Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Making NATO Less “Obsolete”
Making NATO Less “Obsolete”

Making NATO Less “Obsolete”

(Source: Sergeant Paul Shaw LBIPP (Army)/MOD)

The views expressed here are his own and do not represent those of any part of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

The German Chancellor, Mrs. Angela Merkel, is coming to Washington this week to visit the White House and gain a better understanding of U.S. foreign policy under the new administration. President Donald Trump had startled our alliance partners in Europe when he described NATO as “obsolete.” He really unnerved them by suggesting that future U.S. commitments to defend members of that alliance might be conditional, depending whether they had met their obligation to adequately fund their own defenses. These statements rattled the china in the capitals of our allies, but it also highlighted the longstanding charade of European security spending. Nonetheless, several senior U.S. policymakers travelled to Europe in February 2017 to reassure NATO members that America would stand by its commitments. Secretary of Defense James Mattis was firm and reassuring. At the annual Munich Security Conference, he noted, “President Trump came into office and has thrown now his full support to NATO.” But he also repeated a concern about the shared obligations of NATO members, observing bluntly, “It is a fair demand that all who benefit from the best alliance in the world carry their proportionate share of the necessary costs to defend our freedoms.”

European contributions to NATO’s overall readiness have been a concern for the past few years. NATO’s anemic military budgets after 1991 were entirely understandable given the demonstrably reduced threat to European security. Between 1991 and 2007, NATO defense spending declined somewhat, but NATO offset that with new members including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states. But impelled by the financial crisis, between 2007 and 2014, security spending dropped 14 percent.

That said, the tides of history have washed back in, as seen by Russia’s assertive behavior in almost every dimension of conflict (military aggression, economic threats, nuclear saber rattling, massive disinformation programs, and political interference). Accordingly, Europe’s has stopped, and a modest funding increase has begun, consistent with the agreements announced at the NATO Summit in Wales in 2014. That announcement articulated a general commitment to move towards a common goal of investing 2 percent of GDP by 2024. Despite its flaws as a crude input, the 2 percent GDP metric is a transparent goal and a reflection of commitment. As such, it is likely to remain the standard in the debate over shared obligations in NATO. It should be clear that this standard only applies to our allies; our own defense spending is closer to 3.6 percent.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2017.

Progress towards that aim is slow but evident. This situation is what pushed Mattis to suggest the following to his European audience: “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do.” The German defense minister, Ursala von der Leyen, notes that sharing the burden is much more than what can be expressed in euros and in dollars. She claimed that “To share a burden is to first of all share the principle to stand up for one another without exception.” I disagree with von der Leyen on this point. The first rule of partnership is shared and reciprocal risks and benefits. The German defense minister insists on the benefit of the partnership, but fails to see the necessity of reciprocal sharing of the costs and risks of the partnership. Such a relationship is politically unsustainable as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stressed years ago. The “dim future” he warned of back then is perilously closer. The German military is considered overstretched and underfunded, and the government’s own reports indicate a series of embarrassing shortfalls. Germany’s defense minister wants to deflect attention from that and has worked to gain approval for sizable increases (roughly 8 percent) in security spending. At this rate, Germany would eventually bring its spending in line with NATO goals by 2024. I am not sure we can count on Russia to give us ten years to better defend Europe.

Moderated Commitment

In his recent speech at Brussels, Mattis gave a vague warning: “If your nations do not want to see America moderate its commitment to this alliance, each of your capitals needs to show support for our common defense.” It is time to flesh this idea out. A formal partnership like NATO should have clear lines about pooled resources and risk. Furthermore, instead of the United States determining what level of “moderated commitment” means, a more explicit standard should be set that each country makes for itself by its own defense funding commitment.

The Trump administration might want to consider asking Brussels to alter the NATO Charter to align the defense budget commitment of each ally to their position and membership privileges at NATO’s principal decision making body, the North Atlantic Council. Presently, it is a body that includes all members, and it operates by consensus, not by voting. Hence, one reluctant country, perhaps one that is unable or unwilling to fulfill its defense promises, still has full privileges and can block any meaningful action. 

As a proposal, the following scale is offered for consideration and to spark a debate:

  • 1.75% to 2.0% of GDP: At this level, a NATO member has full membership at the North Atlantic Council and Military Committee.
  • Below 1.75%: A NATO member has full membership status at North Atlantic Council, but only an observer seat on the Military Committee. The member may still nominate issues for consideration at the two bodies.
  • Below 1.4%: A NATO member at this level has only observer status in both the North Atlantic Council and Military Committee.
  • Below 1.0%: A NATO member at this level has no seats on either committee. Members receive an Article V Commitment warning if they remain below this threshold for three years. No nationals from these countries may serve at NATO headquarters or hold command positions.

At today’s level of commitment, most of the 28 NATO members fall in the lower two categories. Only six countries would be in the upper tier and have full membership standing. Germany, even with a vibrant economy, currently allocates just over 1.2 percent of its economic output to military requirements. This commitment is roughly one third of the U.S. investment level, but that also accounts for a country with more global responsibilities. So do not expect this proposal to be taken seriously by our NATO allies, and attempting to force it upon them will probably only result in a fractured coalition with fewer members. But a president who is accustomed to business partnerships surely finds the current risk/reward formulation at NATO headquarters to be both obsolete and discouraging. He should be uncomfortable asking the American taxpayer to borrow nearly $4 billion to help fund a European Reassurance Initiative for NATO members that are not meeting their minimum defense budgets, while domestically, the government is unable to find the resources to provide for border security or update depleted infrastructure. 

Measuring Deployable Combat Power

A more practical proposal would be to stop measuring what countries budget and actually evaluate contributions in terms of outputs. One measure may be to build a scale based on combat units, such as armor/infantry/artillery battalions, logistics units, and flying squadrons. This NATO Deployable Combat Index would allocate desired deployed unit totals towards each member. Major Powers (UK, Germany, and France) may be responsible for three brigades of combined arms and a certain number of fighter and mobility squadrons. Smaller countries might strive to generate and sustain a Combat Index of only one brigade or smaller units. A similar objective could be assigned to naval capabilities and to requisite combat support needs. The end result would be a more accurate measure of commitment and capability, and a far greater deterrent to Moscow’s ambitions for a post-Western Order in which Russia can dominate its bordering neighbors.

The Next Summit

NATO remains the world’s great alliance and is capable of adapting itself to the 21st century. In fact, in this case, the needed adaptation is merely a return to the basis for the creation of NATO in the first place. Instead of “out of area” missions, the territorial integrity of Europe’s borders and the political independence of its members now faces its greatest challenge since the Cold War. That should be NATO’s focus for now, and it should remain the primary agenda item for the upcoming summit scheduled for May 2017.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis speaks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Feb. 15, 2017.

Measuring progress on enhanced deterrence should also be on the agenda. NATO claims a 3.8 percent increase in NATO European defense expenditures, which equates to a $10 billion boost in spending. This plan is the first aggregate increase since 2008’s financial crisis, with notable increases from both Germany and Italy. But $4.5 billion of that increase comes not from the Continent, but from Canada and the United Kingdom. Even the latter’s increase was noted in London as the product of creatively changing accounting practices. I would not call this cooking the books, but it does not constitute a real increase in fighting capacity, either. Using constant 2010 prices and NATO Headquarters’ own numbers, the actual increase in European NATO countries is actually $5.8 billion or just 2.3 percent. Overlooked by arguments over the accounting is the major point that the defense decline has been stopped and turned around but that more progress is needed, just as the Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has inveighed at the Munich Security Conference. The disarmament of Europe took well over two decades and will not be overcome in just two or three years. American leaders will have to be more patient, but also just as persistent.

The first steps were taken in Wales and need to be pursued with resolute political leadership and a common understanding of the dangers we seek to prevent. Different members have different ideas about the priority to assign to Russia, immigration, and terrorism. In his recent address to Congress, Trump expressed his support for NATO in general, but did not mention Russia, which is its greatest problem. At the mini-summit, there also should be a discussion about threat perceptions to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Additionally, the administration should continue to make our Article V commitment to allies unambiguous, but we should make additive commitments of funding more conditional on NATO sustaining its progress. We should also pursue mechanisms that both credit our allies with all that they contribute to real war-fighting capability rather than economic figures and budget announcements that do not produce any deterrent. Such a change would begin to put teeth into NATO as a deterrent force and ensure it contributes to what one author rightfully calls the Defense of the West. At the end of the day, NATO underwrites a free and prosperous West able to secure its borders against aggression. Having a free and stable Europe is not just a priority for our European friends, but it also a vital interest of the United States.