NATO in an Age of Austerity

World Politics Review

October 26, 2010

Lead essay to the “NATO’s Identity Crisis” special issue.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been in trouble for much of its 60-year existence. Indeed, since the earliest days of the alliance, Americans have complained about burden sharing and important policymakers have issued dire predictions about the organization’s imminent demise.

More recently, few thought NATO would survive the collapse of the Soviet Union, which it was created to contain. Yet, two decades later, the alliance is bigger than ever and engaged in the most significant military conflict in its history.

Still, many continue to believe that NATO is outmoded. Europe is largely without threat, they say, and the European Union, with a gross domestic product (GDP) 127 percent of that of the United States, could surely defend itself even were that not the case. Others argue that the future lies in Asia, not Europe, and that America’s strategic focus should shift accordingly. Finally, many point to the war in Afghanistan as proof that there’s little appetite in Western Europe to engage in any more “out of area” fights.

Kurt Volker, a career diplomat who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to NATO, recently said, “It is hard to overstate NATO’s lack of unified commitment and vision.” In combination with a lack of political will and a dearth of resources, that would seem to spell doom for the alliance as a global expeditionary force, at least in the foreseeable future.

Adding to the pressure that faces NATO leaders as they prepare to assemble next month in Lisbon to ratify a new Strategic Concept is the fact that the global recession is forcing an age of austerity on most member states, with the most significant allies slashing their defense budgets to prioritize more-pressing domestic concerns.

While in all likelihood NATO will pull through, there’s reason to fear that it will do so as a hollow organization. At the same time, there’s some reason to hope that NATO’s leaders will instead use the forced belt-tightening to rethink how the alliance’s member states might work together in order to make NATO even more central to trans-Atlantic security.

Europe Cuts Its Already Small Military Budgets

Going back to at least the 1970s, Americans have complained that the European allies were free-riding on U.S. security guarantees, contributing less than their fair share to Europe’s defense. That trend has exacerbated since the end of the Cold War, with Europeans’ belief that their security is less threatened leading to a reduced emphasis on defense, even as the United States’ determination to remain the only global power has resulted in defense spending that by some estimates exceeds that of the rest of the world combined.

Even before the current budgetary crisis, only five of NATO’s 28 members were living up to their obligation to commit 2 percent of GDP to defense. Now, as Ian Brzezinski and Damon Wilson, former senior policymakers currently at the Atlantic Council, put it, “All allies are cutting or flat-lining defense spending.”

France, which recently reintegrated into NATO’s military command and had been ramping up its military budget for years, is now reversing course, announcing in October plans to curtail outlays by $1.77 billion over three years.

The details of Germany’s spending cuts have yet to be finalized, but Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has announced plans to cut the size of the country’s standing army from 250,000 to 165,000, and to end conscription. He has also expressed his intention to cancel most new procurement, especially planes for the German air force.

Italy has already cut its meager defense budget by 10 percent, an across-the-board amount applied to all national spending. The actual cuts to forces, however, will be token, with the savings coming out of training and operational budgets.

Brzezinski and Wilson note that, additionally, “Denmark is considering $500 million in savings by 2014 out of an annual budget of just under $4 billion. Central European allies are contemplating cuts of similar magnitude, and growth of the Pentagon budget will be surpassed by inflation.” They add that these trends are likely to be enduring.

Perhaps the most shocking development of all, however, is the U.K.’s long-anticipated and recently released Strategic Defense and Security Review (.pdf), which some fear reduces the alliance’s second-largest military from its status as a recognizable, if minor, global power to merely another faceless player on the field. Following months of anxious speculation, the final blow was not as bad as many had feared. Overall spending was cut only 8 percent, meaning the U.K. will continue to meet its NATO obligation to devote 2 percent of GDP to defense. Support for the Afghanistan deployment will also continue to be funded at present levels, and an increase is even forecast for spending on conflict prevention, cyber security and special forces.

But the British army and navy will see substantial personnel cuts, with the latter forced to absorb the cancellation of the Nimrod maritime patrol aircraft and the retirement of the Harriet jump jet, as well as delays in the acquisition of several projects. More startling is the news that the HMS Ark Royal is being immediately retired, leaving the Royal Navy, once the world’s leading fleet, without an aircraft carrier for the next decade. The first of two replacement carriers will not arrive until 2016 and will carry not airplanes but helicopters. And when the second carrier ultimately comes on line, it will only be able to carry American and French jets until the Joint Strike Fighter comes online in 2020!

British Prime Minister David Cameron recently assured U.S. President Barack Obama that “the United Kingdom would remain a first-rate military power.” That a standing so long taken as a given is even in doubt is quite a blow.

The Anglo-American “special relationship” has been a force for good for the last century, predicated on a shared heritage, shared values and the strong capabilities of both partners. While the United States long ago took the mantle of senior partner in that relationship, the U.K. remained first among equals when it came to the other NATO allies. But after the current round of cuts, Cameron has been reduced to boasting that Britain “will continue to be one of very few countries able to deploy a self-sustaining, properly equipped, brigade-sized force anywhere around the world and sustain it indefinitely if needs be.”However, the ability to deploy 30,000 troops will for now be reserved for “a major, one-off operation.”

As the pseudonymous author of the defense-related blog Ink Spots observed, “Short of a nuclear deterrent, the U.K. is positioning themselves to be virtually unable to project ground forces to meet their own strategic needs without significant support from coalition partners. By that, I mean the United States.”

Austerity Could Topple an Already Unbalanced Alliance

Addressing the wave of budget reductions, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has begged alliance members not to cut too deep, warning that “there is a point where you are no longer cutting fat; you’re cutting into muscle, and then into bone.” Rasmussen argues that the alliance and the security it protects hang in the balance:

We have to avoid cutting so deep that we won’t, in future, be able to defend the security on which our economic prosperity rests. And we cannot end up in a situation where Europe cannot pull its weight when it comes to security. The result would be that the EU Lisbon Treaty, which I strongly support, would be a hollow shell. And the United States would look elsewhere for its security partner. That is not a price we can afford.

That the U.S. will lose patience with its European allies and no longer see NATO as worth the effort is no idle threat. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of this very risk in a February speech at National Defense University:

The demilitarization of Europe — where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st. Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but, on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats.

NATO scholars Julian Lindley-French and Yves Boyer — British and French, respectively — have called on the European allies to end the “strategic vacation” many have been on since the end of the Cold War.

Lindley-French has elsewhere referred to a Great European Defense Depression, “where a case for armed forces and the use of force has been damaged so profoundly by a mixture of indolent European action . . . and frankly, by a lot of poor American leadership.” Speaking of the war in Afghanistan, he maintained that “very few Europeans went into [it] believing that we were going to win; we did the least possible to keep [the U.S.] engaged in our security and defense and paying for much of it.”

Lindley-French is doubtless right that this attitude is partly the fault of American leadership, not only for dragging the European allies into a war in which most quite reasonably saw little threat to their own security, but also for defining its strategic goals so amorphously as to make victory unachievable. But, frankly, the problem is mostly cultural.

The current round of spending cuts are being forced on European governments by the global recession, which simultaneously reduced money coming into the tax coffers and increased demand for economic stimulus and social spending. But the fact that defense is taking the bulk of the hit reflects the prevailing attitude in Donald Rumsfeld’s “old Europe” that its security is not threatened and that military spending is therefore a luxury. Recent remarks by Liam Fox and Hervé Morin — the defense ministers of the U.K. and France, respectively — further call into question European commitment to the alliance. The two accused NATO of being “a bloated . . . organization that is consuming far too much money for the output [its members] are receiving,” and argued that the “fat needs to be trimmed away, because we’re not in NATO as a job creation project.”

Then again, as Gregory Scoblete, writing on Real Clear World’s blog, the Compassobserved, “If you were a NATO member looking at crippling debt loads and the urgent need to slash government expenditures, and you knew you had the world’s most powerful military obligated by treaty to ride to your rescue, where would you make cuts?”

But the commitment issue is not one sided. While the United States continues to carry more than its fair share of the alliance’s financial burden, spending 4 percent of GDP on defense even apart from the off-budget spending in Afghanistan, its plans to trim costs by closing some bases in Germany and bring two combat brigades stateside remove the most tangible symbol of America’s continued commitment to Europe.

Nor has it helped that the Obama administration continues to signal that Europe is no longer as central to American foreign policy as it was in the past, most notably by skipping key European meetings that predecessors customarily attended. Meanwhile, its efforts to bolster relations with Russia have come at the cost of snubbing NATO allies in Central Europe.

Nevertheless, widespread support still exists within the security-policy community for the existence of NATO, even if there is little consensus on what exactly it should be doing. So despite continued American grumbling about disparate burdens and European complaints about American dominance, there is not much danger of a formal end to the alliance as an institution.

No, the danger isn’t so much NATO’s demise but its obsolescence. Regardless of whether one views it as a mere tool for defending member states from attack or as an ambitious, global expeditionary force, NATO must have some means to carry out these missions. At a minimum, European allies must be able to field forces that can fight alongside their American counterparts, which means they must possess compatible equipment, communications, computers and the like, as well as train together on a regular basis.

Europe’s smaller, poorly funded forces will not be able to do this without a radical transformation in the way they do business.

Austerity as an Opportunity

Former NATO Ambassador Robert Hunter offers another path, calling the spending cuts an “opportunity for more serious discussion inside the alliance about the need for countries to [use] any savings to concentrate on more deployable, sustainable and useful forces in crises that the allies are liable to face outside of Europe in the foreseeable future.”

Brzezinski and Wilson agree, arguing that, “Defense budget cuts need to be coordinated to minimize their negative effects on alliance capability. They should be leveraged to pool resources, with more modularity among platforms and systems and national capability specialization.” As an example of this kind of rationalization, they point to NATO’s strategic-airlift consortium, which pools the resources of 10 NATO members and two partner nations to jointly operate C-17 transport aircraft based in Hungary, as “the right cost-saving model.” They also call on the alliance to maintain its commitment to develop a common unmanned-aerial-vehicle program, and advocate for the adoption of an alliance-wide missile-defense project.

While such talk may have been in the realm of fantasy until recently, there are real signs that this transformation may already be underway. The most obvious example has been the truly remarkable progress made over the last several months toward Anglo-French cooperation — something virtually unthinkable in recent memory. As World Politics Review editor Judah Grunstein recently noted, “The fact that this has moved beyond the realm of wild speculation and is indeed considered imminent by most serious observers is a testament to the sea change that’s occurred.”

To be sure, the talks are preliminary and the agreements thus far vague. Not only is it incredibly difficult for any nation to put its security in another country’s hands, but as a recent article in the Economist pointed out, there are particularly salient domestic political sensitivities at play between Britain and France. The Suez Crisis, after all, is within living memory. But as the Economist also noted, both countries feel a powerful incentive to swallow this bitter pill, due to “a growing realization that, unless Europe’s leading military powers work closely together, the next decade will see an irretrievable shrinkage in their capability.”

Thus, the chances are good that the two most powerful countries in Western Europe will pool strategic airlift, aerial tankers and all manner of training and research and technology functions, with possibilities for further cooperation — including in nuclear warhead simulation-testing and coordination of aircraft carrier mission schedules — being actively explored. Again, this sort of cooperation would simply have been unthinkable before the present crisis.

Not all of the allied militaries are going to coordinate their forces to this degree in the near future — although it is a logical path for the longer term. But at the very least, they can feasibly coordinate cuts and acquisitions in such a way as to avoid duplication of effort and ensure that all necessary bases are covered. As one NATO expert at a recent off-the-record discussion put it, we need to ensure that NATO isn’t a potluck dinner where “everyone brings the brownies.”

In addition to forcing smarter cooperation, the present austerity could also break another longstanding logjam: the absurd barrier between NATO and EU defense.

France long considered the latter an independent counterweight to an alliance that Paris viewed as dominated by U.S. interests. Now, not only is France once again a full-fledged member of NATO’s military command, it is also guaranteed command of Allied Command Transformation, one of three plum Supreme Allied Commands.

Conversely, the United States long saw the EU’s security apparatus as a rival to NATO, diverting already meager European security resources from the alliance. But the Obama administration has convincingly signaled that it no longer holds this view.

The third obstacle to NATO-EU cooperation has been the disparity in respective memberships, most notably Cyprus’ membership in the EU and lack of membership in NATO and vice versa for Turkey. But the need to provide effective trans-Atlantic security cooperation on a tighter budget might create enough pressure to overcome these obstacles.

NATO Survives: To Do What?

The question that has plagued the alliance since the end of the Cold War remains just as salient today: What is NATO’s purpose? According to the existing Strategic Concept, written in 1999 in the wake of the interventions in the former-Yugoslavian states of Bosnia and Kosovo, in order to maintain its relevance, NATO would have to embrace an “out of area” security role. While retaining its identity as a collective defense alliance, NATO members recognized that they must be able to work together in a “new security environment” and “stand ready, case-by-case and by consensus, in conformity with Article 7 of the Washington Treaty, to contribute to effective conflict prevention and to engage actively in crisis management, including crisis response operations.”

The problem, as demonstrated by the ongoing operation in Afghanistan, is that “consensus” can make for a moving target. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were deemed an Article 5 — collective defense — action by the North Atlantic Council in the midst of international sympathy for the United States. But the Taliban government that had harbored the perpetrators was quickly dispatched, and the mission was subsequently allowed to metastasize over the course of nearly a decade into something wholly outside the scope of Article 5.

Has Afghanistan killed NATO’s out-of-area mandate? Perhaps. Certainly, the Great Defense Depression referred to by Julian Lindley-French means that consensus for any such mission is extraordinarily unlikely anytime soon.

Over the past few months, dozens of high-level discussions with insiders either working on or close to the negotiations for the new Strategic Concept have offered little reason to question Kurt Volker’s previously cited observation about NATO’s “lack of unified commitment and vision.” Virtually every contentious issue appears to be still up in the air as of this writing, less than a month from the Lisbon summit at which it will be finalized.

Far from being the grand unifying vision for a renewed alliance that was imagined as recently as a year ago, the final document will essentially be a punt. The assembled ministers will agree on some vague language about working together on a variety of listed tasks, while articulating little in the way of substance that might bind the alliance together.

Given the current environment, that’s not such a bad outcome. Ultimately, NATO’s continued existence, even without a shared vision on future missions, is important in its own right. As Ramsussen recently observed, “There is no place but NATO where Europe and North America sit together every day to assess the security issues that affect us, and figure out how to tackle them together.” Even though no pressing security threat exists today that might unify the alliance in the same way that the Cold War-era threat of nuclear annihilation did, the NATO allies continue to share interests and values that will, from time to time, require collective action to defend. And when that time comes, they must be prepared to do so.

The original essay is paywalled here