The Future of NATO (via Global Power and Strategy Analysis)

This article was originally written for Global Power and Strategy Analysis and can be found here.  Published 6/20/2011.
Secretary Gates at the meeting of Defense Ministers in Brussels. Source:

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been called the most successful alliance in history.  It largely responsible for deterring the Soviet Union during the Cold War and keeping the United States and Western Europe united for over six decades.  However, the recent conflict in Libya and the extended mission in Afghanistan have led for some in both the U.S. and Europe to question the alliance’s continued relevance.

Just last week U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech to NATO Ambassadors in Brussels where he stated bluntly that NATO faces “collective military irrelevance.”[1] In his last major policy speech before he is scheduled to resign he warned that for lack of financial and political dedication to the alliance on behalf of the Europeans NATO faces “a dim if not dismal future.”[2] These remarks by a sitting Secretary of Defense are revealing into the United States continued frustration with its European partners.  The U.S. makes up three-fourths of the total military spending by all NATO countries.[3] Only five of the twenty-eight NATO members, the United States, France, Britain, Greece, and Albania, contribute the required two percent of their gross domestic product on defense.[4] This lack of dedication to their own protection has led many in Washington to resent paying for the defense of the first-world European nations.

The NATO operation in Libya is a stunning example of the difficulties it has in conducting operations.  While all the members of NATO voted to intervene in Libya, only half have participated in the operation and less than a third have joined in the strike missions.[5] The Netherlands, Spain, and Turkey have refused to fly air strikes and Germany and Poland have refused to participate at all.[6] France and Britain have had to borrow munitions from the United States.[7] The Europeans are also completely reliant on American intelligence, AWACS, refueling aircraft, and suppression of air defenses.[8] The European nations called for this intervention and it is the view of many in the United States that they dragged the U.S. into the conflict.  With a Republican House of Representatives eager to end U.S. involvement in Libya and cut spending on the whole, the American commitment to the defense of Europe is waning.

The United States is a world power while Europe still only has regional capability.  Europe believes it has no threatening neighbors anymore and has been demilitarizing ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This belief may be true in the short term, but this lack of investment bodes ill for future conflicts Europe might find itself in.  Russia in particular has been playing geopolitics with its energy policy.  It still has a larger military than any in Europe.  Disagreements between Russian and the Europeans are common, including a recent argument over a new Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missile program (ICBM).[9] The Russian government representative to NATO, Dimitry Rogozin, rejected a suggestion from NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen to cancel the new missile program, stating that Russia decides what weapons it needs.[10] Combined with the Russian opposition to the U.S. proposed missile defense system in Eastern Europe, any new missile program from Russia is a direct threat to Europe, particularly if the American commitment to the defense of Europe fades over time.

The future of NATO is in question as long as European nations refuse to contribute substantially to their own defense.  The United States commitment to overseas expenditures and intervention is waning.  The European nations would have to show they are as committed to the Transatlantic Alliance as the United States in order to prevent a U.S. reduction.  Without said commitment the United States is likely to forge tighter bonds with willing European nations, like Britain and Poland, and leave more reluctant ones, like Spain and Germany, to fend for themselves.  This would cause the West to fragment, leaving Europe weak and the United States without some of its traditional allies.  The breakup of the West into disparate groups would only hurt Europe’s ability to defend itself from potential aggressors.  However, in the wake of a global recession the future European financial and political commitment to NATO remains to be seen.

Information on NATO Member countries can be found here and NATO Partner countries here.

[1] Buchanan, Patrick. “Is NATO going out of business?” The Miami Herald. June 19, 2011. (accessed June 19, 2011).

[2] Erlanger, Thom Shanker and Steven. “Blunt U.S. Warning Reveals Deep Strains in NATO.” The New York Times. June 10, 2011. (accessed June 19, 2011).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dempsey, Judy. “Beginning of the End for NATO?” The New York Times. June 13, 2011. (accessed June 19, 2011).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Buchanan. “Is NATO going out of business?”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Erlanger and Shanker. “Blunt U.S. Warning Reveals Deep Strains in NATO.”

[9] New Europe. “Russia, NATO still differ over missile shield.” New Europe. June 19, 2011.–over-missile-shield/107077.php (accessed June 19, 2011).

[10] Ibid.

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