World Politics Review | 11.23.10
World Politics Review Special Report | 12.1.10
By Alan W. Dowd

NATO’s new Strategic Concept, the first reworking of the alliance’s mission statement since 1999, offers plenty of promises. However, the alliance seems to have overlooked a number of problems in making good on those promises.

First, the promises:

• The Strategic Concept calls on the allies to develop their capacity to “defend against and recover from cyber-attacks,” protect “critical energy infrastructure,” “promote…security with our partners around the globe” and “maintain robust…conventional forces to carry out…Article 5 responsibilities and…expeditionary operations.”
• Article 5, NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause, is the heart of the North Atlantic Treaty. When it was adopted in 1949, Article 5 sent an unmistakable message that an attack against any member would be considered an attack against every member. Back then, the intended audience was Moscow. But the new Strategic Concept declares, “NATO poses no threat to Russia,” adding that the allies “will always assist each other against attack, in accordance with Article 5...no one should doubt NATO’s resolve.”
• The new Strategic Concept commits the allies to “develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack,” pointedly calling this new mission “a core element” of collective defense.
• The document calls terrorism “a direct threat to the security of the citizens of NATO countries.”
• Recognizing that shouldering new missions in new areas of the world—while carrying out NATO’s enduring mission of protecting allied territory—requires more military resources, the new Strategic Concept challenges NATO members to “sustain the necessary levels of defense spending” and to deploy “sufficiently resourced” forces.

These are all worthy goals, but NATO is not well positioned to achieve them. The problems abound.

Take defense spending. Most NATO members are slashing their military budgets. Britain is cutting defense spending by 8 percent, drastically reducing its naval fleet, mothballing aircraft carriers, shrinking its army, and retiring entire squadrons of warplanes. Britain and France are so focused on defense-spending cuts that they will share an aircraft carrier.

A government commission has recommended that the German defense ministry shed 70,000 troops and cut military spending $13 billion. Italy is planning troop reductions and cancellation of new warships and fighter aircraft. And the list goes on.

NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen has urged NATO members to “take care not to cut too much or in the wrong way, that we might jeopardize our security in the future.” But in a very real sense, the future is now.

Most NATO members have been cutting—or flat-lining—military spending since the end of the Cold War. Only five NATO members muster the will to meet the alliance’s set standard of investing 2 percent of GDP on defense. Rasmussen notes that the U.S. accounts for 73 percent of NATO’s overall defense spending today; in 2000, it was 49 percent.

“The resulting funding and capability shortfalls,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates observes, “make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats.”

If you doubt this, look no further than Afghanistan, where American forces fill the gaps left behind by allies who overpromise and under-deliver. The United States is contributing 71 percent of all NATO forces in Afghanistan, which brings us to Article 5.

It pays to recall that Afghanistan is an Article 5 operation—the first in NATO’s history—but the gravity of this seems lost on some allies. After all, NATO’s military commanders routinely have to beg for more troops to support the Afghanistan mission. Although every ally technically has troops in Afghanistan, some are in the process of withdrawing their contingents. Several others have deployed only token contingents—some in the single digits. And it’s illuminating that non-NATO members Australia, Georgia and Sweden have more troops deployed than Belgium, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal—all founding members of the alliance.

Just as disappointing, some members don’t allow their troops to engage the enemy. Throughout the war, certain allies have invoked what NATO euphemistically calls “caveats” to steer clear of Afghanistan’s restive regions.

Equally troubling, some NATO contingents are ill-suited for battle. Italy hasn’t allowed its fighter-bombers in Afghanistan to carry bombs. German forces, until recently, were required to shout warnings to enemy forces—in three languages—before opening fire.

If, as the Strategic Concept declares, terrorism “poses a direct threat” to NATO, then why are so many NATO nations unwilling to fight this threat at its source?

The answer to that question is what causes friend and foe alike—Hamid Karzai and Muhammed Omar—to doubt NATO’s resolve.

Back in Europe, NATO is ready to build a networked missile defense. However, it could succumb to the same lowest-common-denominator limitations that hamper other alliance-wide efforts: Turkey has insisted on control over missile defenses placed on its soil, which could render a missile shield meaningless given Turkey’s deepening ties to Iran.

One of Iran’s patrons, Russia, is no longer viewed as an enemy, according to NATO. The feeling is not exactly mutual. If Russia’s cyberattacks on NATO member Estonia and mugging of NATO aspirant Georgia didn’t get the message across, then its 2010 military doctrine should. Among the central threats identified are efforts to endow NATO “with global functions” (i.e. NATO’s out-of-area missions and expeditionary operations) and efforts to move “military infrastructure” closer to Russia (i.e. missile defense).

Finally, NATO needs to defend its patch of cyberspace and its energy-supply arteries, and there are places “around the globe” that want NATO’s help. But if Afghanistan is any indication, NATO seems more interested in offloading missions than in shouldering new ones.

None of this is to say that NATO has outlived its usefulness. NATO represents a readymade structure where Washington can build coalitions of the willing, a vital bridge to global hotspots, a force-multiplier for U.S. power. But what former NATO secretary general Manfred Woerner counseled at the end of the Cold War remains true today: “The United States should not expect others to deliver much.”