ASCF Report | 11.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd
is heading for the exits in Afghanistan, even though the mission of rehabilitating
the very country that spawned 9/11 is far from accomplished. That’s not the
only sign that the venerable alliance is in the midst of a major retrenchment,
if not a large-scale retreat. In Syria, NATO has
remained doggedly uninvolved, even though Syria’s inferno is scorching NATO
member Turkey and has spawned chemical-weapons attacks. In Mali, NATO allowed
France to go it alone. In the increasingly-contested Arctic, which borders five
NATO members, NATO has backed away from earlier commitments to play a direct
role in securing the oil-rich region. And all across the alliance, governments
are cutting their defense budgets and gutting their militaries.
irony is that not long ago, NATO was poised to become what President George W.
Bush called “an expeditionary alliance” capable of exporting stability to the
world’s trouble spots. Indeed, in the decade after the 9/11 attacks, NATO
deployed aircraft to North America as part of its Article V all-for-one
commitments, marched into Afghanistan, formed the basis of an international armada to
intercept WMDs, combatted piracy off the Horn of Africa, transported African
Union peacekeepers, trained Iraqi soldiers, delivered equipment to Central
Asia, prevented a Bosnia-style (or if you prefer, Syria-style) bloodletting in
Libya, and assisted Estonia after crippling cyber-attacks. Some observers saw
in these post-Cold War missions the outlines of a global NATO on call to
intervene where the UN can’t or won’t.
NATO is more interested in offloading missions than shouldering new ones. As
NATO’s will tapers and its resources shrink, NATO’s global reach and role will
follow a similar trajectory. Where that trajectory ultimately leads NATO—back
to focusing on deterrence or into irrelevance—remains to be seen.
The signs are not good. NATO’s big idea post-Afghanistan is actually a
collection of small ideas. NATO calls
it “Smart Defense.” Under Smart
Defense, the alliance designates a member to take the lead in shepherding
others toward a function-related goal like improving logistics, enhancing ISR, expanding
force-protection capability or clearing mines—not exactly stuff for the history
books. Just compare Smart Defense with earlier NATO efforts: In 1999, NATO
pledged to make “full use of every opportunity to build an undivided
continent,” underscoring its commitment to that goal by adding Poland, Hungary
and the Czech Republic. In 2002, the alliance committed to the fight against
terrorism and WMDs—and invited seven new members into the fold. The headlines from NATO’s 2008 summit included formal
membership invitations to Croatia and Albania, plus endorsement of an
alliance-wide missile defense.
In short, Smart Defense is a low-risk,
low-yield program for a NATO with lowered sights and lowered expectations.
Yet another indication that NATO’s role and relevance are shrinking can be
found in the storylines from Afghanistan and Libya.
In Libya, without the United
States in the lead, NATO was found woefully lacking in munitions, targeting and
jamming capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms,
drones, and command-and-control assets—just about everything needed to conduct
a 21st-century air war. Moreover, after
toppling Qaddafi from 20,000 feet, NATO steered clear of the post-Qaddafi mess
on the ground, taking a markedly different approach than in Bosnia, Kosovo or
Given what happened in
Afghanistan, perhaps it’s easy to understand why the alliance limited its role
in Libya and averted its gaze from Syria. If NATO’s withdrawal is ignominious—what
word better describes the spectacle of the richest, most technologically
advanced, most powerful countries on earth being outlasted and outwitted by a ragtag
collection of tribes and clans?—then most of what transpired during its
decade-plus mission in Afghanistan is downright disheartening. It would be
laughable had the stakes not been so high.
all, Italy didn’t allow its fighter-bombers in Afghanistan to carry bombs.
Germany required its troops to shout warnings to enemy forces—in
three languages—before opening fire. Certain allies invoked what NATO
euphemistically calls “caveats” to steer clear of Afghanistan’s restive
regions. Most NATO members had to hitch a ride with the U.S. Air Force or rent
Soviet-era transports to deploy.
Just as disappointing, NATO’s military
commanders had to beg for more troops to support the Afghanistan mission. In
fact, the United States contributed 71 percent of the force, and non-NATO
members Australia, Georgia and Sweden had more troops deployed than Belgium,
the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal—all founding members of the alliance.
It pays to recall that Afghanistan was an Article
V operation—the first in NATO’s
history—but the gravity of that was apparently lost on some allies.
NATO is an alliance, meaning its members are
supposed to be on the same team. That was called into question yet again by the
recent transatlantic surveillance flap, which spawned angry charges from European politicians that the United
States was spying on its allies—charges that were sternly rebuffed by
countercharges from U.S. intelligence officials that European intelligence
agencies were actually doing the snooping and then sharing the intel with their
American counterparts. The episode served only to splinter the alliance and weaken
intelligence gathering on both sides of the Atlantic by revealing the existence
and methods of ongoing operations.
NATO’s inability to deploy and fight once deployed is largely a function of insufficient
defense spending going back many years.
As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates
has noted, NATO’s
European armies “have been
chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time.”For instance, during the 1999 Kosovo War—long before the
era of austerity ushered in by the Great Recession—just 10 percent of NATO’s European combat aircraft were capable
of precision bombing. Total European defense spending shrunk by 15
percent in the decade after 9/11, meaning Europe’s deficit of will
perversely coincides with the first and only time the alliance has invoked
Europe’s defense capabilities are shrinking
accordingly: Britain is cutting troop strength by 10 percent and retiring 40 percent of its main battle tanks. France is
cutting 34,000 military personnel over the next five years. Italy is
cutting 10,000 troops and cancelling orders for warships and fighter aircraft.
Germany is reducing civilian and military numbers by 90,000 and slashing its
NATO’s defense cuts today might make sense if peace were breaking out on NATO’s
borderlands. But we know the very opposite to be true.
Iran’s nuclear-weapons program continues
apace. Terrorist networks like al-Qaeda are expanding their influence in Syria,
Iraq and North Africa—NATO’s European doorstep. The Arab Spring has triggered a
cycle of re-revolution in strategic countries like Egypt. And as NATO declaws
itself, Russia—in the midst of a 65-percent increase in military spending, with plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new
warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 28 new submarines in the next decade—is making
claims in the Arctic and carrying out provocative maneuvers and weapons
deployments in areas bordering NATO states.
Some observers argue that NATO’s far-flung post-Cold War missions are evidence
that NATO overreached and outlived its raison d'être. President Reagan was
never in that camp. In 1992, with the Cold War won, Reagan called
on NATO to “reinvent itself to deal with the kind of inhumane situations we now
see,” pointing to the alliance as “an antidote to chaos.” Ever the visionary,
Reagan recognized that by evolving, NATO could play a stabilizing role beyond
its membership footprint. In Bosnia, Kosovo, across Eastern Europe, and in the
niche roles key allies played from Africa to the Gulf of Aden to Central Asia,
NATO proved its worth in the post-Cold War world. Indeed, despite its flaws, the
post-Cold War NATO served as a readymade structure where Washington could build
coalitions of the willing, a vital bridge to global hotspots, a
force-multiplier for U.S. power.
NATO can still do that. However, if there is no will and no
money for the alliance to become an antidote to global chaos, then NATO should jettison
dreams of evolving into an expeditionary alliance, return to a more static,
Cold War-style mission, and focus on defending NATO’s territory and deterring
NATO’s would-be foes (e.g., Russia in the Arctic and Eastern Europe, Iran and
other missile-armed rogues capable of threatening the North Atlantic area,
jihadist groups operating in areas bordering the Mediterranean). Toward that
end, there are several
strategic items NATO can address:
- Preventing miscalculation and
deterring war. After focusing on low-intensity counterinsurgency
operations in Afghanistan for a decade, the allies may have lost their
deterrent edge, which makes
NATO’s recent announcement of “major live exercises on a regular basis,
with a broader scope and covering the full range of alliance missions” so
month, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania will host NATO’s largest live-fire,
high-end military exercise in eight years. The size, scale and location of the maneuvers—stretching
across two former Soviet republics and a former Soviet satellite—send a clear
message about NATO’s commitment to Eastern Europe.
- Making missile defense credible. To mollify Moscow, the
Obama administration unilaterally scrapped the Bush administration’s
missile-defense plans for Europe—plans that had been approved by NATO. Instead
of planting a permanent ground-based defense in Poland and radars in the
Czech Republic, the Obama administration proposed deploying
missile-defense warships to the Mediterranean and temporary, land-based
variants of the sea-based system in Eastern Europe. But this watered-down
version of missile defense gained nothing from Moscow, fractured relations within NATO and provided less
protection from Iran’s growing arsenal.
- Reaching the 2-percent threshold. Two years ago, just
five NATO members met the alliance’s standard of spending 2 percent of GDP
on defense. NATO’s latest financial report indicates only three
meet that standard today. The United States should lead an alliance-wide
effort to help each member develop an action plan to lift their defense budgets
to the 2-percent standard by a date certain. Washington should lead by
example by reversing sequestration’s disastrous cuts.
- Reviving Article V. Article V of the North Atlantic
Treaty is the backbone of the alliance, committing all members to the
defense of a member that has been attacked. Yet Norwegian Minister of
Defense Espen Barth Eide warns that “Article V is not in good shape” and worries about NATO’s ability
“to deliver if something happens in the transatlantic theater of a more
classical type of aggression”—and understandably so given NATO’s weakening
defenses and weakening resolve in certain episodes in Afghanistan. If
NATO’s members do not take Article V seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies.
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.