Joint Chiefs Chairman: No, NATO’s Not Obsolete

Gen. Joseph Dunford testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. Gen. Joseph Dunford testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this month. Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/Defense Department

TAMPA – Donald Trump is wrong. NATO is not “very obsolete.”

Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flipped the script on Trump’s recent eyebrow-raising assessment, saying the alliance isn’t out of touch, but a candidate who challenges its importance is.

“In my mind, the relevance of NATO is not at all in question,” Dunford told reporters Wednesday at U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM.

A former commander of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, Dunford — joined by Defense Secretary Ash Carter — said the transatlantic alliance between Washington and Europe remains essential to U.S. security interests across a wide swath of the world’s surface.

Carter said NATO soon may join the international fight against the Islamic State as a collective alliance. Several of its members already contribute independently to the informal counter-ISIS coalition. If NATO decides to enter the war, it would bring increased legal authority and firepower to the fight with the terrorist group. It would also mark the alliance’s latest expeditionary military action outside of Europe and alongside the United States.

So, is NATO “very obsolete?”

“I think that question is probably a question that might have been asked 15 years ago,” Dunford said, dismissively but without mentioning Trump. “But it's hard to think about asking that question today.”

Over the past decade, NATO has supplied troops to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

“I had the privilege of commanding NATO forces in Afghanistan. And when you think about it, it's pretty extraordinary that for ten years, NATO has formed the core of a coalition in Afghanistan that has stayed together and is still is together today with the Resolute Support mission, to move Afghanistan in the future.”

Today, NATO is helping build foreign militaries in North Africa and elsewhere, he noted.

Carter listed several current NATO operations, including helping with the flow of refugees across the Aegean Sea and countering a resurgent Russia.

“We are working with NATO now on strengthening the deterrence of Russia, Russian aggression, and also so-called hybrid warfare in Europe. We’re working with NATO allies on security issues in the Mediterranean that derive from ISIL,” the secretary said. “There is a lot that NATO has done and is doing.”

Carter and Dunford were at MacDill Air Force Base for the change-of-command ceremonies for new commanders Gen. Joseph Votel, at CENTCOM, and Gen. Tony Thomas, at SOCOM.

Trump’s foreign policy and national security credibility has come under intense fire in recent weeks as he has begun to reveal his positions — or lack of them — on individual issues. But in at least one aspect, Trump’s critique of NATO echoes Washington’s longstanding complaints that some alliance members spend too little on defense. It’s a perennial grievance brought up by American defense leaders visiting Brussels.

Several NATO members already have increased or pledged to increase their counter-ISIL roles since Carter called for their help in the administration’s “acceleration” of the fight, in Paris and Brussels.  

Weeks ago, Trump insisted he was about to announce a team of national security advisors that would impress. Instead, a few names trickled out of a Washington Post interview, nearly all unknown or considered un-influential amid Washington’s insulated core of national security players. When asked to whom he turns for national security guidance, Trump said, “Myself.”

But Trump’s NATO comments rang out of date, at best, and hollow.

“So the fundamental question is: Is collective security for NATO still a requirement? The answer is ‘yes,” Dunford said. “Does the United States still have common interest with our European partners in addressing those security challenges? The answer would have to be ‘yes.’”

And what should the public be asking of NATO?

“I think it's a question of making sure we have the right focus because there's a lot of work to be done.”

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