Capstones: NATO: One for All or All for One?

By Alan W. Dowd, 7.8.15

“We cannot afford, if we can help it, to work on narrow margins, offering temptations to a trial of strength,” Churchill warned at the onset of the Cold War. Lt. Gen. Riho Terras, who commands Estonia’s military, sounds positively Churchillian as he tries to shake his NATO allies out of their post-Cold War/pre-Cold War lethargy: “If the Russians sense a window of opportunity, they will use it to their advantage. We must make sure there’s no room for miscalculation.”

Regrettably, many of NATO’s political leaders are working on the narrowest of margins, and the populations who keep them in office are sending Moscow the very worst signal at the very worst time.

According to a recent Pew survey, there’s not majority support in Britain, Spain, Italy, Germany, France or Poland for defending a fellow NATO ally from Russian attack. As if to answer their wayward publics, NATO officials recently turned to Twitter to declare: “NATO commitment to Article 5 is rock solid #AlliedStrong.”

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is NATO’s all-for-one collective defense clause, declaring that “an armed attack” against any member of the alliance “in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and obliging members to come to the aid of an attacked ally—with military force if necessary—“to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

In short, Article 5 is the heart and soul of the alliance, which means this problem of political will within NATO cannot be solved with hashtags and tweets.

Some of us have been concerned about the health of Article 5 ever since NATO’s halfhearted intervention in Afghanistan. It pays to recall that only once in its history has NATO invoked Article 5—on September 12, 2001. Yet in the years that followed, it became clear that some allies don’t take Article 5 as seriously as others. If they did, European defense spending wouldn’t have shrunk by 15 percent after 9/11; the United States wouldn’t account for 75 percent of NATO’s defense spending (far above the U.S. share of 50 percent during the Cold War); Washington wouldn’t have been reduced to begging for more troops in Afghanistan; and the troops that were sent wouldn’t have had limits on how, where and when they engaged the enemy. 

Indeed, the way some members of the alliance approached this first-ever Article 5 operation would be laughable if the stakes were not so high. Italy didn’t permit its fighter-bombers in Afghanistan to carry bombs. German forces were required to shout warnings to enemy forces—in three languages—before opening fire. Some allies repeatedly failed to deliver on troop pledges. As a consequence, the United States contributed 71 percent of all forces, and non-NATO members Australia, Georgia and Sweden deployed more troops than many founding members of the alliance. Invoking what’s known as the “caveat” rule within NATO, some allies simply opted out of certain missions.

Then, with the U.S. “leading from behind” in Libya, NATO was found woefully lacking in precision munitions, targeting and jamming capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, drones, and command-and-control assets—just about everything needed to conduct a 21st-century air war. This is what happens when nations, in effect, stop investing in the common defense. As the British government concludes, years of underfunding have led to “alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness.”

To address those deficiencies, NATO headquarters has been nagging members to invest 2 percent of GDP in defense. Yet only a handful of NATO members meet that standard, and a look behind the numbers suggests that even this comes with an asterisk. In addition to the U.S. (which invests 3.6 percent of GDP on defense—and falling), Greece (2.4 percent), Poland (2.2 percent), Britain (2.1 percent) and Estonia (2 percent) will technically hit the 2-percent target this year. But Greece is a political-economic basket case and is cozying up to Moscow. Poland only recently put itself on the path to 2 percent. Even after using accounting tricks to include monies previously under the purview of the Foreign Office, Britain will struggle to remain above the 2-percent threshold. And tiny Estonia fields just 6,000 troops.

Further down the list, some of NATO’s largest and richest members—nations that, unlike Estonia, have the resources to contribute to the common defense—are either investing their dwindling defense resources somewhere other than NATO’s eastern flank or getting out of the national-defense business altogether: France (1.8 percent) is reversing some defense cuts—but largely to counter jihadists inside France. Turkey (1.7 percent) is drifting away from NATO, from Europe, from the West. Germany (1.2 percent) seems to refuse most meaningful requests made by NATO, and its army used black-painted broomsticks to simulate machine guns during a 2014 NATO exercise. Italy (1 percent) has slashed defense spending 12 percent since last year. Canada (1 percent) has seen a decline in defense spending since 2012, even as its economy booms.

The U.S. is doing its part—sort of.  Washington has unveiled plans to preposition tanks in Eastern Europe. However, the American soldiers needed to man those tanks will be in the Baltics only on a “rotational” basis. That sends the wrong message. NATO membership comes with a security guarantee backed by the U.S.—and more specifically, by U.S. personnel. That’s what made the difference in Berlin and along the Fulda Gap during the Cold War. Without American troops in those American tanks, the guarantee is simply not as meaningful. And without that U.S.-backed guarantee, there is no security in Europe, as history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in, from Cold War Hungary to post-Cold War Ukraine and Georgia.

All of this strikes at the very heart of NATO’s credibility, capability and cohesiveness. After all, an ally that promises to help only when the guns are quiet, only where the scenery is serene, only if there’s no financial cost, only with broomsticks, only with unmanned tanks, only with asterisks, is not a full-fledged ally. Yet that’s an accurate description of how too many NATO members view their post-Cold War role—and, apparently, how populations in key NATO members view defending Eastern Europe.

Doubtless, Vladimir Putin, whose government recently began reviewing whether the Soviet Union’s recognition of Baltic independence was legal, has been a keen observer of all of this.

“In more peaceful times, it was right to reduce defense spending,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg soberly observes. “But we do not live in peaceful times.” Key NATO publics seem oblivious to this reality.

Interestingly, there is something NATO’s rich, developed European members are ready and willing to defend against: African immigrants washing up on their rich, developed shores. The EU has authorized, and several of its members have launched, a naval operation to “identify, capture and destroy vessels” that are bringing migrants from Africa. In other words, when it wants to do so, Western Europe can find the resources and summon the will to act. The contrast between its halfhearted, equivocating reaction to an Article 5 challenge in Eastern Europe and its all-hands-on-deck answer to unwelcome immigrants in the Mediterranean speaks volumes.

Yes, NATO has scaled up the number and size of its military exercises, launched a reassurance initiative for Eastern Europe and beefed up its Response Force. But the very fact that NATO had to scramble to take these steps after Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea underscores that the alliance had not conducted the quality and quantity of exercises needed to prove its seriousness (to Eastern Europe or to Moscow), had not assured Eastern Europe or Moscow of its deterrent capabilities, had not invested enough in or committed enough to its much-ballyhooed Response Force, and had not learned anything from Russia’s 2008 invasion and annexation of part of Georgia.

Moreover, these reactions have a short-term, of-the-moment feel; defense spending and ingrained public attitudes, on the other hand, reflect longer-term realities.

Now more than any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO must devote adequate resources to deterrence—and redouble efforts to educate its publics on the enduring role and relevance of the alliance. NATO’s mission is to keep the peace by deterring Moscow. That’s what Article 5 is all about. That’s why NATO was formed in 1949, why it survived after 1989, and why East European nations so desperately wanted to join in the years after—as a hedge against the very scenario now unfolding.

But if things don’t change, NATO will be exposed as a one-for-all public good rather than an all-for-one alliance, Washington will find it increasingly difficult to make the case for NATO to the American people and Moscow will take advantage of the resulting division.

If NATO’s members don’t take Article 5 seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies. And if that happens, NATO’s deterrent strength is gone—not a comforting thought as Putin probes NATO’s weak points.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose