Preserving NATO: Re-assessing Collective Defense in the 21st Century
Like many organizations governed by democratic values such as consensus, NATO is often stymied by the inability to craft policies that anticipate and respond to emerging strategic threats. Consequently, NATO is often woefully reactive when these threats mature and strike the interests of member nations or allies. We see this lack of “real-time” capability as NATO struggles to formulate policies that minimize threats from non-state actors such as ISIS, as well as counter Russian manipulation of Ukrainian separatists. Meanwhile, sharply reduced defense budgets across much of Europe inhibit most nations’ ability to maintain balanced capabilities. NATO can address this pressing challenge by making long-range defense planning a collective as well as a national function, leading to less duplication of capabilities, diffusion of costs across NATO member countries, and better institutional capability to respond to threats.
While NATO developed comprehensive strategies to handle the dangers of Cold War conventional threats, non-conventional threats since 9/11 are vastly more complex. In contentious debates on the situations in Syria and Egypt, we see how difficult it is to determine which side is the “right” side. But without taking the difficult but necessary approach to address modern threats from a collective perspective, NATO will be relegated to the role of passive bystander as member countries struggle to determine their own position, identify a NATO strategy, and then allocate often duplicative capabilities. Moreover, threatened nations, including those in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, may resort to unilateral action, which will further debilitate NATO’s influence and capabilities. I believe NATO can address this critical challenge by undertaking collective assessments of potential threats with a specific focus on how nations can jointly develop force structure and capabilities to support NATO responses.
Today, NATO member countries continue to determine their own defense budgets and force structures individually, with national contributions to NATO and its missions made largely as a consequence of those decisions. As a result, NATO members often have unnecessary duplicative capabilities or have too few high-need capabilities in areas such as cyber or counter-terrorism. Ensuring NATO has the balanced capabilities to respond to 21st challenges requires a different approach. While national interests and political considerations will remain important, preventing NATO from being a time capsule of the Cold War requires member nations to consider collective defense obligations differently. Continued budgetary constraints may incentivize a new approach as nations can spread capabilities across NATO to control defense budgets. We already see examples of a new approach. The U.S. and UK are working on joint research and development costs. Benelux nations are pooling training programs.
No American can forget when NATO invoked Article 5 after September 11, 2001 – it symbolized that the horrific attack challenged the collective values and ideals NATO exists to protect. Ensuring that this cherished organization for peace and security can fend off new threats requires NATO countries to fundamentally rethink what national defense means – and what that membership requires.
Joseph Moyer, a Management Consultant at Deloitte, is a 2014 Manfred Wörner Seminar Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.