NATO in the Land of Pretend

NATO has "a defense spending and political leadership problem"

From Heather A. Conley and Maren Leed, Center for Strategic and International Studies: NATO’s future rests on the prospects for European defense spending and European political willingness to use the capabilities in which they invest. The outlook is sobering. . . .

It is time to move beyond the “2 percent rule.” While the rule at least maintains some pressure on member governments to refrain from even greater free riding, continued U.S. harping on the issue is not a substitute for more meaningful conversations that must occur. The United States should not accept NATO’s anemic defense spending levels, but it must accept that political realities make achieving 2 percent very unlikely in the foreseeable future. More importantly, the rule doesn’t capture what matters most: actual military capabilities. Take Greece, for instance. The weakest European economy satisfies the rule—it is spending 2.1 percent of its atrophied GDP on defense—but its investments are not in support of NATO’s expeditionary military capabilities, but for territorial defense against a potential conflict with another NATO member, Turkey. . . .

The United States pretends that its posture in and commitment to Europe is not changing while Europe watches the last A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft and the last U.S. tank depart the continent. This is compounded by the planned closing of 40 U.S. bases in the next two years (combined with the other 100 facilities closed over the past decade). Clearly, Europe doesn’t need tanks and they don’t need U.S. bases in Europe. Apparently, Europe also doesn’t need the fourth phase of a missile defense shield or U.S. tactical nuclear weapons. Europe sees the United States rushing to the exit but goes along with it, pretending that it doesn’t really matter.

And Europe pretends that the U.S. security umbrella over Europe is a permanent fixture, allowing it to divert resources to other forms of security, specifically social security and pensions for a rapidly aging population. Americans may scold Europe from time to time about this but Washington pretends that all they really need from Europe is political support and validation of U.S. policy objectives.

This self-deception represents a real crisis for an institution that remains a crucial provider of stability and security, not only within Europe but globally. Given this cognitive dissonance, the question becomes how to change this dynamic in light of diminished political leadership and defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic.

Step One: Acknowledge the problem.  Yes, it begins with “Hi, my name is NATO and I have a defense spending and political leadership problem.” While we can continually rebrand NATO’s declining capabilities as “smart defense,” only to become “smart-er defense” at the next summit, it doesn’t stop the decline. No more gimmicks, just hard and unpleasant truths about the current state of the alliance. One of these very hard truths is acknowledging that the alliance does not have a common threat assessment. Some NATO allies are deeply concerned about instability in North Africa and the Sahel, many others are not. Some NATO allies are concerned about potential Russian aggression, many Allies are not. If NATO cannot agree on the threat (as they could during the Cold War), they cannot rationalize both their future defense spending and military capabilities.

Step Two: Rationalize European defense capabilities, with strong U.S. involvement. This critical reconstruction process begins with a trilateral discussion between the United States, the UK and France (and eventually bringing Denmark, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, Canada, and Belgium into the conversation).

This is where we need to take a closer look at what the French have said in their Defense White Paper and what Paris will say in its Procurement Annex in the next few months. French expeditionary capabilities are maintained but the number of deployable forces is reduced. The French now hope to deploy 15,000 troops, 45 fighters and a carrier strike group for a major operation. The original plan envisioned five years ago was a deployment of 30,000 forces. While this limits the range of operations, it does ensure that the existing capabilities, equivalent to the force numbers actually deployed by France in the last few years, will be adequately trained and ready. . . .

Step Three: Seek to better understand and leverage  defense industries as a whole. Unfortunately, no country seems to have a solution for the increasing cost of military hardware. Western militaries rely heavily on technology to achieve superiority in the battlefield yet these high-tech capabilities are very expensive. On both sides of the Atlantic, we have all experienced fraught procurements. Clearly, there is a need for better intra-analysis of the evolution of these costs and an ability to identify ways to mitigate them. One important incentive to invest in defense spending is national industrial participation. Building a local defense industry and support for an integrated transatlantic defense industrial supply chain through a network of European companies would be a strong incentive for these countries to give more importance to military capabilities.

Step Four: Despite the difficulties, stay positive. Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier. One of former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous “13 Rules to Live By” could be generously deployed around NATO headquarters and Washington these days and applied to the future direction of the transatlantic defense relationship. Some in Washington complain that NATO is becoming a “coalition of the unable and the unwilling,” others say NATO operations look more and more like “come-as-you-are and don’t stay long” efforts. Stop the nattering and focus on the positives. The UK and France are quite able and willing to take the lead of a medium size overseas military operation. German defense spending has increased slightly since 2011 while Poland recently announced it would increase its procurement spending by €43 billion over the next decade targeting a new missile defense system, new vessels for the naval fleet, upgraded tanks, unmanned aerial vehicles and equipment for troops. Add to this list Norway, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands and you have willingness and capability to act in the framework of a coalition, with modest but modern and effective capabilities. . . .

However, none of these steps will matter until we do one basic thing—stop pretending. NATO is a different organization than it was 15 years ago and failing to acknowledge this reality has put the alliance on a path toward obsolescence. We must urgently redefine what NATO can do realistically, both militarily and politically, to ensure that NATO will be institutionally relevant in the future.

Heather A. Conley is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Maren Leed is a senior adviser with the Harold Brown Chair in Defense Policy Studies and Ground Forces Dialogue at CSIS. (photo: Reuters)

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