How budget woes, lagging technology, a resurgent Russia and domestic politics are dissolving the power of a legacy military alliance.
There will be a lot at stake at the end of November when world leaders gather for a pivotal NATO meeting in Lisbon. The meeting is meant to hash out a new Strategic Concept, an all-encompassing document issued every decade that guides the alliance’s actions and priorities. The last Concept was drafted before 9/11, before the subsequent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and before Russia’s resurgence as a regional power (and a worldwide power player).
NATO was smaller back then, as well, and has since adopted countries in the former Soviet Union that border Russia. It’s a different world—and there is serious doubt that NATO will have the money and political fortitude to remain relevant.
Money troubles are nothing new to NATO, but in the midst of a worldwide recession, they’re worse than ever. Right now, NATO faces a shortfall of about $700 million. Helicopters are sorely lacking, combat ships are unreliable, and soldiers go into combat without the benefit of modern unmanned aerial vehicles (unless they are using the United States’).
Now add a grim future. The financial situation, globally, is dismal. In Europe, deficits and cutbacks are feeding street protests and layoffs. NATO members have agreed—well, never on paper—to dedicate at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense spending. But even before the financial crisis hit, only a handful of nations (yes, five of 28) were meeting that goal. The U.S. spends about 4 percent of its GDP on defense. So there’s a gap there, and over the years that disconnect became a dependency. “I am specifically concerned when it comes to defense spending in Europe,” NATO’s secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said recently. “We cannot end up in a situation where Europe cannot pull its weight when it comes to security.”
It may be too late: The military of the founding members, such as France, Germany and Britain, are becoming increasingly weak. France and Germany do not reach the 2 percent threshold, and their recent diplomatic breakthrough has been the formation of a group to coordinate their upcoming military cuts. Last week France’s single aircraft carrier had to turn around and return to port for repairs just days into its recent NATO mission. It will likely return to duty within a week, but the setback is more than symbolic. France is not operationally ready for serious military action.
Britain has consistently met the 2 percent goal, but cutbacks announced this week cast some doubt over how viable the country will be as a military partner. A military budget cut of nearly 10 percent is seen as fortunate: other ministries got the axe up to 25 percent. Seems reasonable, until you realize that the Ministry of Defense there already faces a 38-billion-pound shortfall in during which they have no carrier strike capability, and overall numbers of warships and combat airplanes will be reduced. 17,000 personnel will be cut. Operations measured in years (“enduring missions”) will have a limit of 6000 troops; short-term deployments are capped at 30,000.
Being interoperable with the United States military takes a lot of money. It takes investments to buy technologically advanced hardware, but also expenditures on joint training and manpower. An effective NATO will consume cash, and no one seems able or eager to start writing checks.
“The Demilitarization of Europe”
In the absence of enemy tanks at the border, many nations in Europe are happy to let the military budgets subside, even without the economic malaise. U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates summed it up neatly earlier this year. “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,” he said during a speech. “Since the end of the Cold War, NATO and national defense budgets have fallen consistently, even with unprecedented operations outside NATO’s territory over the past five years.”
The wild card here might be the inclusion of small nations that feel threatened by Russia. After Georgia took its licking at the hands of the Russians in 2009, many NATO members pondered whether the United States was too extended in the Middle East to stand up for Eastern Europe. Granted, Georgia is not a NATO member, but Estonia and Hungary sure are. Earlier this year, Ukraine scrapped plans to join NATO, a result of shifting internal politics but also a reflection of the decrease in the status of NATO and the U.S. in that corner of the world. The difference in world view between the former Soviet Union nations and western Europe is hard to reconcile.
And then there is Turkey, the wild card of the alliance. Although the nation has been a reliable member since the 1950s, there have been recent tensions between Turkey and other European nations, mostly over the fact that Cyprus (an island that Greece and Turkey fought over, and is still divided along a militarized border) is in the European Union. The EU requires all its members be involved in any security cooperation with NATO; and that includes Cyprus. So, with Turkey in NATO, there is no dialogue between the EU and NATO since two of its members despise each other. Adding to the instability, Turkey also has eyes cast to the east, and has been very vocal about considering Russia when planning NATO’s future. This divide is most clearly visible in the decision to place missile defense equipment in Europe, which unnerves Russia. Enabling controversial shipments through the Israeli blockade of Gaza and refusal to support United Nations sanctions on Iran are also testaments to Turkey’s shifting focus.
The Future for NATO
NATO has always been about shared enemies: What do all these nations have in common? Terrorism, cyber attacks and piracy are shared enemies. All of these irregular threats do not lend themselves to big military solutions. Many nations offer the threat of ballistic missiles as a common ground, but Russia’s obstinacy over that issue is making consensus difficult, even as North Korea, China and Iran develop weapons with longer ranges. Russia will be at the NATO meeting as well—one of the major new efforts at the NATO meeting in November is aimed at repairing Russian relations. Some of this will translate into politicking for the New Start nuclear treaty (yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate) but the backstory could be what Russia demands in exchange for a NATO missile defense effort.
The last time NATO drafted a Strategic Concept, the United States was bombing Serbia to create an independent Kosovo, over Russian objections. Back then, critics called it a half-hearted, poorly crafted police action. Who knew it could be seen, in retrospect, as a high-water mark? These days, by comparison, NATO seems anemic and tilting towards irrelevance
- Russia Accepts Invitation to Attend NATO Summit Meeting (nytimes.com)
- Analysis: Turkey hesitates on missile defense (sfgate.com)
- Eastern pact may tempt EU from Nato | Simon Tisdall (guardian.co.uk)
- Turkey Maintains Reservations About US Missile Defense – The … (jamestown.org)