The Wars of Today and Tomorrow: A Conversation with Douglas Lute

By: Will Chim, Reporter

Photo Credit: United States Institute of Peace (USIP)

This month, the United States Institute of Peace hosted a discussion event with Douglas Lute to discuss “the wars of today and tomorrow”. Lute, former Ambassador to NATO and retired United States Army Lieutenant General, focused on ways that NATO has adapted after the end of the Cold War and also discussed which threats he felt were paramount in the 21st century, specifically the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), America’s commitments in the Middle East, and US relations with the Russian Federation.

Former Ambassador Lute began the discussion with the emphatic assertion that NATO is not obsolete when asked by event host Robin Wright, USIP fellow. “To say that NATO is obsolete misses 25 years of history,” argued Lute. NATO changed both politically and militarily after the Cold War, expanding to 28 members, reducing its troop levels in continental Europe, and deploying more diversely. Largely due to the resurgence of an aggressive Russia—despite that it was previously a NATO partner—NATO has increased its military spending and is deploying to regions that stand to suffer by Russian aggression. NATO has also stepped up in terms of advanced training and assisting in the fight against the Islamic State. “The only other time that NATO changed significantly since its inception was 1989-1991,” concluded Lute, as he emphasized that right now is almost certainly another moment of change and adaptation for the organization.

“We need to do more of what we’re doing now,” said Lute about NATO’s involvement in the war against ISIS, which the US has identified as a major threat. Lute further argued NATO can assist in institution-building and America’s long-term commitments in the Middle East, but to do so requires improved intelligence sharing between NATO states. While NATO may not be the ideal military solution against ISIS, the alliance itself serves as a bastion for democratic values, argued Lute, asserting that, “we are bound by those values to do something.” Wright followed up concerning issues of intelligence sharing and queried whether there is reluctance among NATO allies to share intelligence, to which Lute responded that there are traditional intelligence sharing protocols for NATO built on small group exchanges that need to change: “we need to open the pipes.” Pressed on intelligence sharing under the Trump administration, Lute deferred, and further emphasized that NATO intelligence protocols are established on a need-to-know basis, making any such conjecture difficult to confirm.

Shifting gears to Russia, Wright asked whether better relations with Russia are a realistic goal given Russia’s increased provocation and aggression in recent years. Lute responded with a clear condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine, saying such a conclusion is “clear cut” and that Russia “tore up the rulebook when it seized Crimea” and incurred in the Donbas region. There is no way to accommodate this new reality of Russian behavior as territorial integrity and political sovereignty are fundamental to the interests of NATO, the United States, and the European Union. However, Lute argued that the United States can still find common ground with Russia on topics such as counterterrorism in the Caucasus and Afghanistan; joint-space programs; and potentially Syria, pointing to the successful Russian-US effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile. In terms of practical near-term steps, the United States should work to increase transparency between the United States, NATO, and Russia, and prioritize risk reduction to minimize instances of close military encounters and harassment. Lute further concluded that the United States is not breaking from NATO’s position on Russia, noting it is “too soon” to judge the Trump administration’s record, pointing out that Secretary of Defense James Mattis called NATO headquarters in Brussels on his first day.

Next followed a reflection on American involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq and the respective trajectory of the conflicts. Lute spoke at length about the Iraq surge of 2007 and emphasized the hesitance on the part of the military, in part due to skepticism of its tactical sustainability and the lack of concurrent political successes and developments. But he gave the surge credit for stemming sectarian violence, though it ultimately did not address the underlying causes of political violence driven by the political dynamics of the state. Lute did offer some optimism however, saying that Iraq can be sustainable but the United States must “get tough about its issues and obstacles,” also noting that it is incredible how Iraq has managed not to fracture. On whether the United States can succeed in Afghanistan and what a winnable strategy might look like, Lute responded that the Afghanistan situation is similar to Iraq—success there is something akin to “no more 9/11s, no more safe haven for terrorism,” but these objectives have drifted over the last 16 years.

The event concluded with a broad look at the future of conflict and how NATO and the United States will adapt, with Lute describing his trends and predictions for the next decade. First, the scale and scope of conflicts will remain below state-on-state conflict and conventional war, predicting more internal conflicts involving non-state actors, increased “hybrid warfare” and other low-threshold incidents, all while states maintain conventional deterrents. Second, asymmetric tools will become dominant, such as the improvised explosive device (IED), which Lute noted was responsible for 70% of US combat casualties in Afghanistan. Such asymmetric methods will proliferate, going hand-in-hand with the rise of non-state groups in conflict. And third, most conflicts will be outside vital American interests. Expanding on this, Lute concluded that open conflict with Russia or China is not likely, but the United States needs to choose wisely when to get involved in conflicts. The United States run the risk of making situations worse when intervening in complex conflicts. Lute ultimately concluded with the recommendation that the United States must separate vital interests from non-vital interests and if a conflict is the latter, “we must be prudent about deployment.”

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