NATO Defense Ministers Send Mixed Signals

NATO Ministers June 2011

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ provocative speech in Brussels attracted widespread media attention, but several important decisions were made during the two-day NATO defense ministers meetings which will have a more immediate impact on the future of the alliance. 

The most prominent of these issues is NATO reform. Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared that agreements were reached to streamline NATO agencies and re-shape NATO’s military command structure. According to Rasmussen, “[t]ogether, these reforms will make NATO more affordable – offering even better value for our Allies’ money. They will make NATO more effective – focusing on the capabilities and command systems we need.” 

But NATO is not being forthcoming with the details of these agreements so they may just be agreements to agree at some future date. For example, the NATO Heads of State agreed in Lisbon to reduce the number of agencies to three. After the Defense Minister’s meeting last week, NATO released a document which at first glance seems on track with this objective. “By this reform, agencies will be organized along 3 major programmatic themes: Procurement, Support and Communications and Information.” Yet, this same document also states that a “new NATO Science and Technology (S&T) Organization will be created before July 2012.” Furthermore, the document also reveals that “current NATO Standardization Agency will continue and be subject to review by Spring 2014.” Therefore, it seems NATO has postponed the decision on its standardization agency until 2014. For some reason, the document providing even these limited details is no longer available on the NATO website. 

NATO officials have also declined to provide details of how the alliance military command structure is being re-organized. But Reuters reports that Rasmussen has proposed trimming the number of command bases from 11 to 7. In spite of the language used to describe the agreement by NATO defense ministers, the alliance is still keeping it secret whether the four bases to be closed have been chosen. NATO sources have disclosed off the record that Rasmussen is proposing “closing one of each of the land, air and naval bases and one joint-force command.”  

In contrast, NATO Defense Minister’s did reach a clear agreement on a new alliance Cyber Defense Policy. Under this revised policy, new cyber defense standards are being introduced and centralized protection will now be provided for all NATO systems. “The policy clarifies political and operational mechanisms of NATO’s response to cyber attacks, and integrates cyber defence into NATO’s Defence Planning Process.”  

Such changes were necessary because NATO has been under growing attack from cyber threats. According to an internal NATO memo obtained by Spiegel, the “scale and sophistication of cyber attacks against NATO’s own networks and against Allies’ critical infrastructure are steadily increasing” while the nature of the cyber threats has risen from "mainly espionage and exploitation … to wide-scale disruption." Rasmussen himself has acknowledged the incessant cyber attacks against NATO. “Nowhere is the need to act today rather than tomorrow more evident than in the area of cyber security . . . It is no exaggeration to state that cyber attacks have become a new form of permanent, low-level warfare.” 

In spite of this agreement, NATO also received bad news during the defense ministers meeting. In one of the closed sessions, Canada’s Defense Minister Peter MacKay disclosed his country’s intention to end its participation in one of NATO’s key programs. Citing budgetary constraints, Canada is concluding its participation in NATO’s Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). This was not publicly announced, but reported by CBC News. This program is one of NATO’s most successful efforts for pooling contributions from its members into shared assets. These prized aircraft have played a significant role in NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya. 

In addition, just a few hours after Gates’ speech, the Norwegian government, which has “carried out about 10 percent of the NATO airstrikes in Libya since March 31,” declared that its fighter jets will be withdrawn from the Libya operation by August 1. This decision emphasizes the difficulties NATO is facing sustaining its military forces over Libya and political unity between its members.  

It was a busy week for NATO. While most of the world’s attention focused on the gloomy warning and sharp words in Gates’ speech, the actual work that took place during NATO’s defense ministers meeting offers both hope and disappointment to the supporters of the transatlantic alliance. Hope that progress is being made in cyber security and that incremental steps forward are being taken in NATO reform. Disappointment that NATO leaders have yet to take decisive action on important, but relatively small issues such as trimming agencies and cutting military bases.

Why are the members of NATO still mired in these issues and not addressing the critical problems raised by Gates in his speech? The recent decisions by Canada and Norway demonstrate that even allies that have been strong in the fight are finding it difficult to overcome the current fiscal crisis. But the lack of proper funding is simply a symptom of a deeper problem: a lack of political will. 

Gates ended his speech with words of hope: “Over the life of the transatlantic alliance there has been no shortage of squabbles and setbacks. But through it all, we managed to get the big things right over time. We came together to make the tough decisions in the face of dissension at home and threats abroad.   And I take heart in the knowledge that we can do so again.”  

While I agree with his statements, I also note the nuance of his words. Gates and I both have hope that the leaders of NATO “can do so again.” But there are too many national leaders within the alliance that are choosing not to. Too many members of NATO are getting “the big things” wrong and avoiding “the tough decisions.”  

Now is the critical time for supporters of the transatlantic alliance to make their voices heard within each NATO capital and hold their leaders accountable for protecting the military shield which has provided peace and secured prosperity since 1949. The economic interdependence of Europe at the start of the 20th century did not prevent World War I and the war weariness of Europe in the 20s and 30s did not stop World War II. Neither of these will keep the peace in the 21st century.  

NATO is our common defense and it has kept the peace for more than six decades. So let us argue and complain as brothers in arms. But let us also heed the warning from Gates and start making the tough decisions together. 

Dr. Benitez is the Director of NATOSource and a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Reuters.

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