Four Questions for NATO’s Leaders

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivers a statement to the press after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron at Supreme Headquarters Allied Command Operations.


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NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen delivers a statement to the press after meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron at Supreme Headquarters Allied Command Operations.

This week, when NATO's leaders meet they must address fundamental and conceptual questions about the alliance's very existence. By Kathleen J. McInnis

The leaders of the 28 nations which make up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are meeting in southern Wales on 4-5 September. The summit arrives at a pivotal moment for the alliance. NATO members are currently grappling with multiple challenges to their own security, including Russian aggression to the east, instability to Europe’s south and new challenges such as cyber security and defence. Any solutions the alliance devises for these problems will have far-reaching implications for both NATO and the international community as a whole. 

At the forthcoming summit the allies are likely to unveil a number of initiatives designed to begin tackling these challenges. These may include: a Readiness Action Plan to help reassure central and eastern European countries, while deterring Russian aggression against NATO allies; deepened partnerships with Sweden and Finland; and a programme to improve Europe’s military capabilities.

While these proposals are a good start, NATO must also wrestle with some more fundamental, conceptual issues if it is to seriously prepare to meet the challenges before it.  These include, but are not limited to, the following:

Can NATO evolve to meet the diverse needs of its members? 

It has always been the case that NATO allies have had diverging priorities and have viewed their respective strategic landscapes somewhat differently. During the Cold War, the overwhelming threat that the Soviet Union presented forced NATO Allies to prioritize deterring Soviet expansionism. While Moscow’s recent behavior in Ukraine is menacing, all NATO members do not necessarily perceive Russia as an overwhelming and existential threat in the same manner as during the Cold War.  As such, different NATO allies have split priorities, which are largely, although not exclusively, governed by different nations’ geopolitical realities. Rome, for example, is more concerned about the impact that instability in Libya and North Africa will have on Italy itself, rather than Russian aggression. NATO must find ways to manage the diverse priorities of its members in a way that advances allied security as a whole.

Can NATO act quickly and decisively? 

One of NATO’s key strengths is that it is a consensus-based organization. Decisions must be endorsed – tacitly or otherwise - by all 28 nations before the alliance can act. This is powerful because, as a result, NATO’s actions represent the will of the West’s major democracies. Yet building consensus among 28 sovereign states takes time and adversaries, particularly Russia, are well aware of this. Accordingly, they seek to change the facts on the ground before NATO can prepare its response. Crimea was one such demonstration of Moscow’s attempts to operate in between the alliance’s decision cycles. If NATO is to deter Russia, while simultaneously addressing other pressing challenges, it will need to examine how it can rapidly respond to emerging crises without eroding the consensus that underpins the alliance’s credibility. One such method might be to better empower NATO’s commanders, such as the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe to take action during a crisis; another might be to explore thresholds below which NATO allies could take decisions with the consensus of fewer than 28.

Do NATO’s publics understand what it is for?  

NATO’s public diplomacy challenge is a multifaceted one. First and foremost, the alliance’s publics must understand its utility and necessity in addressing common security challenges. This is, in itself, an enormous undertaking after experiencing an unprecedented level of relative security and stability after the end of the Cold War.

Yet there may be a more fundamental issue at stake. It seems that a significant gap has emerged between what NATO is technically responsible for, and what the public perceives are its responsibilities. NATO is a military alliance that undertakes defence tasks such as combat, training foreign militaries and stability operations. Non-military security tasks requiring multinational solutions, such as improving governance or tackling organized crime, are usually handled by other, non-military organizations such as the European Union or the United Nations. Yet many of the threats that allies face cannot be solved by military means alone and the subtle, yet important distinction between what constitutes a defence versus a security task is often lost.

Do allied publics believe that NATO is responsible for allies’ security, broadly defined?  And if so, what does that mean for NATO’s credibility, if its publics are scoring it on a report card that differs to the one its leaders have defined? All this points to an urgent need for NATO to clearly define, and then articulate, its roles and responsibilities to the public-at-large – and crucially, how it will do so in cooperation with other, non-military actors such as the EU.

What Should NATO’s Future Burden-Sharing Look Like? 

Are all allies pulling their weight? This is a question that NATO has grappled with since the inception of the alliance itself. The debate goes roughly along the following lines: the US spends more on defence than other NATO members and has underwritten European security for the better part of six decades. Meanwhile Europe has consistently slashed its military expenditure, widening the gap between US and European defence capabilities and eroding US political interest in facilitating European security in the future. To begin reversing this trend, during the last decade NATO nations agreed to spend two per cent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defence. This target was difficult enough to reach before the 2008 financial crisis; afterwards it was almost impossible. And while it appears that some nations, notably Estonia, are reversing their decisions to slash their budgets, it remains increasingly difficult to explain to American legislators why they should continue heavily investing in European security. 

The challenge is that the two per cent target around which much of this debate revolves is necessary, but not sufficient, to helping NATO nations revitalize their military capabilities. While it is true that you ‘can’t do something with nothing’, the two per cent goal measures spending on defence – an input – rather than the actual capabilities achieved, or outputs.  And given the amorphous, hybrid nature of the threats NATO is likely to face in the future – Russia’s stealth annexation of Crimea being the most notable recent example of hybrid warfare – real questions are emerging as to what kinds of capabilities are needed to address these threats that are both military and non-military in nature. NATO must therefore determine what capabilities are needed to address the new realities of hybrid warfare, and accordingly come to a new, shared understanding of burden-sharing among allies.

Make no mistake: the NATO alliance is strong, and needed by its member states more than ever. Yet when looking forward, NATO’s leaders must develop answers to these more fundamental, conceptual questions if the alliance is to build strategies and policies that allow it to meet the diverse national security needs of its members.  

This article appears courtesy of Chatham House.

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