It is not an exaggeration to say that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) now stands at a crossroads. Since February of 2014, the Alliance has been confronted with what is arguably its greatest strategic challenge since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the form of Russia's ongoing aggression in Ukraine.
The implications of Russia's empowerment and backing of separatist rebels in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions -- and the massive campaign of political and economic subversion that Moscow has concomitantly launched against Kyiv -- extend far beyond the common border between the two countries. They represent nothing less than an ongoing attempt by the Kremlin to rewrite the post-World War II settlement in Europe. Russia's blatant disregard of Ukraine's territorial integrity, and its plans for an expanded sphere of influence encompassing other parts of the "post-Soviet space" (defined by Russian President Vladimir Putin as "Novorossiya," or "new Russia") are a major challenge to the existing geopolitical status quo in Europe -- a balance that, until recently, was believed to be permanent.
In response, the Alliance has begun to adapt. At its September 2014 summit in Wales, England, it formally launched its "Readiness Action Plan" -- a series of measures intended to convey a resolute response to Russian aggression. This has included, among other things, stepped up overflight and policing of Baltic airspace; increased maritime patrols in the Black Sea, and a series of high-profile military exercises with Eastern European nations. At the same time, the bloc has increased the pace and scope of its military exercises in the Black Sea region and throughout Eastern Europe. It has also begun bolstering its military presence in Europe's east through the creation of six new military bases and the deployment of a "spearhead" force of several thousand soldiers to respond to future instances of Russian aggression. Most recently, in a concrete show of force, it launched Operation Trident Juncture, a massive two-part exercise that represents the Alliance's largest military maneuvers in over a decade. The message was unmistakable: NATO "can adapt" to meet the Russian threat.
Nevertheless, a significant gap between rhetoric and reality remains. Whatever the political pronouncements now emanating from Brussels, the hard truth is that Alliance forces remain under-resourced, overextended and fiscally stretched.
Just how much is readily apparent. At the Wales Summit, Alliance members pledged anew to "move toward" the long-standing goal of spending two percent of GDP on defense over the next ten years. But this objective is still largely aspirational. As of this summer, just five of the Alliance's 28 member states meet or exceed this standard: the United States, Great Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece. And while others, like Lithuania and Slovakia, have begun to move in this direction as well, the idea of a fully-capitalized defense bloc is still a long way from being a reality. Indeed, in real terms, NATO is today spending less on defense ($892 billion) than in either 2014 or 2013 ($942 billion and $968 billion, respectively), despite the renewed challenge now posed by Moscow in the east.
This underfunding is hardly a new phenomenon. In the summer of 2011, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates memorably took the Alliance to task over its chronic failure to commit adequate funds for the common defense, warning that "(if) current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders -- those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me -- may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost." The rhetorical broadside was well-placed: European nations for decades have relied on the United States to shoulder the burden of NATO, and used America's continued largesse as an excuse to neglect making serious, sustained investments of their own.
Under the previous conditions that prevailed on the Continent -- in which the Alliance concerned itself largely with expanding the so-called "zone of stability" in Europe in the post-Cold War era -- such a preference for butter over guns could perhaps have been excused. In the face of current threats, however, it cannot be. Quite simply, without far greater financial backing, the objectives of NATO's current strategy are unattainable. Absent significant infusions of capital from its constituent parts, the means by which the Alliance has chosen to deter Russia and reassure the bloc's vulnerable Eastern European members will remain something resembling an unfunded mandate.
It is a reality that planners in Brussels understand very well. So, too, do their counterparts in Moscow -- which is why Russia can be expected to calibrate its strategy in Ukraine (as well as elsewhere in the "post-Soviet space") in direct proportion to the robustness of NATO's response. The Kremlin's moves to date suggest that it has little fear of fully funded Alliance defense any time in the foreseeable future.
But resources are not NATO's only problem. Alliance cohesion represents a real hurdle as well.
Alliances, the old saying goes, move along at the pace of their most grudging members. The logical corollary of this axiom is that international partnerships by nature adapt and change over time, as allies go their separate ways and national priorities among members shift. Indeed, throughout history, adaptive alliances -- such as the Triple Entente of World War I, the Allied Pact of World War II, and the "coalitions of the willing" that emerged during the 2000s in response to al-Qaeda -- have been the norm. Static organizations, those with outdated missions and unhelpful members, tend to become obsolete, or fall apart altogether.
NATO today suffers from this problem in spades. While the Alliance has elaborate mechanisms for inducting new members (chief among them the Partnership for Peace program that dominated its relations with Eastern European nations during the decade of the 1990s), it lacks the converse. Nowhere in the North Atlantic Charter can be found provisions to penalize members deemed out of step with the priorities and direction of the bloc as a whole. Yet such mechanisms are desperately needed, because the traditional roles and interests that bound Alliance partners together during the Cold War have changed considerably -- and, in some cases, have evaporated altogether.
Take the European Union. While NATO to date has marshaled a coherent -- if underfunded -- military response to Russian aggression against Ukraine, that of the EU, to which many of the bloc's constituent members belong, has been far less so. As the Heritage Foundation's Ted Bromund notes elsewhere in this issue, European attitudes toward Russia have been shaped by a "species of neutralism" that has complicated serious, sustained European economic and political pressure against Moscow. Some countries, such as France, have been all too eager to countenance a lessening of sanctions against Russia without any material change of attitude on Moscow's part. Others, like Greece, have gone further still, advocating on Russia's behalf in European forums and tightening their political ties to the Kremlin. These attitudes, moreover, have prevailed even though the success of NATO's military strategy against Russia depends in large part on the ancillary pressure that its constituent parts can bring to bear, and on the steadfastness of their resolve in doing so.
Still more striking is the case of Turkey. During the Soviet era, the country served as NATO's sole Middle Eastern partner, and as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. But recent years have seen Turkey take on a far more problematic role, flirting with the acquisition of Chinese missile defenses (and thereby potentially compromising NATO's emerging missile shield), helping to undermine Western pressure on Iran, and becoming a key conduit for foreign fighters from Europe and North Africa traveling to join the jihad in Syria. All of which has led many to question the traditional view of Ankara as a continuing strategic asset for the Alliance -- and even to reclassify its role from that of ally to one of "frenemy."
Such fissures have profound implications. Simply put, a house divided cannot stand, and an Alliance riven by political divergence dooms itself to strategic obsolescence. Squaring this circle requires that the bloc formulate internal mechanisms to help maintain discipline and unity of purpose among its constituent parts on a range of issues. Without them, NATO's effectiveness inevitably will fall victim to its internal contradictions.
ADAPT, OR PERISH
These twin priorities -- adequate funding and Alliance solidarity -- are paramount to NATO's continued viability, for at least two reasons.
First, the Alliance now faces what is arguably the most challenging strategic environment of its 66-year history. For, although responding to Russia's aggression in Ukraine (and potentially elsewhere in Eastern Europe) remains the bloc's most immediate priority, it will likewise be compelled to play a role in resolving the other crises now engulfing the Eurozone. These include:
-- the refugee crisis created by the West's ongoing passivity in Syria, which has security -- as well as economic and social -- implications for nearly all NATO member states;
-- potential coalition involvement in the Syrian civil war, which has now expanded with the entry of Russia into the hostilities;
-- multiple zones of Islamist insurgency in theaters like North and Central Africa, where a number of Alliance members maintain vital strategic interests.
Only an Alliance with the resources and internal cohesion to act decisively on these fronts, and others, can truly be, in the words of Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, a guardian of the international order "ready to act to uphold international rules and the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace."
Second, these imperatives are all the more urgent because the Alliance could be poised to get bigger. Six years after the last round of NATO expansion, its officials are once again mulling the possibility of adding new members (most prominently Montenegro). Needless to say, such an expansion -- if and when it does occur -- will only serve to exacerbate the Alliance's inherent cleavages, unless bolstered by new funding commitments and a redoubled emphasis on political unity.
Over the past year, Russia's aggression in Ukraine has provided NATO with new momentum, and a reinvigorated raison d'etre. But the Alliance's success in deterring Moscow is still far from assured. So, too, is the bloc's ability to act in response to future crises. Time -- as well as money and political priorities -- will determine whether it can.
 For a good summary, see Leo Michel, "Deterring Russia: Has NATO Succeeded?" The Journal of International Security Affairs no. 28, Spring/Summer 2015, http://www.securityaffairs.org/issues/number-28/deterring-russia-has-nato-succeeded.
 "Ukraine Crisis: Nato Bolsters Eastern Europe Against Russia," BBC, February 5, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-31142276.
 Sydney J. Freedberg, Jr., "Hey Putin, NATO Can Adapt: Trident Juncture 2015," Breaking Defense, October 15, 2015, http://breakingdefense.com/2015/10/hey-putin-nato-can-adapt-trident-juncture-2015/.
 Kedar Pavgi, "NATO Members' Defense Spending, in Two Charts," Defense One, June 22, 2015, http://www.defenseone.com/politics/2015/06/nato-members-defense-spending-two-charts/116008/.
 Robert Gates, Speech to the Security and Defense Agenda, Brussels, Belgium, June 20, 2011, http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1581.
 See, for example, "Ukraine Conflict: France Hopes to End Russia Sanctions," BBC, September 7, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34174382.
 See, for example, Jenny Cosgrave, "Debt-Stricken Greece Hints at Closer Ties With Russia," CNBC, June 19, 2015, http://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/19/putin-russia-has-avoided-deep-crisis-despite-sanctions.html.
 See, for example, Emre Peker, "Turkey Breaks From West on Defense," Wall Street Journal, April 21, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/turkey-shifts-away-from-west-on-defense-1429608604.
 Jamie Dettmer, "Turkey Allegedly Had Role in Helping Iran Dodge Sanctions," Voice of America, July 22, 2015, http://www.voanews.com/content/turkey-allegedly-had-role-in-helping-iran-dodge-sanctions/2873521.html.
 Ilan Berman, "Turkey Key To Stopping Flow Of ISIL Recruits," USA Today, June 3, 2015, http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2015/06/03/turkey-gateway-isis-extremism-column/28404559.
 Julian Pecquet, "Congress Goes After 'Frenemies' Turkey, Qatar," Al-Monitor, September 10, 2014, http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/09/10/congress-goes-after-frenemies-turkey-qatar.
 Jens Stoltenberg, Speech before the Munich Security Conference, Munich, Germany, February 6, 2015, http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_117320.htm.
 See, for example, Lydia Tomkiw, "Is NATO Expanding Despite Putin's Threats? Montenegro Could Become Newest Member," International Business Times, October 17, 2015, http://www.ibtimes.com/nato-expanding-despite-putins-threats-montenegro-could-become-newest-member-2144372.