A selection of experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
As NATO’s job is to keep its member states safe, no, it is clearly not doing enough.
For too long, NATO has been dominated by an Eastern and Northern prospective that saw Russia as the main adversary to be contained. The alliance did not listen to the South’s repeated warnings that the situation in the Middle East was progressively worsening and getting out of hand.
Europe is under attack, and NATO now needs to straighten its priorities. Its member states need to unite—for real—starting with pooling intelligence and resources if there is to be any hope of defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State. NATO can be instrumental in taking this step and has to do so before it is too late. There is no point in having a safe border if the inland is at war.
For more than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the core of European security was unchallenged. Recently things changed, and the Ukraine crisis turned out to be a dramatic game changer for the Old Continent and NATO. The Atlantic alliance, especially its U.S. shareholder, chose to revise its priorities by shifting back from out-of-area tasks—a sort of mantra from 1991 to 2013—to a deterrence posture based on NATO’s article 5, which states that an attack on one ally is an attack on all. History is back in Europe, with its Cold War ghosts, and NATO appears to be back in business again.
Yet collective defense is only one part of a more complex security environment that extends well beyond Eastern Europe. Out-of-area missions are not out of date. Turmoil in the Mediterranean region and the greater Middle East shows that the war on terrorism is not over. It is no coincidence that the national debates on NATO’s priorities are very vibrant in the light of the two contemporary uncertain situations on the Eastern and Southern flanks. If the alliance wants to claim to be doing enough for Europe, it needs to reconcile these two fronts and find a comprehensive strategic identity.
Can NATO do anything in Europe? Some of the challenges confronting the allies have a tired familiarity to them: defense spending is generally lackluster; U.S. leadership of NATO is wearing thin; and the relationship between NATO and the EU limps along. Then there are deeper challenges that question NATO’s existence. Russia’s aggressive behavior along its borders suggests that NATO has miscalculated the nature and intensity of the threat to Europe. But NATO governments are unlikely to rush to reinvest in conventional warfare capabilities. What, then, is NATO actually for: defense (in the Cold War sense) or security (in the post–Cold War sense)? Or both?
In blunt terms, do NATO allies have the will to fight on behalf of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the event of territorial incursions by Russia? Would NATO’s collective self-defense agreement—article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty—be invoked and honored by NATO governments?
NATO also has little to offer in terms of deterrence: European deterrence is now a delicate facade, swaying ominously in even the lightest of strategic breezes. And the alliance seems unable to offer a strategic narrative that is as convincing as those presented by its opponents.
No. This is a critique not of the United States but of all the allies. NATO encompasses all 28 members, with their differing politicians, voters, wishes, economies, priorities, and complexes. Common defense has not been the highest priority of any NATO member in the last two decades.
The usual argument in the alliance is over what proportion of GDP each ally spends on defense. Yet the real issue is not the sum of money spent but the identification of threats. In NATO’s neighborhood, Russia (in Ukraine and Syria) and Islamists (in Syria, Iraq, and Libya) have clearly targeted goals they want to achieve. Yet NATO itself does not have goals that are sufficiently defined to concentrate allies’ efforts and limited resources. These resources do not have to be tanks or artillery, as modern war is waged to a great extent in cyberspace as well as on traditional media.
NATO as an organization that represents Western liberal values and freedoms should be more active with soft skills in countering Russian and Islamist propaganda while slowly rebuilding hard skills to defend the alliance’s territory. In terms of these soft skills, what NATO needs is not so much the power of the United States as the smartness of smaller players like Estonia while it wages an ongoing information war over the minds of people in NATO member countries.
The current drift toward polarization within NATO is underscored by inadequate levels of defense spending in Europe overall, with only a handful of European allies meeting the target of 2 percent of GDP agreed on at the alliance’s Wales summit in September 2014. Moreover, though the allies have committed to fielding new capabilities, these have been insufficiently exercised, if at all. NATO needs to increase the overall readiness and responsiveness of the whole force structure, well beyond quick-reaction units, and develop a new maritime strategy.
It is now increasingly apparent that the July 2016 summit in Warsaw is unlikely to yield consensus on setting up permanent U.S. and NATO installations along the alliance’s northeastern flank in the Baltic states and Poland. Instead, NATO is opting to preposition equipment and conduct exercise rotations. There is a divergence of views among European allies on this key issue, which is indicative of a larger disagreement over how to deal with Russia and what might constitute a sufficient shift from reassurance to reinforcement.
When it comes to defense, money is a clear indicator of political will. The fourfold increase in U.S. spending for deployments in Europe announced on February 2 by the administration of President Barack Obama has communicated the United States’ commitment to NATO. Still, amid current personnel cuts and increased commitments in other theaters, the United States cannot be expected to make up for the persistent shortfalls in personnel and equipment of its European allies. The U.S. effort must be complemented by significant European contributions.
The views expressed here are the author’s own.
NATO did a tremendous job by giving European and transatlantic defense policy a home when it was most needed—in immediate reaction to Russia’s military raid of Crimea in March 2014. The alliance’s Wales summit in September 2014 delivered a strong political message about NATO’s intention to defend Europe.
This is half of the equation. The other half is the capability that supports the political message. Europe has lost about 25 percent of its defense capabilities over the last decade. Short-term military measures like the spearhead Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) only rearrange existing capabilities. They do not stop the bleed of European capabilities. The several brigades and key capabilities currently demanded by many to be put on NATO’s Eastern flank are simply not existent.
(Re)building Europe’s military power is a long-term business. Contrary to political intentions and short-term commitments, capabilities that offer a sustainable basis for defense policy—and thus deterrence and reassurance—require allies’ determination to commit over an unlimited period of time to collective efforts. This implies not only spending more resources but also increasing cooperation from defense research to maintenance, from defense planning to training. Otherwise, the little additional money that some Europeans have committed to defense will not do the trick.
The risk is that NATO adulates itself too much for being a champion over a political short distance, while forgetting that there is a military race to win to secure Europe.
As an institution, NATO is doing as much as it can in Europe. But NATO is only a sum of its parts, and there are significant differences in what some of those parts seem prepared to do to support it. Former U.S. president John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It would be nice if more member states asked the same of themselves in relation to NATO. They should not see the alliance as a security blanket only to protect them; rather, they should see themselves as important components of a powerful phalanx.
The UK and the United States have a special role within NATO, not only as its historical champions, but also as its ultimate custodians. Yet other countries also have a critical role to play, not least in rebuilding their defense budgets after years of atrophy and decline. Here, the Baltic states and Poland are already emerging as exemplars with their renewed commitments to maintain or rebuild defense spending to 2 percent of GDP.
But NATO’s members must do more to bring the components of deterrence back into robust alignment. NATO is threatened to the East and to the South, threats that are—with Russia's interference in Syria—mutually reinforcing. Deterrence works only if an opponent believes the strongest members will come to the defense of the more exposed. Moreover, unless it is integrated with the ability to deny an enemy access to NATO territory, the threat of punishment will look like bluff.
Therefore, NATO’s overall posture must be realigned toward its frontiers, both to the South and, especially, to the East. NATO—particularly its European members—have their work cut out. They must not rest until the alliance is more secure.
The author writes here strictly in a personal capacity.
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