NATO isn't the force it used to be, so now what?

NATO Ministers of Defense and of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels 2010

As Russia plays great power politics in Eastern Europe, the Nato alliance suddenly realises it might not be as prepared militarily to defend its interests as it once was. After decades of kicking the can down the road, many leaders are finally discussing increasing their military spending, or at least lifting it to the minimum of 2% of GDP.

Despite the depredation, Nato members largely understand the necessity of cooperation and mutual defence. But few have been willing to isolate sufficient state funds for equipment.

Aside from the US, which supplies the vast bulk of alliance spending, other European countries barely have enough money for social projects, let alone military purchases.

The political will in Europe isn’t as strong as it once was either. During the Cold War, the prospect of Soviet tanks driving into central Europe was acute. Now, the position of defence minister is the last role to be filled in many European cabinets and considered a dead-end job.

The US on the other hand considers that role one of its most prestigious. This reflects the way Americans see the world. They were never directly threatened by a Soviet Union campaign during the Cold War, at least not in the same way European powers were.

How things were

America’s goal was in ensuring a balance of power on the European peninsula and intervening at the last possible moment if a crisis flared. This has been the way the US has dealt with the world’s crises since World War I and remains their strategy in the 21st century. The strategy has worked very well so far.

For the Europeans, things are a bit different now. A major problem is that Nato doesn’t have a unifying threat to hedge against any more. The old Soviet Union is gone, no matter what Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the world to think.

After 1991, most Nato countries dropped defence spending below the agreed 2% minimum. In 2012, only three countries maintained spending above this threshold: the UK, Estonia, and Greece. The US picked up the slack by supplying 61% of the budget in 1990. In 2012, its contribution had risen to 72%.

Now the Russians are making moves on Central Europe’s doorstep once more. In contrast to Nato countries, Russia spends 4.1% of GDP on defence per year according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Mr Putin’s expedition in Ukraine caught Nato by surprise. And it could be too late to do anything about it now. Ukraine is not a signatory of Nato’s Article 5 “collective defence” treaty (in which an attack on one member is considered an attack on all). So the lack of a Nato intervention in Crimea is understandable.

Yet if Russia threatens a Nato member, such as any of the Baltic states or the countries in the Balkans, could the alliance come to their aid? At this point, even if the members ramp up their military spending, it would take years to make a difference, and by then it could be too late.

Nato does have a quick-reaction force it can deploy to any flashpoint. The Nato Response Force (NRF) is a brigade-sized force (roughly 13,000 multinational personnel) with air and sea components and troops trained in chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear operations.

Had this force been stationed in Poland or the Baltic states at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, it might have played a useful mitigating role in Russian adventurism. The force is highly capable and extremely well-equipped. If the crisis heats up, this force could be deployed to intervene around key strategic areas in member nations.

Can Nato reinvent itself?

Europeans in the Nato structure are now discussing the necessity of doing more for their defence than just the NRF can supply. But without a significant threat (not Mr Putin’s Russia anyway) to unify the members and provoke the necessary political energy, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that Nato is the correct structure for future security.

This is because while the US effectively bankrolls the alliance and supplies the majority of military force, it does not consider the fate of Europe to be existentially threatened.

From Washington’s perspective, Russia is punching well above its weight and Mr Putin knows if he sparked a Nato response to his adventurism, Russia would lose the battle and the war.

It is hard to see Nato playing an effective role when everyone in Europe would rather buy bread than guns. No one wants a war, and it is not yet clear one will come.

Germany is at the centre of the issue because of its geographical position but it is equally unclear whether Berlin sees the conflict as threatening its core interests either.

So while Nato is an imperfect alliance, it has survived for 65 years for good reason. It may not retain the political explanations for existence of 40 years ago but the agitation felt over the past few months in Europe indicate the alliance is still important.

No European leader has yet suggested an alternative for Nato. Budgets might actually increase and some European nations, Sweden for example, is debating whether it should join the alliance. It seems better to be in than out. Whether it is enough is another question.

Ultimately, the long-term survival of Nato depends on the emergence of a unifying threat.

Currently, that threat appears to be Russia but Russia faces its own constraints on expansion and will probably not be that long-term threat.

Then again, along with the EU, Nato keeps the bickering European states from fighting among themselves. Maybe that’s a good enough reason to encourage it to stand firm.

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