Admiral Jim Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, isn’t very sympathetic to arguments that Allies can’t afford to meet their commitments because of the dire economy.  “Two percent is two percent,” he flatly stated.

In a speech to the Atlantic Council, Stavridis noted that, despite the downturn, NATO is incredibly wealthy, with a combined GDP of $31 trillion.   And, the benefit of a percentage based threshold is that it fluctuates.   So, two percent of a smaller economy is proportionally less than it is for a stronger one.

He noted that, on a personal level, we all pay insurance for our cars, houses, health, life, and retirement that probably add up to more than two percent, so it’s “no so unreasonable” am amount to pay for all the benefits member states get from the world’s greatest security alliance.

Further, he noted upon questioning from Council president and CEO Fred Kempe, “security and stability” are even more important needs in the midst of a crisis.  After all, he pointed out, “No other nation has ever attacked a NATO nation.”

Stavridis acknowledged that there had been some failure of Alliance leaders to persuade their citizenry of the value of NATO, which explains why there has been so little political will to live up to the two percent obligation.  “We’re very good at launching missiles,” he declared, “but we need to get better at launching ideas.”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who introduced Stavridis and led the Group of Experts who just submitted their NATO 2020 report, noted how much effort Secretary General Rasmussen and other Alliance leaders were putting into selling the benefits of NATO to the publics of the 28 member states.  Rather than writing the new Strategic Concept behind closed doors, every effort has been made to hold meetings and include many outside voices.  And, indeed, her report has been made widely available for public comment months ahead of final decisions being made.

Asked pointedly in the Q&A by Atlantic Council senior advisor Harlan Ullman what happens when the two percent isn’t forthcoming, Stavridis said that, in that unfortunate case, the Alliance will continue to do what it has been doing:  picking and choosing priorities based on the available resources.    Given that Ullman’s scenario is a near certainty, I expect that this is what we’ll see:  NATO continuing to muddle along with less than an ideal level of political support and financing.

It’s the job of Rasmussen, Stavridis, and those who support that cause to make the case to their publics as best they can.  But, in the end, democracies follow the will of the people and those charged with protecting those people do their best with less than they desire.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: Harlan Ullman