Keeping NATO relevant
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been trying valiantly to reform itself to remain relevant in the face of ever changing global threats. Enlarged definitions of threat have been adopted without clear boundaries and accordingly NATO has transformed itself from an alliance of collective defense to a collective security organization. The complex security challenges, increased number of members and partners, as well as new obligations have created confusion about the extent of and the ways to invoke Article 5 commitments. As a result, after Sept. 11, NATO embroiled itself into operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, all of which were clearly out of area and beyond its mandate.
In contrast to expanding responsibilities and the area of operation, most of the member states, benefiting from the reduction of the Soviet/Russian threat during the 1990s, have chosen to cut defense expenditures drastically. This, as the recent crisis over Ukraine has shown, has severely affected NATO’s defense capability and its presence in Eastern Europe. According to the latest figures released by NATO in February 2014, only four of the 28 members, i.e. the United States, the United Kingdom, Estonia and Greece, have fulfilled their obligation to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. The U.S. has continued to shoulder the lion’s share in defense expenditure by contributing 73 percent in 2013.
Besides, the lack of shared perception about threats, differing priorities of member states, and the trust deficiency among members as a result of the U.S. occupation of Iraq have affected NATO’s capacity adversely. The inability to stop violations of territorial integrity of partners – first in Georgia and then in Ukraine – and the security of member states – as in Estonia during the 2007 cyber-attacks – have raised doubts about the efficiency and the credibility of NATO in today’s world. Yet, the member states, which ignored the signs for so long, seem to be taking these issues seriously now as a result of the re-incarnation of a former adversary in the east.
The message from the 28-member Summit in Wales, U.K., on Sept. 4-5, was quite clear: A new Cold War in the East and operations in the South are on the agenda. As NATO is now facing simultaneous threats on its eastern and southern borders, new strategies and a new resolution from members are needed to confront them efficiently.
During the Summit, the leaders approved the Readiness Action Plan, which includes setting up a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, able to be deployed within two days, to increase the military deterrence in Eastern Europe and to reassure members and partners against further aggression from Russia. It will consist of 4,000 troops and be backed by air, maritime and special operation forces. Though it might be considered as a cosmetic step when tens of thousands of Russian troops have massed along the Ukrainian border, it is still an important sign of a revival in the spirit of a collective defense. Besides, what matters are not numbers, but the efficiency and the message behind such a move.
The leaders also stressed their determination to fulfill their commitment of spending a minimum of 2 percent of GDP on defense, and more than 20 percent of defense budgets on major equipment and Research and Development (R&D), though it would be unrealistic to expect rapid changes so soon.
Although the nature of the security challenges has evolved in the 21st century, territorial defense is still a crucial part of NATO’s defense strategy. Member states should realize that their reluctance to spend money and take responsibility might result in irreversible damages. Should members wish to keep NATO relevant and fit for many purposes, they have to dig deep in their pockets and stop hiding behind others.