And Still It Moves: Reconfiguring NATO for the 21st Century
As heads of state from NATO member states and partner nations convene for the second day in Chicago, the director of Northwestern University's Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies assesses the Alliance's present operations and contemplates its future.
NATO Flickr Photostream
In my previous installment to this series I made the case that NATO today is a vastly different beast than it was six decades ago. For most of the past half century, NATO consisted of diverse actors united only in their opposition to a common enemy. Today, the reverse is the case. NATO is composed of a relatively homogenous group of democratic countries that are economically, militarily, and politically intertwined. The challenges it faces no longer come from a clearly defined external foe but from myriad other, more opaque, sources. Is NATO, one might ask, still the right organization to deal with such challenges?
The first test for NATO in its current form comes from the diminished capability and perhaps diminished will of the NATO members. Very few of the twenty-eight members have met the stated objective to allocate 2 percent of GDP to their armed forces. Thus, by the calculations of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the United States leads the way, in allocating almost 5 percent of its GDP to defense. But the European contributors lag considerably. Taking the “big three,” the United Kingdom allocated 2.6 percent of its GDP and France mustered a still respectable 2.1 percent. But Germany, for all its economic prowess, spent only about one percent and a quarter of its GDP toward defense. Some of the larger European economies, such as Italy, were not even expected to hit the one percent mark. This is not simply due to economic feebleness. Germany has not met the target, even though its current capital account surplus rivals that of China.
While the NATO campaign in Libya has been heralded as a success, it also revealed shortcomings in NATO’s ability to handle complex operations given that the United States preferred that other states took over its leadership roles. Thus while the French air force was credited with flying 25 percent of the sorties over Libya, it also revealed shortcomings in logistical capabilities and refueling capacity. Similar problems befell the British forces. Whereas U.S. refueling capacity allows for one tanker per six combat aircraft, the other NATO members must fall back on a 26-to-1 ratio. The American capabilities to perform across distance were vastly superior. Naval forces, too, were stretched to the limit. France’s sole aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle thus had to stay at sea well beyond its scheduled refit.
NATO’s capability has also been questioned in Afghanistan, particularly given the diversity of orders coming from national capitals rather than a unified command. German troops, for example, operated under a vastly different mandate than, say, the British or Canadians. Matters of capability overlay a diversity of opinions and policy objectives. Even if many could agree on the need for intervention in Afghanistan, the NATO members were disjoint in their combat operations.
In addition, the Afghanistan mission introduced a new political element. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) pooled twenty-eight NATO allies with twenty-two non-NATO nations. It introduced the notion of “28 plus,” that is, the possibility that NATO objectives might require the assistance of other countries on an ad-hoc basis to deal with emerging crises and conflicts.
The ongoing attempts to stabilize Afghanistan also reveal how difficult state-building is in areas that have lacked Western levels of economic development and institutions. While NATO efforts might be faulted for a lack of coordination and capability, the high level of U.S. efforts in this regard—in Afghanistan as well as Iraq—only underscore that interventions with the aim of building stable democratic institutions face a very high hurdle indeed.
But the ledger also shows considerable positives. First, in the face of a shifting balance of power, the major European states still possess substantial military assets. Undoubtedly, the United States, with 46 percent of global defense expenditures—or $740 billion in real terms—dwarfs all states. The British Empire, with its two-power standard to equal the second and third navies of the world, could only have dreamed of such good fortune.
But the United Kingdom (with $63 billion in defense expenditures), France (with $59 billion), and Germany (with $44 billion) do not trail too far behind China. The latter’s expenditure, while difficult to measure, was estimated at $90 billion. And these three European states basically match or surpass Russia’s expenditure of $53 billion. Put another way: NATO still accounts for almost two-thirds of the total world expenditure on defense.
Existentially, Alliance members must thus feel secure from any major power threat. For the foreseeable future it is unlikely that NATO will face an external security threat that challenges the membership in the same way the Warsaw Pact did. Indeed, given the U.S. military pre-eminence and given the robustness of nuclear deterrence the likelihood of a major power war seems slight. Admittedly, though, this will require some of the major powers, including the United States, to seriously re-evaluate the nature of their force structure. France and Britain in particular will face significant debates at home regarding the need to maintain an independent nuclear force at current levels.
Second, our evaluations of transatlantic relations should not be overshadowed by singular events. The invasion and reconstruction of Afghanistan and Iraq were highly ambitious—or highly misguided, depending on one’s views—from the start. One need not necessarily conclude that any NATO action to deal with the security issues in fragile or failing states and out-of-area operations should, per definition, be outside of NATO’s purview in the future or inevitably be doomed for failure.
Third, and perhaps less visible to the public, there have been successful efforts by NATO members to limit the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Through such means as providing funds for the destruction of WMD in the former Soviet space; enabling concentration of bio-chemical weapons in secure sites; and information sharing; the NATO members have sought to prevent proliferation and possible use of such WMD.
Moreover, one might also recall that in the face of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, NATO members rallied unanimously and quickly to invoke Article 5, even though Article 5 was designed to deal with quite a different security scenario. As I wrote earlier, the fact that NATO is a club of democratic states means that they are united in their fundamental objectives, even if their means to achieving ends might vary.
This opens up the space for debate regarding when out-of-area intervention might be deemed necessary in dealing with failed or fragile states or states that threaten large numbers of their own civilians. None of this should be construed as a blank check for NATO action, even if it had the requisite capabilities. It does suggest, however, that NATO members will have to deal with the external effects of states that either cannot, or will not, adhere to international norms and laws. If such states create serious externalities in harboring terrorist organizations or by precipitating mass migration of refugees, NATO members will inevitably be pulled in. Even if such states primarily threaten their own populations, action might be called for to remedy such transgressions. Some have cited Libya as one example of success, while others deplore the lack of action in the Sudan, Congo, or Rwanda.
To conclude, the clarity of NATO’s mission certainly has become more opaque. But this does not relegate the organization to irrelevance, even though it will have to become a reconfigured, more flexible, organization.
The nature of security threats will be multi-dimensional requiring a cluster configuration, which might be at the sub-NATO or super-NATO level. That is, various states might come together to jointly face particular security threats. These configurations could consist of a sub-group of NATO members, groups within NATO cooperating with non-NATO countries, NATO in its entirety, or 28-plus configurations. Some NATO members might thus enter into agreements to tackle piracy of the Somali coast or straits of Malacca. NATO has several ships deployed as part of Operation Ocean Shield. Other configurations might tackle diverse threats as terrorism. Cooperation with Russia on this issue is already taking place in working on systems to prevent terrorist attacks using civilian aircraft. Yet other configurations might tackle 21st-century threats like cyber warfare.
Indeed, in some respects NATO has already gone down the road of multi-task flexibility. It has started to overhaul its command structure, cut some of its organizational staff, and begun to experiment with clustered group organizations around specific issues that need not include the entire membership and that can even extend beyond the membership proper.
Thus, contrary to some predictions, NATO has not died. It has not even faded away. But it is fair to say that it has undergone, and is still undergoing, a significant metamorphosis from what it once was.