How to keep NATO strong

The transatlantic alliance cannot be taken for granted

From Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Foreign Policy:  [P]romoting our way of life is not enough. We also have to protect it — and sometimes defend it. The need for a strong military alliance between Europe and North America has never been stronger. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a unique transatlantic military alliance bringing together 28 countries, was founded 64 years ago this month  and remains an essential source of stability in an increasingly unpredictable world. However, the transatlantic bond that unites us cannot be taken for granted — and that means making smarter and more evenly distributed investments. Although the European Union and the United States together generate about half of global economic output, and NATO countries together account for over half of global defense spending, there are increasing concerns that the current balance of responsibilities and contributions within the alliance is neither satisfactory nor sustainable. . . . .

the threats facing NATO members are becoming more complex and interconnected — ranging from failed states and terrorism, to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, to piracy and cyber attacks. In order to prepare the alliance for the future, therefore, we must learn the operational lessons of the past.

The first lesson is this: In a world where strategic surprise is the rule, NATO must be prepared for all contingencies. No two operations are alike. In Bosnia, the alliance enforced the peace and helped build stability. In Libya, it protected civilians against attacks by their own murderous regime. Off the Horn of Africa, NATO is combating piracy as part of a vast international effort to keep open vital shipping lanes. To be effective, NATO must remain capable of dealing with multiple tasks and multiple crises, ranging from conflict prevention to cyber-defense.

The second lesson is that the ability of personnel — as well as equipment — from different allied countries to work seamlessly together is the most powerful asset we have. It means that NATO can deliver a collective punch that few nations can deliver alone — or only at a much greater cost. For example, combat aircraft from any NATO country are able to provide support to ground forces from any other allied country. 

The third lesson is that NATO provides flexibility, as well as political solidarity and oversight. In the Libya operation, we saw 14 allies providing naval and air forces, with eight of them conducting air strikes. But all 28 allies gave their full political support and staffed the NATO command structure, which had overall operational control. Partners as diverse as Sweden and Qatar joined in, thanks in large part to this standing multinational command structure. Tried and tested for over 60 years, it has no parallel in facilitating the rapid establishment of an international force. . . .

The biggest gap is between the United States and the other allies. Today, the United States represents 72 percent of total NATO defense spending, up from 63 percent in 2001.The fact that the U.S. defense budget has more than doubled since 2001 provides only a partial explanation for this shift. Over the same period, European defense budgets have either stagnated or decreased. This has serious operational, as well as political, consequences. Once again, the Libya operation is a case in point. The United States was the only country able to provide critical capabilities — such as air-to-air refuelling and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance — at sufficient levels. This imbalance has rightly prompted a new generation of American politicians and voters to wonder why they should continue to "subsidize" Europe’s security if Europeans themselves appear unwilling to make the necessary investment.

A second gap can be observed within Europe itself. European allies account for 68 percent of NATO’s common funding, covering collective requirements such as command and communication arrangements, which are not the responsibility of any single member. However, nearly 50 percent is provided by just four of them — the United States, Britain, France, and Germany and only a few allies still have the full spectrum of capabilities. On the plus side, Europeans have markedly improved their capacity to deploy more quickly and over a longer period of time. For instance, those NATO allies that were unable to conduct night air raids during the Kosovo campaign in 1999 could do so during the Libya operation, which meant that the vast majority of strike sorties over Libya were conducted by non-U.S. aircraft. If the capability gap between European allies continues to grow, however, fewer of them will be able to deal effectively with crises on their doorsteps.

The final gap is between NATO and the rest of the world. While total defense spending by NATO allies is going down, total defense spending by new and emerging powers has been going up — particularly in Russia, Brazil, the wider Middle East, and the Asia-Pacific region. In 2012, for the first time ever, Asian defense spending exceeded that of Europe in nominal terms. Ultimately, this will create a strategic gap between the capacity and the will of those nations to exert influence in the world, and NATO’s ability to do so. . . . .

Europe’s choice

Like any relationship, the transatlantic bond needs continued investment: economic, military, and political. Europe and North America must talk more regularly, more openly and more strategically. We must overcome the perception that NATO can only discuss emerging crises where we plan to become involved and take action. The Alliance must live up to its role as the political forum for transatlantic consultations on common security concerns, including on those that lie beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. Above all, Europe must look outwards, not inwards, to develop a truly global perspective on security.

In a world where we are all interconnected, we must recognize that the transatlantic relationship remains the most important relationship we have. It is not only vital for the freedom, security, and prosperity of Europe and North America, but it also provides the bedrock of the rules-based global order. To remain America’s partner of choice, Europe must choose to become the strong partner that America needs.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen is secretary-general of NATO.  (photo: NATO)

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