Image credit: AP
by Colin Robertson
CGAI Vice President and Fellow
Table of Contents
- What is NATO?
- NATO Today
- What has NATO done?
- President Trump and NATO
- Big Ticket Items
- What Results Can we Expect from the Brussels Summit?
- Canadian Involvement at the Summit?
- Does NATO Still Matter?
- Public Opinion and NATO
- Further Reading
- About the Author
- Canadian Global Affairs Institute
Presidents and prime ministers will meet in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday (July 11-12) in a summit meeting of the 29 partner nations. Initiatives on the table include increasing Alliance readiness to counter Russian aggression in NATO’s east; implementing military command structure reform; introducing a new training mission in Iraq; counterterrorism support to Afghanistan, Jordan and Tunisia; and a Black Sea regional security initiative.
But the elephant in the room will be U.S. President Donald Trump.
The conference takes place against unsettled and unsettling times: divisions within the NATO Alliance and threats on its eastern and southern flanks. The recent G7 Charlevoix summit was upset by Mr. Trump’s belligerence, especially towards his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The Trump-inspired trade war with China has begun. Mr. Trump’s tariffs on steel and aluminum have met with retaliatory tariffs from Canada, the Europeans and Mexico. In the European Union there are deep divisions within and between member countries challenging EU unity on issues of migration and the Eurozone. Then there are the Brexit negotiations that have now split British Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet. While southern allies are focused on migration and border concerns, northern and eastern allies are concerned about Russia.
Russia continues to occupy parts of Ukraine and meddle in Syria and the Middle East. The death of a Briton from Soviet-made Novichok toxin will only exacerbate the strain caused by the Sergei Skripal affair and Ms. May will continue to press for sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, Russia continues to apply the techniques of hybrid warfare against NATO members – cyber-, fake news and interference in elections – while reinvesting in its military capacity and conducting exercises with the Chinese. The North Korean puzzle is more complicated in the wake of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit. He described it as “productive” while North Korea’s Foreign Ministry accused the Trump administration of pushing a “gangster-like demand for denuclearization”.
Attention will be focused on Mr. Trump: will he disrupt the meeting? And amid concerns about what concessions he may offer the Russian leader, will he share his plans for his July 16 summit in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Former U.S. ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland observes that these back-to-back summits “will either restore American global leadership or kill it off, depending on how he plays our hand.”
NATO is a military and political alliance constructed around the principles of collective security, democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. It has 29 members including Canada, the United States and most European nations, as well as a host of Euro-Atlantic partner nations. NATO represents half of the world’s economic and military power. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg observes, “no other superpower has ever had such a strategic advantage.”
In the wake of the Second World War, the victors set up a series of international institutions. The foremost was the United Nations, with universal membership designed to advance human progress and prevent the “scourge of war”. Responding to what Sir Winston Churchill described as the “iron curtain” descending “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic”, the western alliance set up a collective security agreement called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
In the words of its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, NATO was to “keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in”. Most importantly, it’s a collective security agreement – an attack on one would be considered an attack on all (Article 5). NATO was also designed, at Canadian insistence, to have an economic dimension to promote trade, investment and commerce among its members (Article 2).
The agreement was signed in Washington on April 2, 1949. Its original membership included 12 countries – the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. In signing the agreement then-Canadian External Affairs minister Lester Pearson said that Canadians “feel deeply and instinctively” that the treaty is “a pledge for peace and progress”.
The Alliance expanded: Turkey and Greece joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982. France left the military alliance in 1967 but rejoined in 2009. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, NATO membership is now 29 countries – including Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
NATO is headquartered in Brussels, where Mr. Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, leads its Secretariat with Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller, a former U.S. undersecretary for arms control and international security
NATO military operations are headed by two commanders: the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR) based in Brussels is currently U.S. General Curtis Scaparrotti; and the Supreme Allied Commander, Transformation (SACT) based in Norfolk, Virginia is currently French General Denis Mercier.
Member nations are represented in both the NATO council and military committee. A Canadian has never held the post of secretary general but Canadians have twice served as chair of the Military Committee; General Ray Henault, a former chief of defence staff, was chair from 2005-2008. The current chair is Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach.
Legislators from NATO nations meet annually in the NATO parliamentary assembly and in November Canada will host the assembly in Halifax. Ontario MP Leona Alleslev, a former RCAF officer, chairs the Canadian NATO interparliamentary delegation.
Defence Expenditure as a Share of GDP (%)
(based on 2010 prices and exchange rates)
NATO is the classic defensive alliance with Article 5 of its charter declaring that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” Arguably the world’s most successful military alliance, alliance unity and its deterrence capacity contributed significantly to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War, the reunification of Germany and the demise of the communist threat in Europe.
NATO has three core tasks: collective defence, crisis management and co-operative security. For its first 40 years NATO’s purpose was to deter Soviet aggression. With the end of the Cold War, NATO shifted to help the former Soviet bloc countries embrace democracy and the market economy. Today, it deters Russian aggression.
NATO forces were involved in bringing peace to the Balkans (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo) in operations that continue today. NATO forces, under the umbrella of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), have been present in Afghanistan since 2003. There have been operations around Iraq (1990-1991) and a training mission (2004-2011). In 2005, NATO assisted in the relief efforts following the Pakistan earthquake. In recent years, NATO has also provided support to African Union peacekeeping missions in the Sudan and Somalia. NATO led the UN-sanctioned Libyan campaign (Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR in 2011), maintaining a no-fly zone and conducting air strikes against the Gadhafi regime. Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard directed the air campaign.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2014 presented NATO with a renewed challenge. Conflicts within and between states have created failing states and mass migration on its southern flank – in North Africa and the Middle East – that require ongoing attention.
Since 1989, NATO has also become involved in a series of out-of-theatre missions. Over 150,000 troops served under NATO command in six different operations on three continents, including counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.
Attention once again will be focused on President Trump as he attends his second NATO summit. There is no denying that the U.S. provides the muscle for NATO. At a South Carolina rally last month, Mr. Trump said that America is “the piggy bank that (NATO) likes to take from” and at the Charlevoix summit he is said to have called it “as bad as NAFTA”.
Mr. Trump subsequently wrote letters to Prime Minister Trudeau and other NATO leaders from Belgium, Denmark, Norway and Germany telling them that the U.S. was losing patience with them for investing too little in their militaries and not meeting their collective security obligations. He concluded that it will “become increasingly difficult to justify to American citizens why some countries continue to fail to meet our shared collective security commitments.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has also written to his British counterpart, Gavin Williamson, warning that British influence is “at risk of erosion … A global nation like the U.K., with interests and commitments around the world, will require a level of defence spending beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests. Absent a vibrant military arm, world peace and stability would be further at risk”. And, “… it is in the best interest of both our nations for the U.K. to remain the partner of choice. In that spirit, the U.K. will need to invest and maintain robust military capability”.
The Washington Post also reported that, surprised at the size and cost of the U.S. presence in Germany, Mr. Trump is considering withdrawing its 35,000 troops although the White House has since denied that this is in the works.
During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Mr. Trump called NATO “obsolete” and while he has relented somewhat and confirmed that his administration would honour Article 5, he has consistently declared that “NATO members meet their financial obligations and pay what they owe”. While his manner is obnoxious, when it comes to burden-sharing within the Alliance, Mr. Trump does have a point.
1. NATO Readiness to Reinforce Collective Defence (including investing in capabilities)
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and intervention in Syria underline the need for NATO readiness. In practical terms this means a rapid combat-ready expeditionary force with attention to cyber-defence and maritime security. As NATO scholar Julian Lindley-French and Admiral (ret’d.) James Stavridis, former SACEUR, argue: “Article 5 collective defence must be modernized and re-organized around cyber-defence, missile defence and the advanced deployable forces vital to contemporary defence.”
Recent military exercises have demonstrated shortcomings in NATO’s ability to move forces across Europe, because of bureaucracy (customs officials asking to see passports at borders) and inadequate infrastructure (the bridges, roads and railways that have to handle military transports). In June, NATO defence ministers agreed to the “Four Thirties” initiative, a military readiness plan that would see the Alliance have — by 2020 — 30 land battalions, 30 air squadrons and 30 navy vessels, ready for deployment in 30 days or less.
Assuming it is adopted, NATO allies will need to designate troops, establish a reporting mechanism and plan for readiness exercises. There are also plans to create two new commands — one in Norfolk, Virginia to ensure U.S. maritime access across the Atlantic and the other in Ulm, Germany, focused on logistics in Europe.
2. Defence Spending
The United States shoulders nearly three-quarters of the Alliance’s operating budget. U.S. presidents and cabinet secretaries have consistently encouraged NATO members to spend more.
Defence spending in 2000 for eight of the 18 NATO members was two per cent of GDP but it steadily declined. At their Wales summit (2014) allies agreed to meet two per cent of GDP spending on defence “within a decade.” According to NATO figures (March 2018), only five of the 28 members meet NATO’s target of spending at least two per cent of GDP on defence – the U.S., the U.K., Poland, Greece and Estonia. The U.S. spends 3.57 per cent on defence and the U.K. 2.12 per cent, while Canada spends 1.29 per cent, Germany spends 1.24 per cent, France 1.79 per cent, Italy 1.12 per cent and Spain 0.92 per cent.
The combined defence budget of NATO nations has grown by US$14.4 billion since the Wales summit (2016) with all but one of 28 allies increasing spending, and 26 sending more troops for NATO missions. Sixteen – but not Canada – are on track to spend the NATO target of two per cent of their gross domestic product on defence by 2024. Those allocating at least 20 per cent of their defence budget to major equipment (another pledge from a summit in Wales in 2014) have risen from 14 to 24 (including Canada).
The U.S expects more from its allies. Mr. Mattis has said, “America will meet its responsibilities, but if your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defence.” The U.S. argument was best expressed in the valedictory remarks to NATO (June 10, 2011) of former U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates who warned, “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”
3. Relations with Russia
With the end of the Cold War, there was some expectation that Russia would eventually become a NATO partner. In 2009, NATO and Russia signed an accord to “build together a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area on the principles of democracy and co-operative security.” The NATO-Russia Council, created in 2002 and suspended in 2014 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has resumed with seven meetings over the past two years.
President Putin’s objectives are clear: he wants an end to sanctions and an end to U.S. military exercises in Europe and the scaling back of U.S. forces there. Mr. Putin is also seeking to create a sphere of influence on his frontiers and, through the creation of his Eurasian Union (a free-trade customs union between Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus), a counter-weight to NATO. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continuing incursions into Ukraine violate the UN charter, the Helsinki Final Act and Russia’s own commitment “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine”. Ukraine is not Mr. Putin’s first incursion into a neighbour’s territory. In 2008, at his instruction, Russian forces occupied southern Georgia.
Russia also retains a “longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order” and is acting on it, according to a declassified report from U.S intelligence agencies on hacking during the U.S. election.
4. NATO Partners and NATO Expansion
NATO’s partnerships, born out of its 1990 London summit, focused first on the former Soviet bloc nations (many of whom are now full members), then on crisis management in the Balkans, and, since 9/11, on wider partnerships now including more than 40 nations around the world – Australia, New Zealand and, as the latest addition, Mongolia. At its peak, the ISAF mission in Afghanistan included 22 partner nations. Partnership does not include the security guarantee of Article 5.
Ukraine and Georgia want membership in NATO and, at the Bucharest summit in 2008, NATO encouraged this. But NATO enlargement is controversial and there is discussion of different architecture to guarantee security. With the name dispute over Macedonia resolved, Mr. Stoltenberg expects Macedonia will soon join NATO.
A wise persons’ report (2016) commissioned by the Finnish government concluded that Finland and Sweden should stick together, whatever the decision, but that membership would provoke Russia. It described Russia as an “unsatisfied power” that “has made unpredictability a strategic and tactical virtue, underpinned by an impressive degree of political and military agility.”
NATO continues to lead a non-combat mission – Resolute Support – involving 13,576 troops and 39 nations (but not Canada) to train, advise and assist the Afghan security forces and institutions. NATO and its partners are already committed to providing financial support to sustain the Afghan forces until the end of 2020.
NATO has been involved in Afghanistan since the UN Security Council authorized the NATO-led ISAF that operated from August 2003 to December 2014. ISAF is NATO’s longest mission, employing more than 130,000 troops from 51 NATO and partner nations, including Canada.
6. Countering Terrorism
Mr. Stoltenberg says NATO will do even more to combat terrorism, with continued commitments to Afghanistan and a new training mission in Iraq. NATO is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and supports it through AWACS intelligence flights. Its Counter-Terrorism Policy Guidelines focus Alliance efforts on three main areas: awareness, capabilities and engagement.
NATO and the EU are working together on migration, seeking to tackle the root causes and to help stabilize the source countries, including training local forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. NATO is also assisting in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, and providing help to the EU’s Operation Sophia in the Mediterranean, with 10 ships and maritime surveillance aircraft currently in the region.
President Trump wants the Allies to meet the NATO norm, originally set by NATO in 2002, of two per cent of GDP spending on national defence. While the Allies are spending more and more on equipment, the pace of increase is slower than Mr. Trump wants.
Rather than spend their time debating defence spending, leaders should focus on actual capability requirements and how quickly these resources can be made available for combat. The Afghan and Libyan missions were handicapped by the caveats some NATO members imposed on use of their personnel and equipment.
As a founding member of NATO, Canada has stood with its NATO Allies since 1949. Mr. Trudeau will be pressed on Canada’s financial commitment to NATO. The government’s Strong, Secure, Engaged defence policy (2017) commits Canada to increasing its defence spending to 1.4 per cent of GDP by 2026-2027, well short of the NATO two per cent norm. But as Mr. Trudeau has said, “there are many ways of evaluating one’s contribution to NATO”, noting that Canada has “always been amongst the strongest actors in NATO.”
This includes Canada’s leadership of a multinational NATO mission in Latvia (and Mr. Trudeau will visit Latvia before going to the NATO summit). The 450-strong Canadian Forces contingent represents the commitment Mr. Trudeau made at the Warsaw summit in 2016, as part of broader Canadian support to Operation REASSURANCE, and notes the “significant procurement projects” – especially the ongoing construction of new warships and the purchase of fighter jets – and Canada’s renewed activist internationalism.
As part of Canada’s commitment to NATO’s Operation REASSURANCE, Canadian fighter jets patrol the Baltic skies. Since April 2014, Canada has deployed our Halifax-class frigates, most recently HMCS Charlottetown and HMCS St. John’s, in support of NATO reassurance measures. HMCS Windsor, one of our Victoria-class submarines, recently returned from five months in the Mediterranean where its mission included tracking Russian submarines. Canada is providing humanitarian and Special Forces support to a U.S.-led multinational effort to support pro-Iraq forces battling the Islamic state.
In terms of readiness, Canadian forces already have achieved significant interoperability on land, air and sea with the U.S. through NORAD, our bi-national aerospace and maritime surveillance agreement, and through both joint exercises and active operations in theatres like Afghanistan, Libya and now in Latvia. Mr. Trudeau can also point to Canada’s new mission, as part of the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali, involving 250 Canadian soldiers and eight helicopters.
But we could do more. That means spending more, not because Mr. Trump says so, but because Canadian sovereignty requires it.
The Canadian Forces are having trouble with recruitment, so why not increase the reserves and bring in more young people who will learn a trade and, inevitably, be involved in useful community work around natural disasters?
We could also do much more to assert our Arctic sovereignty – picking up the pace for construction of the icebreakers by using all of Canada’s shipyards and building more Arctic offshore patrol ships and supply ships. We should also invest now in the next generation of submarines – they are the ultimate stealth weapon to deter unwelcome intrusions. And why not invest in a hospital ship to provide humanitarian relief in the increasing number of climate-related disasters that beset coastal nations?
Given the changing nature of threats, Canada should seek membership in the EU/NATO Centres for Excellence:
- hybrid threats in Helsinki, Finland (current membership is Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Italy, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.)
- cyber-threats in Tallinn, Estonia (current membership includes Austria, Belgium, the Czechia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States)
- strategic communications in Riga, Latvia (current membership includes Estonia, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Finland and Sweden have become partners. France and Canada have seconded staff)
Yes. But collective security means collective contributions. Despite his bullying manner, Mr. Trump is right – the Allies do need to share the burdens. As former president Barack Obama repeatedly told Canada’s Parliament: “NATO needs more Canada”.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland gets this, telling a Washington audience recently (June 2018) that:
Since the end of the Second World War, we have built a system that championed freedom and democracy and prevented regional conflicts from turning into total war. Canada for one is going to stand up in defence of that system … America has been the leader of the free world. We Canadians have been proud to stand at your side and to have your back. As your closest friend, ally and neighbour, we also understand that many Americans today are no longer certain that the rules-based international order of which you were the principal architect and for which you did write the biggest cheques still benefits America.
At the centre of that defence arrangement, as Ms. Freeland told parliamentarians (June 2017) in laying out the Trudeau foreign policy: “NATO and Article 5 are at the heart of Canada’s national security policy.” We now need to up our defence contribution.
NATO still matters. As the New York Times recently editorialized:
Born after World War II, NATO linked America and Europe not just in a mutual defense pledge but in advancing democratic governance, the rule of law, civil and human rights, and an increasingly open international economy. The alliance was the core of an American-led liberal world order that extended to Asia and relied on a web of international institutions, including the United Nations and the World Bank. It remains the most successful military alliance in history, the anchor of an American-led and American-financed peace that fostered Western prosperity and prevented new world wars. No one has proposed anything credible to improve upon it.
But NATO also needs to be continuously improving to adapt to changing world conditions.
A good starting point is the recommendations of the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative, led by General John Allen and including CGAI Fellow Julian Lindley-French. In the spirit of the Harmel Report (1967) and “to better prepare NATO not only to meet the many technology and affordability challenges but to master them – from hybrid warfare to hyperwar” they recommend a strategic review in time for the 70th anniversary summit so that NATO is “prepared, fit and able to act across the seven domains of grand conflict: air, sea, land, cyber, space, information and knowledge.”
Defence Expenditure as a Share of GDP (%)
(based on 2010 prices and exchange rates)
In a spring 2017 Pew Research Center survey of six EU nations (France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom), the U.S. and Canada find positive views of the military alliance.
Asked whether their own country should militarily defend a NATO ally (i.e., Article 5) if embroiled in an armed conflict with Russia, there is strong support in the Netherlands (72 per cent), Poland (62 per cent), United States (62 per cent), Canada (58 per cent) and France (53 per cent) for living up to their country’s mutual defence commitment as a member of NATO.
Two-thirds of Canadians hold NATO in high esteem, a rise of 10 per cent since 2015, with rising support across demographic groups and with strong support among the major parties: Liberal Party (75 per cent), Conservative Party (74 per cent) and New Democratic Party (65 per cent).
Germany has the fourth largest defence budget in NATO, but only 40 per cent of Germans believe they should come to the aid of an ally. More than half (53 per cent) do not support such aid.
A Gallup survey in February 2017 revealed 80 per cent of Americans support the Alliance. When Gallup first asked Americans about their views on NATO in July 1989, 75 per cent thought the alliance should be maintained. This percentage dropped to 62 per cent in 1991, months before the Soviet Union’s formal collapse, staying at that level during NATO’s 1995 intervention in the Bosnian War.
NATO has a comprehensive website. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute produced a series of papers on NATO in advance of parliamentary hearings by the House of Commons National Defence Committee into NATO that recently tabled its report Canada and NATO: An Alliance Forged in Strength and Durability. See also the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative report, One Alliance: The Future Tasks of the Adapted Alliance.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on April 4, 2018. Stoltenberg says recent Russian missile tests do not pose any direct threat to the Canadians or their allies, but they underscore the importance of a strong NATO presence in Latvia and the rest of Eastern Europe.
Colin Robertson is Vice-President and Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, a member of the NAFTA Advisory Council to the Deputy Minister of International Trade, and a former Canadian diplomat and member of the teams that negotiated the Canada-U.S. FTA and NAFTA. He is also an Executive Fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, a member of the advisory councils of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute and the North American Research Partnership and participant in the North American Forum. He is a past president of the National Capital Branch of the Canadian International Council. He is an honorary Captain (Royal Canadian Navy) assigned to the Strategic Communications Directorate. He writes a regular column on international affairs for the Globe and Mail and he is a regular contributor to other media.
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