Capstones | 7.8.15
By Alan W. Dowd
“We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow
margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength,” Churchill warned at the onset
of the Cold War. Lt. Gen. Riho Terras, who commands Estonia’s military, sounds
positively Churchillian as he tries to shake his NATO allies out of their
post-Cold War/pre-Cold War lethargy: “If the Russians sense a window of
opportunity, they will use it to their advantage. We must make sure there’s no
room for miscalculation.”
Regrettably, many of NATO’s political leaders are working on
the narrowest of margins, and the populations who keep them in office are
sending Moscow the very worst signal at the very worst time.
According to a recent Pew
survey, there’s not majority support in Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, France or Poland for
defending a fellow NATO ally from Russian attack.
As if to answer their wayward publics, NATO officials recently turned to
Twitter to declare: “NATO commitment to Article 5 is rock
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause, declaring that “an
armed attack” against any member of the alliance “in Europe or North America
shall be considered an attack against them all” and obliging members to come to
the aid of an attacked ally—with military force if necessary—“to restore and
maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
In short, Article 5 is the heart and soul of the alliance, which means this
problem of political will within NATO cannot be solved with hashtags and
Some of us have been concerned about the health of Article 5 ever since NATO’s halfhearted
intervention in Afghanistan. It pays to recall that only once in its
history has NATO invoked Article 5—on September 12, 2001. Yet in the years that
followed, it became clear that some allies don’t take Article 5 as seriously as
others. If they did, European defense spending wouldn’t have shrunk by 15
percent after 9/11; the United States wouldn’t account for 75 percent of NATO’s
defense spending (far above the U.S. share of 50 percent during the Cold War); Washington
wouldn’t have been reduced to begging for more troops in Afghanistan; and the
troops that were sent wouldn’t have had limits on how,
where and when they engaged the enemy.
Indeed, the way some
members of the alliance approached this first-ever Article 5 operation would be
laughable if the stakes were not so high. Italy didn’t permit its
fighter-bombers in Afghanistan to carry bombs. German forces were required to
shout warnings to enemy forces—in three languages—before opening fire. Some allies
repeatedly failed to deliver on troop pledges. As a consequence, the United
States contributed 71 percent of all forces, and non-NATO members Australia,
Georgia and Sweden deployed more troops than many founding members of the
alliance. Invoking what’s known as the “caveat” rule within NATO, some allies
simply opted out of certain missions.
Then, with the U.S. “leading from behind” in Libya, NATO was
found woefully lacking in precision 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. This is what happens when nations, in effect, stop investing in the
common defense. As the British governmentconcludes, years of underfunding have led to “alarming deficiencies in the
state of NATO preparedness.”
To address those deficiencies, NATO headquarters has been nagging members
to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense. Yet only a
handful of NATO members meet that standard, and a look behind the numbers suggests that even this comes with an asterisk. In
addition to the U.S. (which invests 3.6 percent of GDP on defense—and falling),
Greece (2.4 percent), Poland (2.2 percent), Britain (2.1 percent) and Estonia
(2 percent) will technically hit the 2-percent target this year. But Greece is
a political-economic basket case and is cozying up to Moscow. Poland only
recently put itself on the path to 2 percent. Even after using accounting
tricks to include monies previously under the
purview of the Foreign Office, Britain will struggle to remain above the
2-percent threshold. And tiny Estonia fields just 6,000 troops.
Further down the list, some of
NATO’s largest and richest members—nations that, unlike Estonia, have the
resources to contribute to the common defense—are either investing their
dwindling defense resources somewhere other than NATO’s eastern flank or getting
out of the national-defense business altogether: France (1.8 percent) is reversing some defense cuts—but largely to counter jihadists inside
France. Turkey (1.7 percent) is drifting away from NATO, from Europe, from the
West. Germany (1.2 percent) seems to refuse most meaningful requests made by
NATO, and its army used black-painted broomsticks to simulate machine guns during a 2014 NATO
exercise. Italy (1 percent) has slashed defense spending 12 percent since last
year. Canada (1 percent) has seen a decline in defense spending since 2012, even as its economy booms.
The U.S. is doing its
part—sort of. Washington has unveiled plans to
preposition tanks in Eastern Europe. However, the American soldiers needed to
man those tanks will be in the Baltics only on a “rotational” basis. That sends
the wrong message. NATO membership comes with a security guarantee backed by
the U.S.—and more specifically, by U.S. personnel. That’s what made the
difference in Berlin and along the Fulda Gap during the Cold War. Without
American troops in those American tanks, the guarantee is simply not as meaningful.
And without that U.S.-backed guarantee, there is no security in Europe, as
history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in, from Cold War
Hungary to post-Cold War Ukraine and Georgia.
All of this strikes at the very heart of NATO’s
credibility, capability and cohesiveness. After all, an ally that promises to
help only when the guns are quiet, only where the scenery is serene, only if
there’s no financial cost, only with broomsticks, only with unmanned tanks, only
with asterisks, is not a full-fledged ally. Yet that’s an accurate description
of how too many NATO members view their post-Cold War role—and, apparently, how
populations in key NATO members view defending Eastern Europe.
Doubtless, Vladimir Putin, whose government
recently began reviewingwhether the Soviet Union’s recognition of Baltic independence was legal, has
been a keen observer of all of this.
“In more peaceful times, it was right to reduce defense spending,”
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg soberly observes. “But we do not live
in peaceful times.” Key NATO publics seem oblivious to this reality.
Interestingly, there is something NATO’s rich, developed
European members are ready and willing to defend against: African immigrants
washing up on their rich, developed shores. The EU has authorized, and several
of its members have launched, a naval
operation to “identify, capture and destroy vessels” that are bringing
migrants from Africa. In other words, when it wants to do so, Western Europe
can find the resources and summon the will to act. The contrast between its
halfhearted, equivocating reaction to an Article 5 challenge in Eastern Europe
and its all-hands-on-deck answer to unwelcome immigrants in the Mediterranean speaks
Yes, NATO has scaled up the number and size of its military exercises,
launched a reassurance initiative for Eastern Europe and beefed up its Response
Force. But the very fact that NATO had to scramble to take these steps after
Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea underscores that the alliance had not
conducted the quality and quantity of exercises needed to prove its seriousness
(to Eastern Europe or to Moscow), had not assured Eastern Europe or Moscow of
its deterrent capabilities, had not invested enough in or committed enough to
its much-ballyhooed Response Force, and had not learned anything from Russia’s
2008 invasion and annexation of part of Georgia.
Moreover, these reactions have a short-term,
of-the-moment feel; defense spending and ingrained public attitudes, on the
other hand, reflect longer-term realities.
Now more than any time since the fall of the
Berlin Wall, NATO must devote adequate resources to deterrence—and redouble
efforts to educate its publics on the enduring role and relevance of the
alliance. NATO’s mission is to keep the peace by deterring Moscow. That’s what
Article 5 is all about. That’s why NATO was formed in 1949, why it survived
after 1989, and why East European nations so desperately wanted to join in the
years after—as a hedge against the very scenario now unfolding.
But if things don’t change, NATO will be
exposed as a one-for-all public good rather than an all-for-one alliance,
Washington will find it increasingly difficult to make the case for NATO to the
American people and Moscow will take advantage of the resulting division.
If NATO’s members don’t take Article 5 seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies.
And if that happens, NATO’s deterrent strength is gone—not a comforting thought
as Putin probes NATO’s weak points.
Capstones is the publication of the Sagamore Institute Center for America's Purpose, where Dowd researches and writes on America's role in the world.