By James Maclaren, Jan 11 2020 02:36PM
Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw the US from NATO and French president Emmanuel Macron has called it 'brain dead'. Do the recent disagreements between NATO members come when the West needs its defence alliance the most?
Not so long ago a former British Deputy Supreme Commander Europe (DSACEUR) joked that a NATO headquarters just about had the ability to brief itself. Such a view stemmed from the uneasy attempts to adapt NATO’s organisation and operations to the more nuanced challenges of dealing with a wide range of non-military threats. Over large bureaucratic headquarters running low intensity stabilisation missions provided examples of not very efficient military command and control with long national screwdrivers tweaking even the most low-level operational decision. It was a far cry from a military alliance that successfully faced down a military threat from the Cold war Soviet Union.
But the General’s frustration at such operational friction has now been overshadowed by more strategic and fundamental questions about NATO’s viability.
The organisation’s recent attempt to celebrate seven decades of existence in maintaining a European peace were muted, overshadowed by a series of arguments amongst the member states that go further than the regular squabbles of a complex international organisation. Instead it threatens to drive huge cracks in the organisation that may be irreparable.
What’s the problem with NATO?
At the heart of the NATO dilemma is disagreement about what NATO is for and who pays for it. The US, the alliances largest contributor by some margin is unhappy with both the idea of collective decision making and current burden sharing arrangements. The US would prefer to be unconstrained by alliance decision making in when and where it can deploy military force and recent decisions on the use of military force suggests it is not over-concerned with the view of its NATO allies on such matters. But most of all it resents the unequal financial burden of NATO. The first problem is the money.
NATO members are expected to commit two percent of their GDP towards defence expenditure. Only seven of the twenty-nine member states provide this level of national treasure, widely agreed to be the minimum necessary to meet collective operational readiness, and no one is anywhere near the GDP percentage that the US commits to defence expenditure.
The biggest offender resting in the US gun sights is Germany, which despite recent promises to increase its defence spending is not projected to achieve the two percent threshold until 2030. Such a timeline infuriates a president with a view, shared widely in the American political and military establishment, that Europe is getting defence on the cheap and it must stop.
The Trump preference for a transactional approach to diplomacy, naming and shaming those who fall short in their obligations was sharply illustrated by the holding of a special two-percenter lunch during the recent summit hosted by the British in the undistinguished town of Watford north of London. The smugness of this event and the fragmentation of NATO discussions into such groupings is not likely to do much to restore harmony. Of course, given the current US Administration’s view on the value of NATO, a long argument about burden sharing could simply be a means to justify the US in distancing itself and disengagement from the alliance.
Disenchantment works both ways. While the US fumes about spending, or its lack of, many European states are privately seething at the series of unilateral decisions made by the US. This includes the withdrawal of troops from Syria, a theatre of operations where close allies such as Britain and France had troops deployed, and which left a power vacuum, to be swiftly filled by an unrestrained Turkey. This country, also a NATO member, lost no time in occupying Kurdish areas of norther Syria. A further decision to conduct a UAV strike to kill the prominent Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, bringing the region to the brink of conflict was unilaterally undertaken by the US. Such strategic shifts and actions taken without consultation goes against the spirit of NATO collective responsibility and the US exercising its muscle and independence in this way has left a bad taste in European capitals.
There are also major differences in agreeing the alliances purpose. Its Cold War accomplishments made it too successful to dismantle and with mixed success NATO has reshaped itself a number of times stretching and contorting its charter, mandate and resources to maintain relevance and credibility. The US does not share the German and Eastern European preoccupation with Russia as a threat and NATO urged by the larger nations such as the US, UK and Canada, has moved its planning horizons and mission sets beyond the comfort zones of many of its members. NATO has been used to confront wider security dilemmas, and with each step away from the toe-to-toe power balance within the European theatre small cracks of disunity have formed. Many inside and outside of the organisation believe that in the quest for post-Cold War relevance NATO has been over-eager in seizing new and emerging threats and in doing so has overreached its collective organisational ability to deal with them.
The pendulum of conflict may be swinging back towards the re-emergence of state on state conflict as a first-tier threat. Russia still smarting from its humbling in the immediate post-Cold War period now seeks to reassert itself and looms large as NATO’s spectre. It has undertaken major military modernisation accompanied by an appetite to intervene in areas and conflicts it assesses to be of interest. Most of the member states joined NATO for reasons of territorial protection within Europe simply wishing a defensive arm around them to keep the Russian bear away. To most states, particularly in Eastern Europe, constraining Russia remains the organisation’s raison d’etre.
Other powerful nations see it differently. The French President Emmanuel Macron is one such leader. He chose the recent UK summit to side-line the birthday celebrations and follow up on his NATO is ‘brain dead’ comment by positing that NATO should concentrate its efforts on the menace presented by Islamic terrorism. Such a view largely reflects his own country’s concerns about radical threats from African states. France with the most overseas deployed troops of any European nation is an influential player and sees rapprochement with Russia as the way to secure European peace allowing the organisation to continue its orientation towards other transnational and not necessarily military threats.
Such a view does not travel far; but the French president’s intervention was a successful attempt to set the agenda, attempting to shape the future of NATO around a Franco narrative.
So, what of NATO’s future?
At its most successful NATO was a conventional military deterrent alliance where the simplicity of the Article 5 clause, an attack on one was an attack on all, could be translated into a political decision making and military command structure that looked and was solid. From the frozen tip of Norway to the warm islands of Greece, there was no break in the wall, each commitment measured costed and assigned. Operational plans were resourced and practised.
The return of NATO to that of a conventional military alliance structured to temper Russian ambitions and protect the economic sovereignty and political freedom of Europe is a worthy enough cause. It need not be the West’s answer to all threats, just the ones that challenge territorial integrity – a threat all member states can agree on. In this situation it is the only show in town. While the EU’s rhetoric trumpets a rival military capability able to operate independently of the United States, in truth it remains the dream of Federalists and without the inclusion of Great Britain, Europe’s major military power, is unlikely to amount to much. NATO’s future probably rests in returning to what it knows best and leaving the many non-military threats with which it has tried to engage to other agencies.
The bottom line, however, is that the future of NATO continues to rely upon US engagement. Without the military clout of the US, NATO would be of little military significance. Pooling all their resources the Europeans would struggle to mount and sustain a small crisis response mission in their own neighbourhood. The United States has called time on bankrolling the defence of Europe. More European NATO members will have to give ground to American demands that they spend a greater amount of their wealth on their armed forces.
The US will want to see more member states at the two-percenter lunch and see them more quickly than the current trajectory supposes.