Nebulous NATO

A Quest for Relevance

NATO Ministers of Defense and of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels 2010
Nebulous NATO : A Quest for Relevance - Timothy J. Sandole


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is considered the most successful military alliance in history, and yet, its future is clouded in uncertainty. With the end of the Cold War, followed by the breakup of the Soviet Union, NATO has suffered from a structural problem that has become more acute over time—the absence of a clearly defined existential threat to Europe. This makes for a dubious raison d’être. If NATO’s future was ambiguous immediately following the Cold War, it is disquieting to consider its role in an environment of draconian defense cuts, fiscal woes in the United States, a Europe-wide financial crisis, and a U.S. military shift toward the Pacific.

Yet NATO is not going to disappear anytime soon, no matter how bleak the prospects for its existence might appear. First, European security, though lacking a clear antagonist, is still important; second, NATO has evolved from an organization dedicated to collective defense into an institution “complete with transnational command structures, a permanent bureaucracy, buildings, regular meetings and ceremonies, its own logo, website and so on.”1 Like any bureaucracy, NATO has a self-preservation instinct and seeks to maintain autonomy, prestige, and influence. Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s Smart Defense initiative, unveiled at the 2011 Munich Security Conference, aims to keep NATO’s influence intact as the cash- strapped United States draws down its military presence in Europe.2 Smart Defense intends to pool military resources and encourage European member states to specialize in areas where they display a competitive advantage.

While certainly no panacea, Smart Defense must be encouraged. This initiative will not solve the Alliance’s structural problems, but it can incentivize European member states to take on significant responsibility for their own security and that of the European periphery in light of U.S. retrenchment. Some European nations are heeding the call, although it remains unclear whether their behavior will influence other countries. NATO will remain relevant if member states increase defense spending, or, at minimum, begin trying to do more with less.

Robert Gates Drops a Bomb

In June 2011, the then U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates dropped a rhetorical bombshell on Brussels: NATO faced“the real possibility [of] a dim, if not dismal future.”3 The outgoing secretary used the bully pulpit to speak sternly about the Alliance’s languishing abilities, most notably its 2011 intervention in Libya, and how the United States was constantly making up the difference.4 NATO’s lackluster performance was due in part to the failure of a vast majority of member states to meet the individual designated defense spending benchmark of 2 percent of GDP.

Gates’s remarks hardly surprised Stephen Walt of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government: “NATO has been on borrowed time ever since the Soviet Union collapsed because military alliances form primarily to deal with external threats, and they are hard to hold together once the threat is gone.”5 At present, there exists no significant threat to the continent comparable in destructive potential to the Soviet Union, which means that “Europe has little reason to invest a lot of money in defense these days, no matter how much Americans implore them to, and so they turn a deaf ear to American entreaties.”6 Combine this with the Europeans’ incentive to free ride on the appropriations historically set aside by the United States for NATO, and it becomes easy to understand the asymmetries that compromise the cohesion of the Alliance.

The absence of a commonly defined threat has allowed member states to prioritize their disparate national interests. Members’ reluctance to demonstrate a full show of force has been evident in every conflict involving NATO since the Alliance’s contribution to ending the genocidal war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Disunity over mission objectives has contributed to lackluster capabilities and force employment, as displayed most prominently in Libya, but also in Afghanistan. In the same bombshell speech given in Brussels, Secretary Gates unambiguously stated, “Despite more than two million troops in uniform—not counting the U.S. military—NATO has struggled, at times desperately, to sustain a deployment of 25 to 40,000 troops [in Afghanistan], not just in boots on the ground, but in crucial support assets such as helicopters, transport aircraft, maintenance, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, and much more.”7 If the policymakers of a member state do not perceive a strong national security interest in toppling brutal dictators such as Muammar Qaddafi or maintaining Alliance forces in Afghanistan, that state is unlikely to expend blood and treasure to achieve such goals. A withdrawal of U.S. military presence from the European theater, however, is causing some Alliance members to reevaluate their positions.

The Asia Pivot: A Precipitate for European Action?

With no adversary on Europe’s horizon, coupled with U.S. fatigue from protracted and strategically questionable counter- insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration has rediscovered its national-interest bearings and begun shifting valuable resources to the Pacific—a region where future great-power competition (and cooperation) is destined to occur. U.S. national security policy is thus refocusing on major, nuclear-armed powers—countries that could threaten the destruction of the United States. Although Russia satisfies this definition, Richard Betts of Columbia University convincingly argues that “Russia is less of a potential challenge than China given the lopsided distribution of power in Europe since the Cold War, the fragility of Russia’s economic recovery, and the lack of a casus belli as insoluble as the Taiwan problem could prove to be.”8 China, on the other hand, is a ‘returning power’ with high expectations. Furthermore, it is a party to numerous unresolved grievances and maritime disputes in the South and East China Seas, some of which have come close to open hostilities. America’s rebalancing toward Asia will last because of the pressing need to maintain the status quo: preserving access to the global commons and the regions necessary for upholding America’s economic prosperity and security. What does this mean for Europe?

A wake-up call, no doubt. Tomas Valasek, president of the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava, Slovakia, points out that “NATO will either adjust to this new state of affairs or its credibility will shrink further...Never before in NATO’s history were America’s allies of so little use for the kinds of scenarios that most occupy defense analysts.”9 A first step in preventing this gap from widening is to encourage the implementation of Smart Defense, whereby military capabilities and resources would be pooled to maximize Europe’s security responsibility in its own backyard.

Recognizing the new strategic reality, Norway has gone a step further by appropriating more money for defense in 2013, including a 30 percent funding increase for cyber security.10Denmark’s Defense Minster Nick Hækkerup recently completed an arrangement whereby all five Nordic countries will jointly operate C-130s, among other military transport aircraft.11These countries may indeed become a collective poster child for Smart Defense, but it is too early to tell whether other nations will follow their example. Prosperous Germany, which Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski memorably described as Europe’s “indispensable nation,” remains the biggest question for R. Nicholas Burns, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO. Burns argues that a robust German defense posture would “be the greatest boost to NATO.”12Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany’s former ambassador to the United States, goes a step further, arguing that NATO should rebalance with the United States toward the Pacific.13 Burns’ prescription is commendable, though Germany continues to lack strategic ambition proportionate to its stature as Europe’s most powerful country. Ischinger’s proposal is unreasonable given Europe’s dismal fiscal state of affairs. Germany is too busy saving the European Union from itself to worry about supposed military threats to Europe. What incentive does it have to behave otherwise, given the unprecedented ‘Kantian peace’ in Europe? Why should any European NATO member state behave otherwise?

European Security Is Still Important

There will come a time when the European financial crisis subsides, at which point NATO members can seriously consider spending more of their tax revenues on defense. There may also come a time when a security crisis, most likely unforeseen, grips Europe’s attention—in the Balkans, the South Caucasus, Kaliningrad, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Central Asia, or the Arctic. The civil war engulfing Syria is such a concern for Turkey, for example, that it has reached out to its NATO partners for help. The United States, Germany, and the Netherlands have each agreed to provide their NATO ally with two Patriot missile batteries, along with 400 troops, in order to deter any Syrian missile attack on Turkey.14 The even contribution of military resources made by the three allies is intriguing, considering the lopsided distribution of military power among them.

Whether this is proof of a more activist Germany, however, remains to be seen. Similarly, whether the tragic civil war in Syria represents a serious threat to Europe is unclear, making European security and NATO a relevant topic of discussion. If the Europeans are serious about maintaining NATO’s relevance in the wake of U.S. recalibrations, they will have no choice but to become more active in their sphere of influence and re-energize an alliance suffering from an identity crisis. Though lacking munitions to complete their mission, the British and the French in Libya displayed leadership that could be a harbinger of NATO’s future operations. Over the next decade, more attention and pressure is likely to be focused on Germany in this respect.

To be sure, the United States is not jettisoning its NATO Article 5 commitments in Europe. Washington will remain a steadfast guarantor of European security under conditions of significant threat. However, discretionary missions like those in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia during the 1990s—or Libya in 2011—will no longer be of primary strategic concern for the United States. Accordingly, Europe will be the likely target for the $487 billion reduction in U.S. defense spending planned for the next decade. As Barry Pavel and Jeff Lightfoot of the Atlantic Council point out,

[Europe] must tend to its neighborhood with greater care and call in the reinforcements of the United States only when absolutely needed...The United States will do what it must—playing roles and providing surge capabilities that only it can provide—and Europeans will bear the rest of the burden for operations that are more in its own interest than those of the United States.15

Ties That Bind

The bonds between the United States and Europe are strong. A common history, culture, and political and economic philosophy have made the alliance formed in 1949 even more robust. Common bonds, rather than overwhelming strategic concerns, have played a significant role in keeping NATO up and running since 1990. But strategy has no room for nostalgia, and ties that bind need not be maintained solely through bullets and armor. The interests of the United States have changed, and so have those of Europe. As the United States moves from a grand strategy of primacy to selective engagement in Europe, NATO members will be pushed to invest more energy and resources in an alliance that has, to an unprecedented degree, denationalized their respective defense apparatuses. NATO has provided an arena for conflict resolution among member states and their sometimes contentious neighbors, ultimately facilitating a continent-wide peace. It is time to recognize the new strategic reality and plan accordingly, in large part to avoid any unintended consequence that could undermine Europe’s unique democratic peace.

Notes & References

  1. Richard K. Betts, “The Three Faces of NATO,” The National Interest, March/ April 2009, 31.
  2. “NATO’s sea of troubles,” The Economist, March 31, 2012.
  3. “Transcript of Defense Secretary Gates’s Speech on NATO’s Future,” The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011.
  4. Lisa Aronsson and Molly O’Donnell, Forward to “Smart Defense and the Future of NATO,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs (Chicago, 2012): v.
  5. Stephen Walt, “Gates to NATO: Drop Dead?” Foreign Policy, June 13, 2011.
  6. Ibid.
  7. “Transcript of Defense Secretary Gates’s Speech on NATO’s Future,” The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2011.
  8. Richard K. Betts, American Force: Dangers, Delusions, and Dilemmas in National Security(New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 172.
  9. Tomas Valasek, “Europe and the ‘Asia Pivot,’” New York Times, October 25, 2012.
  10. Jorge Benitez, “Norway increasing its 2013 defense budget, including 30% boost to cyber security,” NATO Source Alliance News Blog, October 8, 2012.
  11. Jorge Benitez, “Nordic Countries to Share Warplanes,” NATO Source Alliance News Blog, October 8, 2012.
  12. R. Nicholas Burns, Damon M. Wilson, Jeff Lightfoot, “Anchoring the Alliance,” Atlantic Council(Washington, DC, 2012): 5.
  13. Wolfgang Ischinger, “The Future of the Transatlantic Agenda: Can We Re-Balance Together?” Lecture given at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, November 13, 2012.
  14. “Turkey names sites for NATO patriot missiles near Syria,” Reuters, December 21, 2012.
  15. Barry Pavel and Jeff Lightfoot, “The Transatlantic Bargain after Gates,” in “Smart Defense and the Future of NATO,” The Chicago Council on Global Affairs (Chicago, 2012): 68.
Timothy J. Sandole is an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. He holds a Master of International Affairs (MIA) from Columbia University.