Fortunately, it turns out, there are ample reasons for NATO members to huddle and discuss among themselves with great zest and vigor at this year's summit starting today in Wales.
Hastings Ismay, NATO's first secretary general, said that the group's purpose was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Left unstated was that all of this business involving Russians, Americans, and Germans was within Europe.
Events over the past year, however, are putting some pretty severe stresses on NATO's organizational and intellectual seams. For the alliance and its member states, it's getting to be high time to start figuring out where everything is headed, and what's next.
The first and most obvious reason is that the Russian bear has a killer case of the munchies, and has been busily chomping on any bits of Ukraine that were left sitting without a sufficient armed guard. The situation in Ukraine has been forcing NATO into a bit of a conceptual rough patch. NATO is about providing security and stability in Europe for the benefit of its member states.
Ukraine is most certainly not a NATO member, but it is pretty inescapably European. This puts NATO in a bind. As far as the Baltic States, Poland, and some other former Soviet bloc countries are concerned, Russian aggression in Ukraine — particularly the use of information warfare, Russian-speaking minorities, and other non-traditional tactics — is most certainly undermining regional security and stability. Yet folks further west and more removed from Moscow have been a wee bit more reluctant to do anything too dramatic.
As NATO is currently describing it, the alliance's job is to "curb" Russian ambitions, without "provoking" Russian action. Given that alliances are often formed to deter an aggressor, it's a bit surprising that an organization which counts the world's most powerful military among its members would take a comparatively passive position.
The practical results of this "curb, but don't provoke" approach can be seen in NATO's plans to reinforce vulnerable Baltic and Eastern European allies. The group will set up bases in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, and Poland, with small "spearhead" forces. The troops stationed at those bases will be rotated in and out frequently. The idea is that there's a very ready presence at all times, and all the units that have previously rotated through those bases will be ready to easily and quickly deploy in the event of a crisis. If all goes as planned, the forward bases would also be staging points for a larger NATO response force.
The other role that the spearhead forces would play is analogous to the US "tripwire" units just south of the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Too small to actually slow down an invading force, these troops are there to ensure that any attack on South Korea also necessarily involves an attack on American soldiers, effectively committing the US to war against North Korea should fighting ever break out along the DMZ. Putting NATO troops in the east, in however small a number, would act as a tripwire, strengthening the existing Article 5 provisions about an attack on one member being an attack on all.
Still, a tripwire designed to avoid provoking the bad guys into kicking your ass may not seem like the best way to deter aggression. Some recent loose talk in Russia, particularly by Vladimir Zhirinovsky — who acts as the Kremlin's hyper-nationalist, extremist foil — has been a bit unnerving. Zhirinovsky has been arguing that Putin should nuke a Baltic or Polish city to show the world who's boss is in that neighborhood.
The rationale is that America is far away and wouldn't really feel threatened, but that folks in Europe would read the writing on the wall and become a lot more compliant in the face of annihilation. It's probably not super likely that Putin is going to start nuking this, that, and the other thing right away, at least, because he's not that clinically insane, but the fact that the suggestion is even being made raises an important question.
At what point is weakness provocative? A NATO that is too determined not to provoke Russian military aggression may be a NATO too weak to deter Russia from attacking. Conversely, getting too excited about deterrence could likewise be counterproductive, by convincing Russia that they need to pull the trigger first in order to survive.
Were this just a matter of protecting NATO members in the Baltics and Eastern Europe it might be a manageable calculation. But, as noted earlier, Ukraine isn't in NATO, it's just close enough to NATO to get people a bit edgy, and it's hard to tell what treaty clause covers "nervous."
Zooming out, this whole situation gets quite a bit harder to solve. Putin has started making some noises about Kazakhstan that has analysts concerned that it might be next on his list. While Ukraine is in NATO's backyard, Kazakhstan most certainly isn't. Which raises another set of questions for the alliance: If NATO's job is to deter Russian aggression, how much Russian aggression should it be deterring? Does NATO really want to be in the business of giving Moscow carte blanche for gobbling up countries, just as long as it's not too close to home? But if NATO is really concerned about the issue, what can they reasonably do all the way over in the heart of Central Asia?
That question is itself linked to the looming end of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Whether or not anyone wants to admit it, NATO doesn't really have much of an option for sticking around in Afghanistan when the US finally bails on the Afghan people. In other words, NATO has such difficulty mounting major operations without US help that the part of NATO's original mission of "keeping the Americans in" has mutated from a goal to a dependency.
This dependency comes with costs. Chief among them is that the backing of non-US NATO members may just not matter nearly as much as a well-functioning alliance might need or want. This relative concentration of military power in the alliance may be forcing NATO's hand. If the US is unenthusiastic about stopping Russia, then NATO must be as well. This dynamic may be a major driver behind NATO's proposal for a spearhead force; it mirrors the patter of deployments that the US made to Eastern Europe early in the crisis. The US wasn't particularly interested in filling Polish requests this past spring for two NATO brigades (totaling roughly 10,000 soldiers), preferring instead small, frequent rotations of troops to forward bases.
Rounding out this mix of issues are a host of other questions intimately related to NATO's future. What, if anything, anyone will do about ISIS? What happens if Scotland votes to secede from the UK, taking the British nuclear deterrent with it? No single one of these issues would be cause for NATO to question its very existence, but the crises are coming so fast and thick that they have started to fuse together into a big ball of baffling problems.
No two-day summit will be enough to hash out all of these issues, but this one seems as good an occasion as any to mark as the formal start of NATO trying to figure out what keeping "the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down" is actually going to entail in coming decades.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan