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December 11, 2008

"What About NATO?" asks an unsigned Economist editorial, with the ambitious subhead "How the alliance should move forward." Its premise is that the Georgia crisis demonstrated NATO's lack of will to stand up to Russian aggression and created serious doubts among the Alliance's new members, especially "Poles, Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians" and that therefore "NATO’s credibility could do with a boost."

The problem won’t be lubricated by money. Some countries may be able to boast that defence spending as a share of GDP is going up. But that will be because GDP is going down, not because more money is going for bullets and battleships.

[...]

The best way forward would have the following elements. First would be a series of new arms-control initiatives to show the Kremlin that America takes Russia seriously. That could include talks on START 3 (covering strategic nuclear weapons, where Russia’s arsenal is already embarrassingly weak); on anti-ballistic missile systems; on the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty (holed by a Russian suspension) and on weapons in space.

A second element would be to drop explicit talk of membership for Georgia and Ukraine (agreed in principle already) and concentrate on building up boring but important capabilities such as policing arms sales, storage of ammunition and training, planning, and managing reservists (the last being a glaring failure in Georgia’s case). As those reforms take root, the chance that other NATO countries find the prospective new members more credible will grow.

A third element would be to ensure that NATO’s original mission—territorial defence of its existing members—is in no doubt. That requires the capability to send forces on expeditions; whether these are to Darfur, Somalia, Estonia or northern Norway is a secondary question. If the question of formally categorising Russia as a threat is too politically ticklish, then it can be left. The main thing is to make sure that the right forces, properly trained and equipped, are available if needed.

The piece concludes, "To be fully effective, NATO needs to be realistic about what it can’t do, as well as what it can." Well, yes. But these solutions contain problems of their own.

Getting a handle on nuclear weapons would be helpful, of course.  Both the US and Russia have large stockpiles of outdated warheads and negotiating these down to a managable inventory would be win-win.  Missile defense, on the other hand, is incredibly contentious, not only bilaterally but within NATO as well. 

Holding off on admitting Georgia and Ukraine into the Alliance is likely prudent, given both internal issues with both countries and real questions as to whether key existing members would be willing to go to war against Russia, if necessary, to defend them.  But it's not at all clear that bowing to Russian pressure will boost NATO's credibility.

Expanding capabilities is a concept that all members can agree upon.  After all, a military Alliance which is not equipped to fight is not very useful.  But how to do it?  Most of the Allies from 'Old Europe' have been very reluctant to invest in defense in recent years, which is understandable given exploding costs in social programs and a lack of an eminent security threat.  The meltdown in the global economy makes it much harder to generate sympathy for defense spending, unless it's sold as a jobs program.

Ultimately, NATO's members will have to decide what, precisely, the Alliance is for and that the mission is one worthy of the costs.   Ideally, that will happen through the ordinary process of meetings and strategic concept sessions.  More likely, though, it will take the emergence of a unifying threat that the members take seriously.   If so, we can only hope it's not too late by then.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.