the 21st Century: Addressing New and Urgent Challenges

Oct 1, 2015

TV Show


NATO is now in its third historical phase, says U.S. Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute in this informative, useful talk. "There is now a sense that NATO faces maybe not just one threat, a newly aggressive, newly assertive Russia, but also concerns from the Southeast with ISIS and potentially from instability in the South across the Mediterranean as well."


JOANNE MYERS: Good evening. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us. We are enormously pleased to have as our guest the U.S. ambassador to NATO, Douglas Lute, who has taken time out from a very busy schedule to address us this afternoon. A special note of appreciation and thank you.

I believe you all received a copy of his bio, but for those of you who are watching on the web, I would like to provide some brief background information about our guest, who, long before he was appointed ambassador to NATO in August 2013, had a very distinguished 35-year career in the U.S. military. Retiring as lieutenant general after 35 years, he served as deputy director of operations for the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, and as commander of U.S. forces in Kosovo. More recently, from 2007 to 2013, Ambassador Lute served under both Presidents Bush and Obama as an advisor in some of the most troubling spots in the world—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

At a time when the world is on fire, facing some of the most challenging and diverse security issues in recent times, our discussion will focus on how NATO is addressing these threats and the changes taking place to reflect the new reality.

As a reminder, the format for this conversation will be as follows. For about 25 or 30 minutes or so, Ambassador Lute and I will have a conversation. Then we will open it up so that you can raise any questions that were not addressed during our one-on-one.

NATO, as many of you are aware, was founded in 1949 as a cornerstone of trans-Atlantic security and a defense against Soviet aggression. However, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, this moral clarity that characterized the Cold War has for the most part disappeared.

In adapting to a changing environment, NATO has played a fundamental role in restoring peace and security in the Balkans, it has supported African Union forces in Somalia, deployed troops to Afghanistan, enforced a no-fly zone in Libya, and is now making a major contribution in the fight against international terrorism. Yet Russian actions in recent years, first in annexing the Crimea, then its intervention in destabilizing Eastern Ukraine, have refocused the alliance's attention on Russia, while also exposing unresolved tensions over NATO's expansion into the former Soviet sphere.

Which raises the question: What role do you see NATO playing in the 21st century?


DOUGLAS LUTE: First, thanks very much, Joanne, for the invitation tonight.

Actually, Joanne's introduction carefully aligns with the beginning of my remarks, which are to provide, first, a little bit of historical context on NATO, which most of us know well, but mostly from the first phase of NATO, what I call NATO 1.0, which is the Cold War period. This is the period where—I see a lot of colleagues and people of about my generation who grew up with NATO meaning the defense of Western Europe, from roughly 1949, when the treaty was signed, for 40 years, until 1989. In 1989, NATO faced what I think was its first major historical inflection point—or a phase line, if you will—when the Berlin Wall fell. Two years later the Soviet Union dissolved, and the raison d'être for NATO, which was always the defense of Western Europe against the Soviet Union, disappeared almost overnight and quite unexpectedly.

So back in 1989 to 1991, NATO had to go through a bit of soul searching and determine what it was it was going to do after that. In fact, there was a great debate at that time in circles like this: Whither NATO? Do we even need NATO anymore? Just after the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO found its feet again, and for the next 25 years, what I call phase two of the alliance experience, it took its show on the road. As Joanne mentioned, it went first into the Balkans, first Bosnia in 1995, in 1999 into Kosovo—where we still are, by the way—then several years later, after 9/11, into Afghanistan.

It's interesting. As an aside—I'll come back to the history in a moment—yesterday I was with the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the 9/11 Memorial, where the director of the memorial granted on permanent loan to NATO an artifact, a steel beam, just at the point of impact from Tower 1. Why did he give this to NATO? What's NATO got to do with 9/11? Well, in fact, two days after 9/11, NATO for the first time—and still, to this day, the only time—in its history invoked the mutual defense clause.

Just think of what a day that must have been in the North Atlantic Council. Here's an organization, after decades of knowing what it was all about, centered on the Soviet Union, imagining that its role was to defend Western Europe against an attack from the Soviet Union, but in that period never invoked Article 5, the mutual defense clause. It took an attack, not on Western Europe, but on the United States, and not by the Soviet Union—in fact, not even by a nation-state—but by al-Qaeda, for the allies to rally around that pledge: An attack on one is an attack on all. Just days after 9/11, the alliance, in fact, did come to the assistance of the United States. Then a follow-on to that was the assumption of the mission in Afghanistan.

In that 25-year period—phase two, if you are still with me—from roughly the fall of the Berlin Wall until, I count last year—for 25 years, from 1989 to 2014, NATO was on the road. That experience peaked in Afghanistan, when together we had with our allies 140,000 NATO-led troops in Afghanistan. That became for the alliance its longest-ever, largest-ever combat operation. But that came to a close at the end of last year.

I think there are a number of things that came together last year that for me marked the next major inflection point in NATO history. If you will, maybe we are on the edge of NATO 3.0, or the third phase. Why do I say that? A number of things happened last year.

First of all, in late February, early March, Putin illegally seized Crimea and broke all the rules of the road, which date at least as far back as the UN Charter. It's rather ironic today that we have both Presidents Putin and Obama, just down the street from here, proclaiming interest in preserving the international order and so forth, and one of the two speakers, the second, President Putin, actually is the clearest example of a major violation of the international order. It was a little hard to get past that part of his speech this afternoon.

But aside from the UN Charter, he walked away from the Helsinki Accords, from the Budapest agreement, having to do with the future of Ukraine, and from the agreement that captures the NATO-Russia relationship, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, we call it. He walked away from all of these when he seized illegally, by use of force, the territory of another country. Of course, that activity, that illegal activity, continues today as Russia continues to sponsor instability in the Donbass, in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts of southeastern Ukraine. That took place last year, and I think that marks an inflection point—the single largest violation of the post-Cold War rules of the road.

The other thing that happened last year that puts us on this phase one, I think, is the breaking out of ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/the Levant, ISIL] in Syria and, in a major way, in Iraq, with the seizing of Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. That happened in June of last year.

Also last year we began to see the migration flow into Europe from the South, from weak and failing states. Last year the flow was 600,000 total; this year it's 100,000 a month. So you have that human wave that is trying to escape the turmoil and the chaos and the lack of governance across North Africa into the Sahel just south of North Africa, through the Levant and as far away as Afghanistan. You have refugees and illegal migrants all mixed together in a massive flow into Western Europe.

Then finally last year—so you had all this happening last year—you also had the 28 NATO allies begin to emerge from the worldwide recession that set in in 2008. That recovery from the recession has been very uneven. In fact, the United States is graced, if you will, with the good fortune of being at the strong end of that range of experiences. We have allies that are still very close to zero growth today.

But all these things came together in 2014 when President Obama joined his 27 NATO head-of-state colleagues in Wales, in the UK, for a summit. They agreed that NATO was passing into its third major historical phase. I call this NATO 3.0, in an effort to relate to the younger people in the crowd and those who subscribe to Microsoft. This is really a new phase for NATO.

So Joanne's fundamental question of what NATO is going to do with all these problems is really on the forefront of our activity in the North Atlantic Council in Brussels, where I live and work.

Let me just quickly outline three or four things that NATO is doing, but then I think we can probe that a little more by way of our conversation and then your questions.

The first thing NATO has to do is to very fundamentally adapt itself to this new reality. Now, what do I mean by that? NATO is a military alliance, a political-military alliance. We have military forces that were tailored, first, for the Cold War. When I was a young lieutenant, I went right to my first unit. It was an armored cavalry unit right along the Iron Curtain between West Germany at that time and East Germany. Of course, now there is no such border. For 40 years, NATO knew what it was going to do. It had very forward-deployed, massed armored forces right up along the border looking across the border at their Russian counterparts, tactical nuclear weapons counting in the tens of thousands, all backed up by the strategic stalemate, with strategic nuclear weapons. That persisted for 40 years.

When the Wall came down, NATO changed its stripes. It changed its posture. It changed itself so it was ready to take its show on the road and create deployable forces, mostly light infantry forces, that could go on programmed deployments to, first, Bosnia, Kosovo, and then Afghanistan. But it was a very programmed way of life. If you were in a NATO unit at that time, you knew when you were next going to deploy, you knew how long you would deploy, you knew where you were going to go, you knew when you were going to come home, and you knew what you were going to do when you came home, which is basically rest for a year and get ready to do it all over again. That is a very different force posture than the Cold War.

It's also very different from what we need today. We are in the business now, about a year after last year's summit, of fundamentally changing our posture. What is this new posture? Here's what it is. Largely based on the anxieties and the reasonable concerns of our easternmost allies—these are the allies that run from the Baltic Sea down through the Black Sea, through the Baltics, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and so forth—we have, for the first time in NATO's history, placed a very modest forward presence on the ground there. We have American troops today patrolling in six Central and Eastern European allied countries, from Estonia in the north through Bulgaria in the south. That's new.

NATO, secondly, behind that very modest forward presence, has created for the first time in its 65-year history a rapid reaction force. This is a force of about 13,000 troops that are on notice to move in days—so they are quite ready, quite high readiness standards—and they are prepared to go anywhere inside the alliance base or beyond. This is the first time in NATO's history that has this rapid deployment capability. I can talk more about that if you like.

We have also taken some steps to accelerate or streamline our decision-making process so that if there is a crisis in the East, largely based on Putin's threats and so forth, we can respond as quickly as he can move. And that's a challenge for the alliance, because we do everything on a consensus basis. So for Putin to move, he has to vote 1-0, and the 1 is in his mind; for NATO to move, the count has to be 28-0, and 28 capitals have to agree to move those NATO troops. You can imagine that if we don't streamline ourselves and we don't pay attention to the way we take decisions, it can be a talkfest rather than a military organization. So we have taken some steps in that regard.

So the first fundamental thing we have done is sort of adapt ourselves. That process is going to continue.

The second is, we have to attend to what we call unfinished business of phase two. The two major pieces of unfinished business are in Afghanistan today, where we are at under 14,000 troops—so we went from a high of 140,000 now to 90 percent less; we are under 14,000. And we are into a non-combat role. To this day, we are advising and assisting and training Afghan troops, but they are doing the fighting. The NATO troops in Afghanistan today are in a non-combat role. That is a major change. But it's business that is not yet complete. We have to continue to do that.

Similarly, we have a very small-scale operation that continues in Kosovo. The mission in Kosovo in 1999 and 2000 peaked at about 50,000 NATO troops; today it's just under 5,000. Again, it's about a 90 percent decrease. That is also a non-combat mission, just enough, we think, to keep NATO presence on the ground and keep that still-fragile political setting in Kosovo steady.

Why is it important that after all these years—after all, it has been 16 years since the NATO bombing campaign in Kosovo, and it has been 13 years that we have been in Afghanistan—why are we still there? Because NATO pictures itself—it believes that it has to be the responsible, mature, predictable player. When NATO says it will do something, we take doing it very seriously, just as advertised. So when we said we were going to stabilize Kosovo, that has been our intent. And we are still there at the 16-year mark. When we say that we want to train, advise, and assist the Afghan security forces so that they can do this on their own in a responsible way, that's exactly what we intend to do.

Neither of these missions, by the way, this unfinished business, is easy. We saw some very bad news coming out of Afghanistan today, with the fall of a major city in the north, Kunduz, to the Taliban. I don't have the details on that. I haven't been connected to the intelligence systems today. But Kunduz is a very important city in the north. The north itself is very important in Afghanistan because it's predominantly not Pashtun; it's predominantly Uzbek and Tajik, who are the Taliban's natural enemies. So for the Taliban to seize a major city, as they apparently did today—at least those are the press reports—is a very worrying development.

The third thing NATO has got to do—so we've got to do our unfinished business—is continue to invest in about 40 nation-states who are not members of the alliance but are NATO partners. Over the last 25 years, during phase two, we accumulated these associations, these partnerships, with 40 countries around the world. This is a diverse group of countries. Geographically it runs from Morocco through Japan. There are Arab countries, there are African countries, there are Asian countries that are NATO partners today, and they benefit very much from this relationship. They get access to NATO's schoolhouse. They get access to NATO's exercise programs, NATO's military standards, which are by many people in the world considered the gold standard of how to conduct military operations. And we also gain from these partnerships. We gain political diversity.

Without our 40 partners, there are no Arab states, no Muslim states, no Asian states, no African states with whom we can easily consult. So we make ourselves more diverse by way of these partnerships. We have to continue to invest in these.

Then I think the last thing I would mention in terms of the way ahead is that we are bringing online some very important new 21st-century capabilities. NATO is just on the verge of commissioning the world's most sophisticated ballistic missile defense system. This is an integrated system, with ships, ground-based radar, and interceptors, and so forth, all oriented on the ballistic missile threat coming out of the Middle East, predominantly out of Iran. That ballistic missile defense system is not inexpensive.

It is also fielding for the first time a high-altitude, long-endurance drone fleet. The first such aircraft will arrive next year. That's not inexpensive.

So one of the most important decisions that alliance leaders took at Wales last year was a recommitment to defense spending which is targeted at 2 percent of GDP. The United States spends about 3.5 percent today, so we are well above the target. But as of today, there is only a total of five allies out of the 28 who meet this spending pledge for defense spending. As I said, the United States is one. But there is a real sense in the alliance that, given the sorts of challenges that Joanne and I have already outlined here today and the sorts of challenges we see in the newspaper every day, now is the time to reinvest in, especially, European defense commitments, so that, while they are not intended to match U.S. defense spending, they can pull their weight and move towards this 2-percent-of-GDP target which was affirmed by alliance leaders last September.

Let me stop there and simply say that if I'm right, as I have tried to make the case here, and a couple of years from now we look back on 2014 or 2015, 2016—right in this timeframe—and say, "You know, that was really a point of inflection, that was a phase line for NATO," the real question will be, are we able to do the sorts of adapting that I have outlined here so that, just as we changed from the end of the Cold War into the post-Cold War period, we can adapt again from the post-Cold War period into this new period of challenges that are all happening right on NATO's doorstep.

JOANNE MYERS: You started with Russia, but the partnership that we had with Russia is no longer. How do you redefine this relationship?

DOUGLAS LUTE: This is a very fundamental question. Joanne's right. We, in 1997, declared that because of moving away from the Cold War model and so forth, we aimed for a strategic partnership with Russia. We took a lot of steps in that regard. Russia began to participate in NATO committee activities. Russia opened a delegation at NATO. There are the 28 allied missions, like the U.S. mission which I lead, but Russia opened one.

In fact, Russia's mission to NATO grew to be the third-largest among members and partners, third only to the United States' and Germany's. So they had a very sizable presence. In fact, when I commanded U.S. troops in Kosovo back in 2002, I had a Russian brigade under my command. We had Russian troops work for NATO in Bosnia. Russia cooperated with us during this period by opening supply lines from the north down into Afghanistan, giving us a supply line alternative to the lines that came out of Pakistan. So there were many ways in which, over the last two decades or so, we moved towards strategic partnership with Russia.

When Putin invaded Crimea, that came to a screeching halt. We cut all business as usual. We restricted NATO headquarters to only four Russian diplomats. They do not attend our committees anymore. Until we resolve the crisis there in the Donbass and in Crimea, the vision, the aspiration, for a strategic partnership is just not in place. It takes two to have a partner. We are willing to move back to the partnership, but NATO has to have a partner and Russia has to behave like a partner.

We are not there now. I think you see that, from the U.S. perspective, there are areas of business, there are topics where the United States and Russia continue to cooperate, even during this difficult period in Ukraine. We would not have gotten rid of Assad's chemical weapons last year without Russia. We would not have been in a position to sign the agreement with Iran—no matter what you think about that agreement's strengths and weaknesses, there would have been no agreement without Russia. An American astronaut today does not get into space without Russia. There are fundamental compartments of cooperation where I think we still depend on Russia.

But the reality here is that until they move back into alignment with the international norms that go all the way back to the UN Charter, it will not be business as usual.

JOANNE MYERS: You mentioned you have all these new partnerships with Arab, African, and Asian countries. NATO was originally bound together by core values in Western Europe. How do you deal with the ethical issues that arise with training people from different countries, with different values, going to places where the values they place on life are not the same?

DOUGLAS LUTE: It is actually those values that make these partnerships attractive to NATO, because it's by way of these relationships and these partnerships that we gain access to those militaries and to those civilian leaders. We have an opportunity, without forcing our values on them, to demonstrate our values. As they attend our school systems, they learn about things like civilian control of the military, militaries that operate under the rule of law, and so forth.

These are not easy topics for some of these partners, because, as you suggest, these partners have a very mixed record in terms of the kinds of democratic values that founded the alliance. But the reality is that they gain access to us as models and we gain a voice in their system. Many of them won't transform because of this relationship, but we think it's a very useful experience for them to see how a modern democratic values-based military organization operates. So by the power of example, we try to do what we can.

JOANNE MYERS: Because this is the 21st century and there is nonconventional warfare, how does NATO respond to a cyber attack? Would you invoke Article 5?

DOUGLAS LUTE: One of the decisions taken by President Obama and his 27 colleagues last September, which I didn't mention in my opening, was a decision that a cyber attack may rise to the level of Article 5, which would invoke the collective defense clause. What is the conditionality there? The conditionality is that if the effects of a cyber attack are similar to the effects imagined in a physical attack, or, as the treaty says, an armed attack—because, after all, in 1949 they didn't imagine cyber—if a cyber attack can rise to those effects, then the Council would take up the question of whether or not the collective defense clause is invoked. So the answer is, it's possible.


QUESTION: Larry Bridwell. I teach at Pace University.

I also have a son who went to the Naval Academy, and by the way, he spent a semester at West Point and loved it.

DOUGLAS LUTE: He didn't change academies, though, after that experience?

QUESTIONER: No, but he had lots of praise for West Point.

DOUGLAS LUTE: That's good to hear.

QUESTIONER: He also served in NATO headquarters in Afghanistan. One of the things that impressed me most when he was at the Naval Academy is that he was given training on how to challenge an unlawful order. I was kind of surprised. Maybe I shouldn't have been. But I thought that was excellent training. I see back there "Ethics Matter." [The backdrop to Carnegie Council events features the words "Ethics Matter."] We have had this incident in Afghanistan of people who were concerned about the pedophilia that had taken place. I would like your reaction to that circumstance. I myself will personally follow what happens to those two military people who got in trouble on that issue.

DOUGLAS LUTE: Let me set aside the two individual cases, because I'm not familiar with exactly what is behind any discipline action that might be considered and so forth. So let's set aside the two specific cases because I am really not expert there, and it wouldn't be appropriate to talk about it if this is a procedure that is under way.

But let's talk about the deeper issue. A couple of thoughts. First of all, it's very clear that our chain of command, the NATO-led chain of command—by the way, it has always been led by an American four-star general. He is operating under NATO authorities, but it's an American. Today it is J. C. Campbell, an American four-star Army officer.

They have been very clear consistently—the record is very clear here—that no one is expected to condone that kind of activity and that there are legal recourses when these sorts of things happen and that that's what is expected of our soldiers. That is the rule of the law.

Now let's talk about the practice. The practice is that you have young Americans in remote places immersed with Afghan military and police officials, many times 5, 10, or 20 Americans living among several hundred Afghans in the middle of nowhere. You all may think you know where nowhere is, but if you have not been to Afghanistan, you don't really know where nowhere is. It is remote. These are guys who may not see another American for a couple of weeks. They get resupplied every couple of weeks.

In and amongst those Afghan army and police, you can't escape the culture of Afghanistan. Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that we have to adopt a sort of acquiescence or we have to somehow accept that, but I do want to point out that there are parts of Afghan culture—this is an element of Afghan culture—which are abhorrent to us, but not abhorrent to many Afghans in rural Afghanistan. Look, there are other activities as well. This is horrible, but the treatment of Afghan women is on the same scale in terms of being completely unacceptable to us.

We should not accept this criminal behavior—and, by the way, it is criminal in Afghan criminal code to conduct oneself like this—but I do think that this case, which is now sort of out in front of the media, does demonstrate something that we should all remember. When we ask young men and women, some of whom may someday be among the people who are here today in uniform, to go to places like this, we are putting them in a cultural abyss that is completely disconnected from what they grew up with, what they were trained to do, and so forth, and really puts a huge burden on them to make the kinds of judgments about what behavior they can tolerate and work around, what behavior is intolerable, and exactly what to do when you are 10 or 15 Americans among 200 Afghans in the middle of nowhere.

Again, I want to be very explicit. I'm not condoning it, but what I can somewhat understand is the difficult position those young soldiers and officers were placed in.

It's a tough mission there. You can't do that mission from a headquarters building. You have to go out there and try to do what you can on the ground. But we should be—and I guess I'll just trim my comments to this—we should be careful about the situations we put our young men and women in when the cultural differences are so sharp, they are so distinctly different that connecting to those people is just very, very tough.

So it's not only a language problem. It's not only a religious problem. There are deep cultural divides that, in my view, limit the extent to which we can adequately train, advise, and assist soldiers as different from us as the Afghans are. It doesn't make the mission impossible, but it makes it quite hard.

QUESTION: James Starkman.

Does the specific language of the Budapest accords, which you referred to, permit NATO signatories, of which Russia was one, to honor a referendum, for example, in Crimea? Would there be wiggle room, just taking the devil's advocate position, for a referendum to be honored under those agreements and a semi-autonomous administration set up?

DOUGLAS LUTE: The Budapest accords was an agreement between four parties: the United States, the United Kingdom, Ukraine, and Russia. It fundamentally had to do with securing Ukraine's nuclear arsenal, which it inherited when the Soviet Union dissolved. When that took place, there were thousands of Russian-made nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil, and suddenly Ukraine was, I think, at that time the third-largest nuclear power in the world, just because the Soviet Union dissolved and now suddenly they owned this nuclear arsenal. They weren't prepared to secure it. They didn't really have aspirations to be the third-largest nuclear power in the world.

The Budapest accords accounted for how we were going to evacuate those nuclear weapons out of Ukraine, get them into Russian security facilities, which we had helped the Russians enhance the security for, and essentially protect that nuclear arsenal. That is fundamentally what the Budapest agreement said.

It said a couple of things as well: that all four parties would respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, which, of course, by definition, included Crimea. It did not speak to the potential for change of those borders. But the Ukrainian constitution does. So not the Budapest accords, but the Ukrainian constitution has a provision for referendums and secession and so forth.

The challenge is that if the Crimean citizens had by way of the Ukrainian constitution taken a referendum and made a decision to separate or somehow adjust their relationship with Kiev, that would have been one thing. But that's not what we saw last year. What we saw last year was a Russian-sponsored referendum—a Russian-administered, Russian-sponsored, Russian-secured referendum, so a referendum from an outside actor. Quite frankly, the outcome of the referendum was pre-baked in advance.

So, yes, there is a way that Crimea might have seceded, but it wasn't what we saw on the ground. And it is distinct from Budapest.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

You mentioned a figure of 2 percent as the ideal for percentage of GDP for the military. But isn't there a much more serious underlying challenge? And that is that the Europeans for so long have depended on the world's greatest superpower to handle military affairs, and they have been very reluctant to develop their own military forces. That is changing because of what's going on in the world. What effect will this have on the other NATO members?

DOUGLAS LUTE: Of course, the United States, because we are one of those that already meets that standard, is hopeful that it will have an effect which promotes more responsible defense spending among the European allies.

You're right, over the last 25 years, after the Wall fell, most European defense establishments took what is referred to as the peace dividend, and they cut very severely their defense budgets. They disassembled most of the Cold War architecture—armored vehicles, intelligence systems, transportation networks. It was all disassembled. Why? Because it looked like we had, not an enemy in Russia, but a partner. So why retain this very expensive defense infrastructure if, in fact, there was no threat to Western Europe?

I think one of the things that happened last year with the invasion in Crimea and then the Donbass was a reawakening of European concerns that, in fact, their territorial integrity might be threatened again. That's one of the reasons that those 26 European allies, alongside Canada and the United States—so among the 28 total—it's one of the reasons that those 26 publicly and, for the first time ever, at the leader level agreed to move towards 2 percent. We have Mr. Putin to thank for that. I don't think that is the effect he intended when he seized Crimea, but it is, in fact, the effect that is under way.

Now, I should just be clear. They are not going to reach 2 percent tomorrow. You don't turn a federal budget in a democracy that quickly. The pledge is to move towards 2 percent in 10 years, so they have a decade.

Why is that important? It's because—remember what I said about their economies—if you are not yet a growing economy, it's unrealistic to expect that you are going to go home from a summit and say, "Guess what, finance minister? I just pledged that we're going to change the federal budget on a dime and we're going to turn the corner, and no matter what else is going on in this democratic economy, we're going to pledge 2 percent for defense." We appreciate that this isn't going to happen rapidly.

What do we expect? We expect that by the next summit, which is a year off now—next summer at Warsaw—that we will see progress and there will be more than five that are at 2 percent and the majority of the others moving that way.

My office tracks this very carefully. We watch IMF [International Monetary Fund] data for economic growth, and when the economic growth is sustained for three quarters, we are hitting that government, that ally, up to say, "Don't forget the Wales pledge. Your economy is now growing, and we expect you to abide by the pledge."

So we're going to watch this very carefully. When I last saw President Obama, he reminded me that at the next summit he wants to see the scorecard.

That's about the best we can do. We'll see. A lot depends, frankly, on the threat assessment. If Putin continues or even moves beyond Ukraine in the East, if ISIS, to the southeast of NATO, continues to make ground, and if the migrant flow across the Mediterranean continues, then 2 percent, I think, is much more likely. We'll have to just see. It will be very much tailored, I think, to the risk assessment.

QUESTION: Tyler Beebe.

In your view, would NATO seriously entertain a request by Ukraine, as it now exists in reality, to join NATO?

DOUGLAS LUTE: Not in the foreseeable future. The agreement that we have with President Poroshenko—in fact our Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg saw Poroshenko, I think, just last week and was quite explicit that the standards for NATO membership are so high and the task list in front of Ukraine is so long right now in terms of reform that in the foreseeable future we don't imagine that they are going to request membership, and we certainly know that we, as we judge standards, would not be in a position to offer an invitation. So it's not in the cards for the foreseeable future.

QUESTION: Ernestine Bradley of The New School.

I was very impressed when I think I understood that you said NATO is reinventing itself. That I found very comfortable.

DOUGLAS LUTE: It's a good line. I didn't use it, but maybe I should write it down. In effect.

QUESTIONER: You said "is adapting." That's the word you used.

However, my question has to do with Putin again and with Crimea. The way I see it when I look at the dates is that Putin put his foot down and took the Crimea because he felt threatened by the continuous eastward move of the NATO alliances. You yourself mentioned the Baltic alliance from Estonia down to Bulgaria. I see Putin maybe simply saying, "Stop at this point" rather than our saying what we usually say, that Putin is the aggressor.

DOUGLAS LUTE: The narrative coming out of Moscow, as espoused by President Putin, is that he viewed the overthrow of the previous Ukrainian regime in the protests of the Maidan, which led to the rising power of Yatsenyuk as prime minister and Poroshenko as president—he views that as a Western plot, that somehow we were behind Ukrainian protests in the Maidan, that the previous president was ousted—of course, the previous president was closely aligned with Moscow—and then the new Ukrainian government clearly has intentions of leaning West, first with an association to the European Union. NATO wasn't initially even mentioned by the new Ukrainian government. It's only after Putin moved aggressively into Crimea and the Donbass that NATO began the measures that I outlined. There is no way that somehow NATO provoked this. We responded; we didn't initiate the actions.

But there is a broader storyline here for the Kremlin, and that is that in the 25-year phase two period that I mentioned, NATO's accepting of Central and Eastern European states, now not under the thumb of the Soviet Union, but free and independent states—as they chose to lean West, with relationships with the EU—many of them are now EU members—and for the last 12 allies, the 12 most recent allies, they all come from Central and Eastern Europe. But those were, in NATO's perspective, sovereign national decisions. We don't recruit members. Members come to NATO. We don't solicit members. They come to us. When they come to us with an interest in joining, we have a very high standard of democratic standards that have to be met and military capability standards that have to be met before we will consider an invitation.

Quite frankly, from Brussels or Washington, compared to the view from the Kremlin, we just see this reality, which is that 12 states did vote with their feet and joined NATO. We just see it fundamentally differently. We see these as sovereign decisions and the Kremlin sees them as encroachment. That's a conversation we always have with our Russian counterparts. There is no common ground there. We just see things fundamentally differently.

QUESTION: Midshipman Dittmer, Merchant Marine Academy.

Since World War II, in the world the United States has been the police. They have done their forward power, projected it where they can. Do you think that NATO is going to take over that role in this inflection point, this third era? If so, are they going to have bases in other countries? Are they going to spread their wealth beyond where they're at now?

DOUGLAS LUTE: No, I don't think so. I think what has happened as we move into this new phase is that NATO has been reminded of its core mission. Its core mission is the defense of the 28. Rather than what happened in phase two, where the core mission seemed secure because there was no one to threaten the 28, NATO was free to go to Afghanistan, to go into the Balkans, and so forth, not with the aim of establishing bases, but on these contingency operations, with the idea that if NATO's neighbors are stable, then NATO itself, the 28, will be more stable.

I think what is now new in this phase three or 3.0 is that NATO has been reminded of Article 5 in the Washington Treaty. The fifth article is, the attack on one is an attack on all. After a couple of decades of having no imagined threat against NATO proper, there is now a sense that NATO faces maybe not just one threat, a newly aggressive, newly assertive Russia, but also concerns from the Southeast with ISIS and potentially from instability in the South across the Mediterranean as well.

So it's more a focus on the core of 28. We never in the Council talk about an overseas policing role or the notion that NATO would have bases overseas. So I don't think so.

QUESTION: Good evening, Ambassador. It's a pleasure being here. Youssef Bahami.

My question will be mostly regarding the theoretical approach of NATO. Is there a substantial differentiation between the macro level, the crisis level, and the micro level when NATO is in place at a certain area of crisis?

Second of all, just some broader think-tank questions, like, for example: Where are we right now? What have we achieved? If so, have we forgotten somebody within the process? What are the constraints for the security management when it comes to the questions regarding the future perspectives?

DOUGLAS LUTE: I'm not sure I quite understand your question about macro or micro, but let me approach it like this. Before NATO takes on an operation—say, for example, the operation in Afghanistan, which continues to this day but began 13 years ago—there has to be a political decision of the 28, a unanimous political decision, to take on this operation. Once that consensus is reached and the vote is 28-0, then we publish the rules of the road, political guidelines, and the NATO military authorities, led by another U.S. four-star general, takes over the operation itself. So there is quite tight coherence between what is done at the macro level in the political decision-making, and it is tracked all the way down to the operational level by way of the NATO chain of command.

I think that gets at your question.

One of the things that I think distinguishes NATO in its ability to conduct sustained, enduring military operations and maintain political legitimacy across 28 is this element of consensus. Nobody forces NATO. When I go to the Council and I'm sitting there in the round room with my 27 colleagues, they are all interested in what the U.S. position is, but they don't automatically say, "We agree." There is quite a political debate that goes behind a decision for NATO to take up an operation.

I suppose that's the way we want it, right? If it is a democratic values-based organization with 28 democracies participating, it shouldn't be easy to go to war. And the reality is, it's not.

QUESTION: Allen Young.

You mentioned the time in the late 1980s when 12 Central and Eastern European countries joined NATO. At that time, we entered into the strategic partnership with Russia. Would it have made any sense at that point to offer Russia membership in NATO, and if Russia had been a member of NATO, would perhaps some of the problems we are having now with Putin have been avoided?

DOUGLAS LUTE: The way this works is that the first step would have been for Russia to declare its interest in joining. The original 12 allies in 1949—for all 16 after that, the first step started with a sovereign national decision to approach the alliance. In your hypothetical, if Russia had approached the alliance, I think there would have been a conversation. But what seemed more possible during those years was this notion of "no longer enemy, but partner." Neither Russia nor NATO reached as far as "ally."

I guess maybe that goes to your question. What if we had been more ambitious? I think the reality is that we went as far as Russia was willing to go.

It's useful to remember what was going on in Russia in this period. The whole Russian government was overturned, shaken at its foundations when the Soviet Union dissolved. The Warsaw Pact fell apart, their NATO-like alliance with eight countries. Many of the republics became independent. The three Baltic states, for example, used to be SSRs, Soviet socialist republics. They became independent sovereign states. The politics, I think, inside Russia were so in turmoil and so in fundamental change that they went about as fast and as far as they could.

But the partnership, quite frankly, was quite robust. I have a Russian counterpart in NATO, which is pretty amazing. When you think that Russian troops have served under NATO command and control in both Bosnia and Kosovo, that's pretty amazing. And that was within 10 years of looking across at one another, across the Iron Curtain. So there was a pretty fundamental change. But as far as I know, we never got to the point where we were seriously discussing moving beyond that.

QUESTION: Ambassador, my name is Susan Whitcomb.

I would like to go back to the topic of ISIS. With the current discussions about Russian support of Assad's regime and recent reports from Iraq that many of the new volunteers to ISIS are coming from Russia, I would like to hear how NATO is viewing the situation and what would be the flashpoints for NATO.

DOUGLAS LUTE: First of all, the geography is important here. When we talk about NATO and ISIS, it's important to know that ISIS is operating along 1,500 kilometers—that's about 1,000 miles—of NATO boundary. That is the boundary of Turkey with Syria and Iraq. So when we talk about ISIS at NATO, it's not some far-off, distant, foreign event. It's happening on NATO's doorstep.

NATO's first reaction to the rise of ISIS has been to participate, in a very robust way, in the coalition, the U.S.-led coalition of 62 countries. All 28 NATO allies who sit with me at the table are in that coalition. Remember the partners? Twenty-six NATO partners are in that coalition. If my math is right—that's 28 plus 26—54 of the 62 countries that make up the ISIS coalition are either members or partners with NATO.

When you ask the question, "How is it that you are able to cast a wide net, pull in 62 countries, and form a military coalition?" The secret ingredient here, the secret sauce, is NATO. These countries know how to operate together. They know what the rules of the road are in the air and on the ground. They are able to do that because of NATO standardization and so forth.

So while there is not a NATO officer at the head of the coalition, it is participating in a very robust way in terms of what is happening.

Over the last week or so, we have seen this new development, where Russia, in the Alawite enclave along the Mediterranean coast in Syria, has now opened a much more robust military presence. It has always had a port in Tartus, but it is now in an airfield north of that and not contiguous. This is a new development. It opened a very robust military posture in a place called Latakia. They have 24 or 28 combat aircraft there. They have enough military power to protect the enclave. They are flying unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs, drones out away from that space. This is obviously big news.

Exactly what's going on there—I'm going to rewatch President Putin's remarks of a couple hours ago at the General Assembly. But I think what's clear is that Russia's alignment with the Assad regime has led them to reinvest in that relationship by way of this base. That can mean a number of things. They could become a party to the conflict on the side of Syria; they could use these military assets to protect Assad, if the feeling is that he is in a very sort of fragile situation; or they could be simply trying to assert themselves, get boots on the ground, if you will, have influence on the ground, so that they have a stronger diplomatic voice. We're just not sure yet.

But hidden in your question is something that I am quite sure is on Putin's mind, and that is that he has an ISIS problem of his own. He has an ISIS problem in the Muslim oblasts, the Muslim regions of the North Caucasus—so Chechnya, Dagestan, and so forth—which could become a Russia problem. If he can make inroads against ISIS in Syria, then maybe he has an interest to do that because of his own ISIS problem.

By the way, that's the Russia picture. Western Europe has an ISIS problem. It's not because ISIS is operating on the streets of Belgium, for example, but there is an early pattern of returning foreign fighters. These are European passport holders who leave Europe, make their way into Syria and Iraq, fight for ISIS, and then use those same passports to come home. [For more on foreign fighters in Syria, check out Richard Barrett's September 2014 talk.]

Let me just cite a couple examples: The Charlie Hebdo attackers had earned their street cred, if you will, their jihadi credentials, in Syria. About 18 months ago, about two miles from the NATO headquarters in Brussels, there was a murder conducted outside the Jewish Museum in Brussels, traced back to an ISIS fighter. You will have all seen this report of a young man who gets on a train running from Amsterdam to Paris with an AK-47—I mean, how does somebody get on a train with an AK-47? I haven't figured that out yet. But actually, if you travel through Europe, you will know. You just walk into the train station and you get on the train. It's nothing like our airports, for example. Then he was tackled by these three young Americans who were on leave and so forth.

All of these cases have something in common. That is, the perpetrator had gone to Syria and Iraq, had served, if you will, with ISIS, and then had made their way back. Of course, if you have traveled through Europe today, you know that once you are in one of the Schengen zone countries, you can put your passport away; you don't need it anymore. The same is true for these returning jihadis.

This is a serious problem. There are literally thousands of European passport-holders who have made their way to Syria. Let's imagine that only 10 percent of them return. That's hundreds. And hundreds of Charlie Hebdo attacks, hundreds of attacks outside the Jewish Museum, hundreds of attacks on the European train system is a fundamental challenge to what Europeans believe Europe is all about. A big problem.

QUESTION: Midshipman Sablan from the Merchant Marine Academy.

My question sort of bounces off this last one. I believe it was a week or so ago when President Putin gave an interview to 60 Minutes. He was making comments as to his desire to increase military support in the Syrian region against ISIS. He also made the comment that if it came to it, he would, in fact, put boots on the ground.

In the last couple of days or so, various media sources, both U.S. and foreign, have essentially been attacking Putin on this comment, claiming that he is attempting to retake the area for Russia and other interests of his own. Do those media comments have any negative, adverse political effects within the NATO-Russian political scope?

DOUGLAS LUTE: Not so much the media effect. The 28 allies know how to read the media. We understand daily headlines and 60 Minutes interviews. We got that.

But what does have an impact is that—the Russian presence on the ground there is troubling because it so vastly complicates any potential political settlement here. If Russian troops are there, what does that mean about Assad's longevity? Are they going to defend Assad? Are they going to prop him up? If Russian troops are there, how do we de-conflict the airspace over Syria? We have American aircraft today flying in combat missions over Syria. Now what happens? How exactly are we going to share this airspace with Russia? Because you can be quite sure they are not going to de-conflict their operations with our operations. So now in a military aviation operation, air operation, you have a very complex set.

I saw a similar report where Russia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria signed an agreement to share information, to share intelligence. What does that do for our cooperation with Iraqi security forces? Doesn't that vastly complicate our relationship with Iraq?

So you can see, whether it is political, airspace, U.S.-Iraqi operations, it is just dramatically more complex when you have the Russian presence there, especially since we don't actually know yet what it is they intend to do.

So that's what has NATO's attention. As a military alliance, we look at these complicating factors and we say, you know, things just got a lot messier.

JOANNE MYERS: I want to thank you for your questions, and I want to thank you so much for showing us how NATO is coming back to the future. Thank you very much.

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