Last week the annual Nato summit gathered in Vilnius. Like last year’s, the meeting was dominated by the Ukrainian crisis, and was accompanied by the usual cheerleading from foreign policy mavens and globalist media. Also like previous summits, this one didn’t seriously address the problems and weaknesses of the Alliance.
Ukrainian officials who attended the meeting were visibly and vocally disgruntled. One beef is the festering issue of Ukraine’s membership in Nato, promised 15 years ago after Putin’s unpunished territorial predations in Georgia. The long, formal process of meeting requirements hasn’t even begun yet, apart from certain conditions agreed upon at the summit that Ukraine must meet. Nato still made empty promises to Ukraine about membership, even though there’s no chance that all 31 Nato nations will give their approval, and membership requires the consent of every member.
There are several arguments for and against Ukraine’s membership, but one of the weakest against it is the claim that giving Ukraine Article 5 protection––an attack on one member is an attack on all––might ignite a nuclear war with Russia. Yet this provision, regularly and reverentially touted by Nato’s cheerleaders, is what James Madison called a “parchment barrier” riddled with loopholes. Notice the crafty wording of this provision: each state will respond to an attack “by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force” [emphasis added].
But “deems necessary” invites a liberal interpretation about how any nation can respond; and “including armed force” makes a military response just one option among numerous less costly ones. That means actually funding and mobilizing a nation’s military can be replaced by speechifying at the UN, issuing blustering diplomatic demarches, or sending money or weapons and other materiel––just what the Nato nations have been doing in the case of Ukraine. This suggests that even if Ukraine had been a Nato member, the alliance’s response wouldn’t have been much different from the current one.
Exacerbating Ukraine’s frustration is the delays in the Nato nations’ provision of weaponry and ammunition. Yet those nations’ stockpiles of both are dangerously low, and as historian Niall Ferguson put it earlier this year, Nato nations’ “military industrial complex has withered away,” making it a challenge to ramp up production of armaments. It’s so bad in the U.S. that the Biden administration announced it would send shrapnel-spewing cluster bombs instead of artillery rounds, weapons most of the world’s nations have proscribed by treaty.
This brings us to the nub of the matter: Nato nations, these days including the U.S., for decades have not spent enough on defense necessary to achieve its goals of security and deterrence. Nor has last year’s rhetoric about a “turning point” and promises of increased spending led to tangible improvements.
Most cheerleaders minimize this chronic problem. The recent Wall Street Journal’ editorial and its question-begging title, “A Revived Nato Comes to Vilnius,” for example, was accompanied by a chart that undercuts that claim. The table lists the defense spending of 30 Nato members from 2014 to estimates for 2023. The modest goal of 2% of GDP, of which 20% must be spent on materiel, is one of the pledges last year that was trumpeted as a sign of Nato’s “revival.” A year-and-a-half later, only 11 countries have met that target, and they are, with the exception of the UK and the U.S., countries that are not among the Alliance’s richest members.
In fact, three of the world’s 10 richest countries by GDP––France, Italy, and Germany, the latter the 4th richest––still are languishing below 2%, which should be a floor, not a ceiling, as the Journal put it a few months ago. Moreover, Nato collectively is very rich. It would take just nine Nato members’ combined GDP to equal number two China’s––and that’s without counting the U.S., the world’s richest economy.
So clearly, money is not the problem, spending priorities are. The nations that are meeting the 2% level are mostly in Eastern Europe, neighbors of Russia and historically victims of its aggression and land-grabbing. Greece is a short stretch of sea away from fellow Nato-member Turkey, for centuries its historical enemy, most recently in 1974 when Turkey invaded––and still occupies––the northern third of Cyprus. Obviously, the proximity of dangerous enemies has concentrated wonderfully these nations’ minds.
The rest of Europe, however, has become complacent from having its national security expenses off-loaded onto U.S. taxpayers. Like us, Europe foolishly assumes it can afford feckless spending on extravagant redistributionist social welfare programs, or lunatic ideas like “net zero carbon” and waging war against cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Worse, our Defense Department is “spending billions of dollars on social spending that has little or nothing to do with national defense, such as zero-emissions vehicles, offshore wind energy R&D, EV charging stations, sensitivity training, transgender treatments, and general education funding.”
Yet the current efforts of Republican lawmakers to use the National Defense Authorization Act, which sets defense-spending levels, to roll back these militarily irrelevant, politicized policies and programs, have been met by the Democrats responsible for these policies accusing them of culture-war “politicization” of defense spending.
At this point, increasing defense spending to the levels necessary to fulfill Nato’s mission is for most Nato nations politically difficult, if not impossible. As history going all the way back to ancient Athens shows us, when citizens can vote, butter trumps guns.
This lack of seriousness toward Nato’s military spending deficiencies makes the political theater of Nato summits irrelevant and unseemly. As retired Lt. General Ben Hodges, the former Commanding General of US Army Europe, wrote recently in The Daily Telegraph, “Nato’s forward defence will neither be appropriately forward nor adequately ready for effective deterrence unless all of the European capitals come to terms with the seriousness of the task.”
“The risks and threats for the partnership are only increasing and there is no shortage of adversarial powers willing to use both non-military and military tools to take down the most powerful and successful military Alliance in history. In response, Nato continues to rely on the irreplaceable commitment of the United States on one hand and Europe’s and Canada’s readiness for equitable sharing of the burden. With collective defence and deterrence by denial now at front of mind in order to deter or defeat the Russian military threat, European under-investments and under-performance will not suffice any longer.”
As a result, over the past decade, every Nato SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe) “has struggled with one simple question––do I have the necessary combat-ready and combat-effective units––with appropriate command and control, enablers, logistics and ammunition stocks––to defend each and every [Nato] Ally? The cost of military deterrence is much cheaper than war and reconquering territories. We need to look no further than the ongoing Russian war in Ukraine: that expensive, bloody war is what failed deterrence looks like.”
The bottom line, then, is the number of combat-ready troops Nato nations can put in the field. This problem has been made worse by the inability of the U.S., the largest contributor of battle-ready troops, to meet its recruiting goals, along with its historically low defense spending of 3.5% of GDP, only .5% higher than tiny Greece with a GDP of $2.5 billion––a scandal given the U.S.’s GDP is $23.3 trillion.
Clearly, as Hodges concludes, “Hard questions should be asked of Allied leaders. What is the true combat-effectiveness of your brigades, divisions and corps and the associated enablers and when can SACEUR [currently General Christopher Cavoli] count on these to be ready for the most demanding scenarios? Can SACEUR and other military commanders adequately exercise those plans with the specific formations, in order to demonstrate the intent, capability and capacity of the Alliance to successfully defend every inch of Allied territory? That is what deterrence by denial and forward defence is all about and Nato is not ready.”
Finally, Nato’s failure to adequately fund its militaries is not just about the traditional bad habits of democracies to prefer butter to guns, and to leave needed reforms and expenditures for future citizens to address, usually in the face of a serious threat to its security. The decline of patriotism in the West, and the fashionable self-loathing of our intelligentsia, cognitive elites, and culture high-brow and low, have eroded the willingness of too many young people to serve in the military, and to fight, kill, and die for their homeland and fellow citizens.
These serious problems impacting Nato’s efficacy will not be resolved with cheerleading media and politicos, speeches full of globalist cliches and bromide, and photo ops at haute cuisine banquets. They will require hard cash, sacrifices by citizens, brave and principled leadership, and accepting the tragic, unchanging reality of the human lust for power and its willingness to use brutal force to achieve it. And it demands a recovery of the civilizational nerve required to use lethal force––with all its exorbitant risks, unforeseen consequences, and costs in lives and wealth––to stop such aggression. This means restoring some tragic realism to our idealistic globalist “rules-based international order” foreign policy.
Otherwise, the long story of our freedom will be over.