If you’ve been listening to the political rhetoric of various public figures lately (on both sides of the Atlantic), you might have heard varying estimations of NATO’s importance, and some stark warnings about its future.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was created in 1949, initially envisioned as an American-led alliance serving as a bulwark to the growing power of the USSR, the organisation has become the centre of the Western world’s (and especially Europe’s) defence strategy. And at least on paper, the alliance is formidable; military spending of all the NATO members constitutes 70% of all military spending globally. At the time of writing, 70% of that figure comes solely for the United States.
The organisation’s lynchpin, (which it could be argued is the key to its guarantee of European security since its formation) is what’s called Article 5: any member of NATO that is attacked can count on the military aid of every other member of the organisation; simply put, an attack on one is an attack on all.
NATO has variously been described as the guarantor of current European security, as well as a now unnecessary relic of the Cold War. Which is true? What use is NATO now?
Initially seen as a deterrent against Soviet aggression during the Cold War, questions about NATO’s future were being asked almost as soon as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. With Russia ceasing to be a serious threat to the West, the massive concentration of military power in one organisation was seen as a thing of the past, and something of a provocation to new actors. A feeling in the US that Europeans could handle their own security, and an imagined absence of things for NATO to actually do, should have seen NATO disbanded or at least reduced.
Unfortunately (it might be said), this reality did not materialise. At the start of the next decade, the machine built to combat Soviet Russia was transplanted into the Levant during the first Gulf War, reigning down on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. NATO started a transformation into an out of area expeditionary operations, turning as well to peacekeeping operations in the areas like the Balkans. No doubt ferocious fighting, but small in comparison to previous large movements of brigades that were seen in the Cold War. While reinventing itself, NATO became progressively smaller, less challenged, with post-Cold War defence cuts meaning fewer and fewer countries meeting the supposedly strict target on defence spending (currently set at 2% of GDP for each member, a target currently only met by the US, UK, Greece, Estonia and Poland). Richard Shirreff, a former Supreme Commander of Europe, described this process as NATO becoming a hollowed-out force incapable of meeting its currently stated strategic goals. An example would be the number of planes sent to Iraq in 2014 to combat ISIS (a total of eight) by the British army, compared to the 140 it sent 24 years earlier in the first Gulf War.
Britain however is closer to the top of the class; some other European nations have cut some capabilities in their entirety. For example, Germany’s forces are in such a perilous state that only 24 of Germany’s 56 transport planes and 16 of its 86 helicopters even function (according to Judy Dempsey of the Carnegie Endowment think tank). 42 out of 109 Eurofighters (those new, supposedly cutting edge aircraft) function today.
This downsizing of national militaries which has evidently fed into NATO’s overall decline, was an attempt by European countries in particular to harvest the “peace dividend” — money that didn’t have to be spent on defence could be moved to other things now that the Cold War had ended. Explained by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Secretary General of NATO, the political logic was towards increased government spending on other areas, and so why spend that money on defence? The notion of higher defence spending became unpopular to electorates, and so unacceptable to politicians (Richard Shirrefff, the Edge), leading to military decline in these countries and within NATO itself. In Britain for example, the post-Cold War white paper stipulated the 10 year rule; any new threats that presented themselves would allow a ten year period of rearming in order to combat them. Europe in general, it seemed, had laid down its arms. Hans Binnendijk, a former US Defence Department staffer, was quoted as saying that no European nation could conduct sustained, high intensity operations against another state of similar standing. Europe’s forces have become entirely hollowed out, depending largely on the US.
All this would be acceptable to a point if the world was indeed a peaceful one. But it is it? According to the people we have already quoted, notably Richard Shirreff, we are very much part-way through that ten-year period, with little sign of anything changing within national militaries, or NATO itself. The threats these people see come from a newly aggressive Russia, that seems to be reviving Tsarist Imperialism by annexing Crimea and essentially dividing Ukraine in two. Not NATO members, it has to be said, but the build-up of forces on the borders of Latvia and Estonia are troubling. Russia has recently invested millions in a new air force, and is making menacing moves towards peripheral NATO members (which might explain why Estonia is one of the five countries that meets its targets). Other countries, such as Saudi Arabia, China, and Iran have similarly drastically increased spending on military forces, not so much with the aim of defeating the US and Europe, but, as described by Shirreff, denying these forces the ability to operate in areas of importance (such as Syria, for example). It should be noted, NATO, through Turkey, has a 1300 KM border with ISIS itself.
It’s hard to argue this “physical and moral disarmament” (Shirreff) which Europe and the West in general is now justified, with newly resurgent threats in the 21st century seeming to multiply from states as well as other groups (though ISIS could well be classed as both). It’s difficult to see how we can continue — in recent years, we’ve almost conducted an experiment, persecuting two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on shrinking defence budgets. The West’s strength has been wasted, and it looks like it might be time for a radical rethink.
Even if military spending is justified and military force is required, is NATO the right vehicle for this?
Well, not necessarily. We’ve seen this kind of European freeloading on the US, but there questions are being asked about how this is sustainable. Afterall, why should the US bear responsibility for European defence, when they should be able to handle it themselves? Further, budget pressure in the US is seeing the cutting defence budgets from 3.9% to 2.9% of GDP; it’s clear that in a European context, the US can’t be relied upon to foot the bill any longer. And in truth, why should they? Europe should be capable of looking after itself. With an increasing number of threats and US power receding, it could be argued individual countries need to take charge of their own defence, or even that a replacement for NATO could be found, or even a reinvigorated NATO with more European leadership. We might start by deciding NATO’s purpose; is it to be a defensive alliance as initially envisaged? Or, as it’s been in more modern times, will it be Europe’s peacekeeping and expeditionary force? Either way, Europe cannot simply sit back and expect everything to be okay in the end; the irresponsibility and unsustainability of the current situation is too great.
The World has changed since the end of the Cold War. The last century could be seen as one long conflict from 1914 to the end of the Cold War; a major realignment has been underway for the past decade. NATO and Europe’s reaction to this has been to reduce their forces, but it’s clear that defence cannot be taken for granted. A new approach to defence is needed; whether this is European led, or on an individual state level (if this is even possible) almost doesn’t matter. At the risk of succumbing to cliche and pointing out that the world is a dangerous place, Europe can’t leave its own defence to chance. Increasingly, it looks like the US and NATO may not be a guarantor of peace any longer.
Adam works in the higher education sector and commentates on policy and current affairs.