Transatlantic Take

London 2019: NATO’s 360-Degree Dilemma

Michal Baranowski
Julian Lindley-French
9 min read
Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
Originally, the NATO Leaders meeting in London was meant to be a short and sweet opportunity to celebrate the Alliance's 70th birthday.

Originally, the NATO Leaders meeting in London was meant to be a short and sweet opportunity to celebrate the Alliance's 70th birthday. Then, French President Emmanuel Macron's interview in the Economist and his assessment of NATO "brain-death" dramatically changed this dynamic. Following Turkey's incursion into Syria, and President Macron's pronouncement that terrorism, not the threat posed by Russia, should be NATO’s strategic focus, many observers worried at the prospect of a clash between Macron, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump in London.

As Julian Lindley French argues in this piece, the NATO leaders managed to "paper over" their differences in London, but the debate over the strategic direction of the Alliance is far from over. He argues that "the existential question is whether the Alliance can survive as a meaningful security and defense provider given the scale of the 360-degree challenge and in the face of such discordant strategic visions." It explores the key questions raised by Macron – whether and how NATO should deal with the threat of terrorism, and what the focus for the European Allies should be at a time of "worsening U.S. military overstretch, given the rise of China." The debate over the future of NATO continues and GMF very much hopes that this piece will contribute positively to that debate.

—Michal Baranowski, Director, Warsaw Office of the German Marshall Fund

“We, as an Alliance, are facing distinct threats and challenges emanating from all strategic directions…We are adapting our military capabilities, strategy, and plans across the Alliance in line with our 360-degree approach to security.

London Declaration, December 4, 2019

It is short and sweet, an elegant tribute to British diplomatic wordsmithing. Seventy years after NATO’s founding, the Organization’s London Declaration confirms (again) that the Alliance “remains the foundation for our collective defense and the essential forum for security consultations and decisions among Allies.” The Declaration notes the five consecutive years of growth in defense investment by the European allies, totaling some $130 billion in new spending. Russia is given a firm warning to cease and desist from its “aggressive actions.” The increasing importance of Article 3 of the 1949 Washington Treaty is affirmed, and with it the need for all “strengthen our individual and collective capacity to resist all forms of attack.” NATO’s commitment to an “Open Door” to membership is re-affirmed.

The key passage of the Declaration, however, may be Paragraph 6, and its implicit reinvention of Article 5, on collective defense:

The paragraph covers a lot of ground. It stresses the need to address new technologies to maintain a technical edge and to increase the resilience of societies, critical infrastructure and energy security. It states that NATO has declared space an operational domain, and that the Alliance is increasing tools to respond to cyber-attacks and its ability to prepare for, deter and defend against hybrid attacks. It recognizes China’s growing influence and policies as presenting both opportunities and challenges.

As NATO’s Heads of State and of Government gathered in Watford for the London Leaders’ Meeting, I was addressing senior military officers as part of a course organized by the Baltic Defence College at the NATO Force Integration Unit in Tallinn, Estonia. The theme of my address was the hard strategic choices to be made and the balance that must be struck by the allies between strategy, capability and affordability.

My presentation included some stark economic facts: based on current growth projections, China will match U.S. defense expenditure by 2030; according to testimony to the U.S. Senate by General Mark Milley, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, the personnel costs of Chinese and Russian soldiers were a fraction of those of the United States; at purchasing power parity, China and Russia combined already today effectively generate as much military spending as the United States; and despite modest increases in NATO European defense expenditures, personnel costs and defense cost inflation mean that, in relative terms, Europeans are falling further behind where it matters: the creation of a truly high-end, fast, first-response force capable of defending and deterring under Article 5, and supporting and reinforcing under Article 3. 

Watford Gap?

So, while this statement may be provocative, I do not believe the European allies are investing at anything like the rate and scale required to meet all the tasks implicit in the London Declaration or to offset worsening U.S. military overstretch, given the rise of China. NATO needs less to be adapted than to be transformed, and London did little to foster such change, whatever the rhetoric.  Something has to give.

In his capacity as host, and as a slight poke in the eye of French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson quoted French author Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers. NATO, Johnson said, is built on the principle of “All for one and one for all.” OK, but all for what?

Much has been made of President Macron’s comments in his Economist interview prior to the London meeting. Thankfully, France’s ambassador to Poland, Frederic Billet, elegantly clarified President Macron’s meaning at a November 29 German Marshall Fund meeting I attended in Warsaw.  France, Ambassador Billet said, sought better co-ordination of strategic decision-making in the Alliance; more cash, capabilities and commitments from the European allies; collective agreement as to the threats faced by the Alliance, and how best to respond; and a far stronger role for Europeans in rebuilding arms control in Europe following the collapse of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Amen to all of that.

Having read the original transcript of the Macron interview carefully, however, I am not sure the Élysée Palace and the Quai d’Orsay are entirely on the same page. 

Prior to the London meeting, President Macron doubled down on his “brain-dead NATO” theme. His main “boeuf” is that the real threat faced by the Alliance is terrorism, and that NATO is simply not doing enough to counter that threat.

Should NATO “do” terrorism?

So, should NATO “do” terrorism? Or, better: Where exactly does NATO add value to counterterrorism? In 2017, William Hopkinson and I published The New Geopolitics of Terror – Demons and Dragons. In the final chapter, we considered at length the policy options available to a divided West, and to a divided Europe in particular.

We concluded that an anti-terrorism engagement would require many years of sustained aid and development to ease the underlying causes of extremism, along with policy engagement and partnership in equal measure with states across the region. As for the use of Allied military power, it would have to be nuanced and in coalition with state partners in the region, together with their institutions, focused on support for the human security of people therein, and would take a very long time and cost lots of money.

While NATO’s Counter-Terrorism Policy Guidelines certainly reflect those goals, I cannot see a specific role for NATO in any overall counter-terror campaign that could be placed on a par with its core mission to defend the Allies and deter high-end, state-based threats, such as that posed by Russia. In spite of the horrors of Bataclan and other terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States, President Macron is wrong to suggest that the main threat faced by NATO is terrorism. Counterterrorism must not, and cannot ever be, NATO’s main mission.

NATO – the peacekeeping war-fighter

European peace depends on NATO’s credible ability to fight a war. This is because NATO is, first and foremost, a war-fighting, nuclear alliance designed to preserve the peace by deterring and defending against strategic peer competitors. President Macron is right in implying that it would be a mistake to make enemies of China and Russia. But NATO would be failing its core Article 5 mission if it did not properly consider the many dark sides of Chinese and Russian strategic methods and the industrial-scale dark arts being employed by both against the Americans and Europeans alike.

Effective counterterrorism requires a whole raft of partnerships and activities, many of these focused on criminal (as opposed to military) intelligence, and on effective policing, justice and the rule of law. As such, NATO is singularly ill-placed to be an effective counterterrorism agency. Indeed, it is a much more natural fit for the EU, if the European Council and European Commission could be persuaded that the real enemy is not on the other side of Brussels’s Rue de Loi/Wetstraat.  

What the London Declaration really reveals is the sheer scale, complexity, and cost of delivering credible defense and deterrence in the twenty-first century. The equally complex strategies and technologies being used against the Alliance by the likes of China and Russia also require of NATO the sustained commitment of forces and resources over time and distance in Europe’s defense. 

As I concluded my briefing to senior officers in Estonia, I asked them what they would like to say to the assembled leaders in Watford. The message was much more succinct than the London Declaration: Focus on the core mission, give us the tools to do the job you ask of us, stop playing short-term politics and start “doing”, as opposed to talking, the strategies and capabilities NATO will need to fulfil its mission. While counterterrorism was not dismissed as a relevant role for the Alliance, deterring Russia and helping the United States maintain its high-end security and defense guarantee to Europe remained the single most important mission. Defense, deterrence, and the equitable sharing of burden and risk are, after all, what NATO is for.  

NATO’s 360-degree dilemma

What really concerns me about the Macron démarche is this: If the Alliance focused on counterterrorism as its main mission, it would fail. Maybe then, but only then, would a strategically autonomous European defense miraculously emerge. Is that the plan? President Macron is right to suggest Europeans should do far more for their own defense, but whatever Europeans spend on defense, it would never be enough to fulfil all the 360-degree missions and tasks implicit in the London Declaration. Therefore, any such effort must be within the framework of NATO and designed specifically to enable an over-stretched America to maintain its security guarantee to Europe.

My suspicion remains that President Macron thinks the Alliance not only brain dead, but doomed. Doomed precisely because of the kind of political and strategic fissures that exist between him, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and U.S. President Donald Trump, which destroy all important Allied unity of effort and purpose. However cleverly drafted, the London Declaration only papers these fissures over.

Perhaps the most important sentence in the Declaration is also its shortest: “We must and will do more.” You see, implicit in my question is not really whether NATO has a role to play in counterterrorism but, instead, the existential question of whether the Alliance can survive as a meaningful security and defense provider given the scale of the 360-degree challenge and in the face of such discordant strategic visions.

After all, NATO is merely the sum of its component parts, and it is time those component parts remembered what unites them, rather than what divides them. And maybe, just maybe, London was a step down that road, even if – believe me – Watford is a terrible place from which to start.

—Professor Julian Lindley-French, Chair of the TAG, Senior Fellow of the Institute for Statecraft in London, Distinguished Visiting Fellow of the National Defense University in Washington and Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute