An International Platform

for Chicago’s

Thought Leaders

Charting NATO’s future path

NATO "must set for itself a new agenda of lean, highly interoperable capabilities, built around an organizing principle of flexibility to address the threats of an uncertain international system," argues Marc A. Sorel.

By Marc A. Sorel



In his last major policy address as U.S. Secretary of Defense in June 2011, Robert M. Gates conveyed to NATO colleagues in Brussels the blunt message that many think tanks, universities, and independent study groups have expressed before and echoed since: the Alliance’s capability gaps and institutional shortcomings threaten its future effectiveness. The timing of the message—delivered one week after Secretary Gates explained in Singapore how the United States intended to expand its defense presence in Asia—added symbolic heft to its substance. The premise of Gates’ focus, as it has been for NATO since the end of the Cold War, is a simple, if daunting, question: What is NATO good for?

The answer in 2011—from an operational perspective, the busiest in the alliance’s 63-year history—was quite a lot. In Afghanistan, NATO forces achieved significant territorial gains that shifted momentum in the south and sustained their surge operations, despite political circumstances in many NATO countries that required repeated justifications of the effort. In Libya, the NATO-led air campaign protected the rebels, toppled Muammar Qaddafi, and helped clear the way for a new political system, however fitfully, to form in its wake. In Kosovo, the NATO-led stabilization operation continued to facilitate the country’s development of its own national security forces. In Africa, NATO continued to collaborate with a coalition of non-NATO members to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa while simultaneously supporting African Union missions on the continent.

It is unlikely that the twelve nations whose leaders put pen to paper in Washington on April 4, 1949 ever envisioned an alliance with so broad a range of global commitments.

But business should not be confused with effectiveness. The variety of NATO’s operations, the operational shortcomings of NATO’s Libya campaign, the age of austerity now gripping the Alliance’s member nations, the U.S. strategic pivot toward Asia, and the emergence of transnational threats raise a number of issues surrounding what is and ought to be NATO’s core capability and intention.

Without efforts to close spending gaps, without investments in what Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen dubs “smart defense,” and without increased cooperation with European Union defense assets, NATO risks deepening the capabilities gap exposed during the Libya campaign—a campaign during which the Alliance ran short on key munitions and was lacking in intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance (ISR).

NATO’s recent budgetary history is stark. As U.S. contributions increased from 50 to 75 percent of the Alliance’s budget during the Cold War, European defense spending has decreased substantially—by as much as 15 percent since September 11, 2001. Less than a quarter of the Alliances’ 28 member states pay the two percent of GDP into NATO coffers that countries agreed to pay. Exacerbating the erosion of the continent’s defense capability is the United States’ shifting of conventional forces away from Europe, by transferring assets from the 6th fleet in the Mediterranean toward the 7th in the Pacific and planning to remove two of its four remaining brigades—a total of 6,000 to 10,000 troops—from Europe.

The alliance also struggles to identify an organizing principle for itself that spurs genuine contributions from all members and avoids the type of “two-tiered alliance” against which Secretary Gates warned in his June 2011 address. The missions in Afghanistan and Libya, for example, present two fundamentally different views of what NATO ought to be in the future, though many officials claim that neither represents what NATO will become in the years ahead. The lack of such focus creates gaps between intention and capability. Libya provides an illuminating example: all NATO countries voted in favor of action in Libya, yet fewer than half participated in the actual military operation. The variety of growing unconventional transnational threats—resource scarcity and cyber attacks, in particular—raises further questions about how NATO should focus its future efforts. Combine this with a rising generation of leaders that has no personal experience with the Cold War—an experience which almost exclusively defined NATO’s existence for the first 50 years—and the varying intentions of the Alliance raise concerns about its ability to continue functioning as an effective, efficient source of legitimacy for the protection of transatlantic security interests.

Aware of these challenges, Secretary General Rasmussen has proposed—and NATO has undertaken—a number of efforts to reposition itself to accommodate the emerging tectonic shifts. NATO’s smart defense agenda is geared to ensure member countries achieve economies of scale in defense production, minimize capability gaps exposed during the Libya operation, and provide a robust missile defense capability. The future of smart defense will be a topic of interest at the Chicago summit in May, as will the future commitment of NATO to Afghanistan, framed by the recent announcements of France and the United States to accelerate their troop withdrawal schedules.

Countries are already pursuing efforts under the smart defense umbrella. The Dutch government, for example, disbanded its two remaining armored divisions as part of austerity-related measures, but it also reallocated a portion of its defense budget toward support of a continental ballistic missile defense system. Similarly, in an effort to guard against future shortfalls following the Libya campaign, Denmark initiated a program for joint acquisition and stockpiling of weapons and munitions.

More than improving on existing capabilities or clarifying its near-term commitments to current operations, NATO must build on the new Strategic Concept adopted in Lisbon in 2010. The Alliance, in acknowledging current global economic conditions and the rise in transnational, unconventional threats, must set for itself a new agenda of lean, highly interoperable capabilities, built around an organizing principle of flexibility to address the threats of an uncertain international system. This would include the development of a robust cyber defense capability similar to efforts underway at the Pentagon, the professionalization of its ground forces to compensate for reduced troop contributions, the development of a special operations capability to improve its force projection and rapid response capacity, and increased cooperation with Asia Pacific partners, like Australia and Japan, toward which the balance of geopolitical power will increasingly lie in the years ahead.

With these goals in mind, the question NATO’s leaders should ask themselves in Chicago is not “What is NATO good for?” More appropriately, they might consider what it should be good for in the future. A vigorous, concerted, and sustained response to that question would preclude the need for blunt messages among transatlantic friends in the years to come.