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A 3-Percent Solution for NATO

The alliance should up its members’ spending goals — and count much-needed resiliency investment toward the total.

Why does French President Emmanuel Macron consider NATO “brain dead”? One reason is that the Trump administration has insisted the alliance can only be relevant if all allies spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, a litmus test that only a handful of countries have met.

There is good reason for allies to spend more following decades of neglect, and most allies have in fact started to spend more again. That does not necessarily mean, however, that they have become more effective in addressing the growing range of threats they face. 

NATO’s 2-percent spending goal is arbitrary. It is not tied to any element of alliance strategy. Spending more is not the same as spending well. Spending levels alone tell us nothing about whether the alliance is investing in the kind of capabilities it needs to deter and defend. 

Europeans complain about Trump’s bullying, but they play the same numbers game by suggesting that the 2-percent threshold should include spending on such things as foreign aid. Not only do such self-serving arguments further inflame transatlantic tensions, they distract allies from investing in the kinds of capabilities that can address the broad spectrum of 21st-century threats they face.

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Renewed spending on basic deterrence and defense makes sense, thanks to Russia’s forcible annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, its armed interventions in southeastern Ukraine and Georgia, and its efforts to intimidate NATO allies and partners alike. Yet the alliance must be prepared to confront a wider variety of challenges. 

Hybrid war has changed the landscape of conflict. Terrorists, state-run energy cartels, cyber-hackers, internet trolls and military forces that surreptitiously infiltrate foreign countries all practice hybrid warfare by using the networks that power open societies to attack, disrupt or weaken those societies. 

Much attention has been paid to Russia’s use of hybrid tactics, but non-state actors have also acquired significant capabilities to disrupt or weaken NATO’s nations. Practitioners of hybrid warfare are often less intent on seizing and holding territory than destroying or disrupting the ability of societies to function. The financial, transportation, and energy grids of the United States and other allies and partners have repeatedly been infiltrated and are highly vulnerable.

When conflict changes, so must defense. NATO must extend its traditional investments in territorial protection and deterrence to encompass modern approaches to resilience: building the capacity of free societies to anticipate, preempt and resolve disruptive challenges to their critical functions, and to prevail against direct attack if necessary.  

Resiliency is the new defense challenge of the 21st century. It has become integral to NATO’s ability to protect the North Atlantic space. Curiously, however, allied efforts to bolster resilience are not considered relevant to the 2-percent spending goal.

To its credit, the alliance has recognized the need to bolster its members’ resilience and set forth a number of baseline requirements that each ally should be able to meet. Three additional steps are needed, however, if the alliance is to make these investments smart.

First, the its country-by-country approach to resilience betrays a static understanding of a very dynamic challenge. Resilience certainly begins at home, yet no nation is home alone in an age of potentially catastrophic terrorism, networked threats, and disruptive hybrid attacks. Few critical infrastructures that sustain the societal functions of an individual country are limited today to the national borders of that country. Governments accustomed to protecting their territories must also be able to protect their connectedness — the vital arteries that are the lifeblood of open societies and the transatlantic community. NATO leaders should prioritize shared over separate investments in resilience.

Second, effective investment in resilience requires a better NATO partnership with the European Union, which is improving its capacities to address challenges to societal security. Resilience is a job for NATO, but it need not be a job for NATO alone. Enhanced NATO-EU cooperation offers a means to leverage the combined resources of both organizations in common cause.

Third, NATO must devise ways to cooperate with the private sector, which owns most infrastructures critical to essential societal functions. New types of public-private partnerships could leverage the considerable resources of the transatlantic economy to enhance North Atlantic security.  

The challenge of hybrid conflict underscores why NATO, in its 70th year, must remain the keystone to Western security. NATO offers a ready mechanism for allies to promote shared resilience to disruptive attacks. It is a means by which resilience can be projected forward to neighbors who are weak and susceptible to disruption. It is a vehicle through which allied leaders can make wise use of limited resources.

Alliance leaders should prioritize smart investments over meaningless spending goals. If they insist on playing the numbers game, however, then why not get serious? Include resilience spending in the tally and raise the bar by another percent. Let’s call it NATO’s 3 Percent Solution.