NATO Gets Smarter—or Smaller?

Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security.


When compared with the plans and pledges of recent summits, NATO’s goals for its upcoming summit in Chicago seem small, even trivial.

Let’s start with this year’s summit agenda. The over-arching theme is NATO’s new “Smart Defense” program. NATO describes Smart Defense as “a renewed culture of cooperation that encourages Allies to cooperate in developing, acquiring and maintaining military capabilities” by “pooling and sharing capabilities, setting priorities and coordinating efforts better.” Under Smart Defense, alliance members will identify a goal and then designate a member to take the lead in shepherding other interested members toward that goal. One report notes that the Chicago Summit will launch Smart Defense efforts in logistics; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and force protection. In addition, there are mine-clearing, helicopter-training and maritime-patrol projects on the Smart Defense to-do list.

In other words, Smart Defense is a low-impact, low-yield program for a NATO with lowered sights and lowered expectations. The president’s fingerprints are all over NATO’s un-ambitious 2012 summit. Not only is the summit being held in the president’s old stomping grounds of Chicago; it reflects his discomfort with American power and with America’s global leadership role (NATO being a vehicle for both).

Just compare the smallish plans of the Chicago Summit’s Smart Defense agenda with earlier summits.

In 1999, NATO pledged to make “full use of every opportunity to build an undivided continent by promoting and fostering the vision of a Europe whole and free,” underscoring its commitment to that goal by inviting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the alliance. The Prague Summit in 2002 committed the alliance to the global fight against terrorism and WMDs—and invited seven new members into the fold. The headlines from NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit included formal membership invitations to Croatia and Albania, a promise of membership to Georgia and Ukraine and a unanimous endorsement of the U.S. missile defense system.

But in 2012 in Chicago, NATO’s 28 heads of state will focus on “a renewed culture of cooperation that encourages Allies to cooperate.” Gone are those heady promises of using NATO’s unique political-military capabilities to expand the zone of democracy, build the scaffolding of security, erase the lines of Moscow’s old empire and fight terror at its source.

The spinners will argue that NATO is focusing on low-key, process-type goals because so many big-picture goals are already being pursued. In truth, there are several strategic items NATO needs to address now—items that are far more important than mine-clearing or maritime patrols:

  • Making sure Article 5 is credible. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is the heart and soul of the alliance, committing all members to the defense of a member that has been attacked. Yet Norwegian Minister of Defense Espen Barth Eide recently expressed worries about NATO’s ability “to deliver if something happens in the transatlantic theater of a more classical type of aggression.”—and understandably so. Even as Russia conducts provocative war games against a Polish “aggressor,” buzzes North American airspace and builds up its military, the alliance is slashing spending and deterrent commitments.
  • Making missile defense a reality. To mollify Moscow, the Obama administration unilaterally scrapped the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans for Europe—plans that had been approved by all of NATO. So, instead of planting a permanent ground-based defense in Poland and support radars in the Czech Republic, the Obama administration chose to deploy extra missile-defense warships to the Mediterranean and land-based variants of the sea-based system in Eastern Europe. One Czech official angrily rejected President Obama’s plans as “a consolation prize.”A spokesperson for Poland’s Ministry of Defense called the Obama administration’s reversal “catastrophic for Poland.” Just as bad, Washington has allowed Turkey to get away with warning that it will not allow U.S. missile-defense radars that are deployed on Turkish soil to share info with Israel. Neither policy—deploying a watered-down version of missile defense to placate Russia or allowing Turkey to dictate what America can do with its technology—makes any sense, serves the wider interests of the alliance or helps protect America and it allies from Iran’s growing missile arsenal.
  • Defining NATO’s long-term relationship with Afghanistan. With NATO members heading for the exits, the relationship is anything but clear.Washington just signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with Kabul that raises more questions than it answers. For example, the SPA calls on NATO member states “to sustain and improve Afghan security capabilities beyond 2014.” That seems unlikely as NATO nations shrink their militaries. The SPA views “any external aggression against Afghanistan” with “grave concern.” Yet in this same document, the United States “pledges not to use Afghan territory or facilities as a launching point for attacks against other countries.” The document states that the U.S.and Afghanistan “reaffirm” their commitment to “defeating al Qaeda and its affiliates.” Yet NATO plans to reduce Afghan troop strength from 352,000 to 230,000 after 2014.
  • Reaching the 2-percent-of-GDP threshold on defense spending. The alliance wants to use Smart Defense as a vehicle for “rebalancing defense spending between the European nations and the United States”—and for good reason. Two years ago, just five NATO members—the United States, Britain, France, Greece and Albania—met the alliance’s 2-percent standard. According to NATO’s latest report on financial and economic data, only three meet that standard today. Not surprisingly, the United States now accounts for 75 percent of NATO’s defense spending, exceeding the U.S. share of 50 percent during the Cold War. The consequences are already on display. In Libya, with the U.S.leading from behind, NATO was found woefully lacking in munitions, targeting and jamming capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, drones, and command-and-control assets—nearly everything needed to conduct a 21st-century air war. In Afghanistan, the United States is contributing 71 percent of all forces, and non-NATO members Australia, Georgia and Sweden have more troops deployed than several founding members of the alliance.
  • • Growing the alliance. Even though it was invited into the alliance years ago, Macedonia has been left on the outside looking in because Greece refuses to accept Macedonia’s name. Whether it enters as Macedonia, FYROM or Big Mac, Macedonia has done more than enough to accommodate Athens and to show its commitment to the alliance. So has Georgia. It’s time to offer this tiny shard of the former Soviet Union a NATO membership action plan, the next step toward full membership.

“The United States should not expect others to deliver much,” former NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner once counseled. “They are waiting for the Americans.” In other words, everything that happens—or doesn’t happen—within NATO depends on U.S. leadership. When it comes to NATO, American presidents don’t lead from behind. They either lead, or the alliance flounders and frays—as it is today.

  • Swatty Jim

    Do a web search for the terms and conditions of the original NATO pact. It's a joke. Not one nation follows the treaty as it was laid out originally.

    Ditto for the U.N. It is even more of a joke! Google CHARTER of THE UNITED NATIONs. It is 100% laughable.

    All rubbish.

    Western civilization is doomed. It will implode within 20-50 years says me.

  • wctaqiyya

    You make some good points in this article Mr. Dowd. However, It is not unreasonable for the alliance members to scale back their weapon procurements and total spending. Especially when stupid American politicians and generals are happy to take up the slack. If my pals always bought my lunch when I 'forgot' my wallet, why would I ever remember to bring it? In my view, most of the remaining bases in Europe should be closed and the troops brought home. I think Bush and Obama were very foolish in the way they handled the missile defense issue. Naturally, the Russians will take offense when such a system basically makes them sitting ducks. Russia may be a political and economic competitor but it's not like either side is gearing for war. That is why an accommodation with Russia should be negotiated. BTW, the Obama missile plan has been described by military experts as far more robust in terms of numbers of interceptors and effectiveness than Bush's. So, your point that Obama is just being weak may not hold water in this particular. I would propose some kind of observational oversight of the systems to build Russian confidence that it will not be used against them. Since we give them limited oversight and verification of our domestic nuclear weapon systems, why not do the same with missile defense? Again, we cannot really be surprised that Europe won't spend large amounts for defense and that's not such a bad thing. Can you imagine the uproar if France or Germany doubled defense spending? Oh my. It may be better all around that NATO has only a limited ability to wage war since a NATO that can invade other countries feels like a very bad idea.

  • Kendrick1

    When NATO, UN or any other acronym organization invites the United States to join,it's like the chicken who invited the pig to a ham and egg breakfast!!! The U.S. pays 75% of NATO's defense spending!

    This would be a good time to start pulling out of all the countries in which we have our noses and U.S. taxpayer money. Cut off the funds we give them, reinforce our defenses here at home, get busy drilling for oil and natural gas, produce more coal, and strive for more renewable energy (with no taxpayer subsidies)! To a man, all countries of the world hate us!! So I say, let them go on their own and let's take care of our own people.

    Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.
    Thomas Jefferson

  • Daniel

    " Macedonia has done more than enough to accommodate Athens and to show its commitment to the alliance"………..please, I don't think erecting monuments and stealing from it's neighbors is accommodating anyone but their own by brainwashing and pushing lies and propaganda on it's people.