'Post-Afghanistan, NATO will be 65 and out of a job'
22 May 2012
NATO's Chicago summit squandered the opportunity to give the alliance purpose post-2014, as Dr Hylke Dijkstra, of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, explains…
At 63, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has almost reached retirement age. After it concludes its combat operations in Afghanistan in two years' time, the organisation will be 65 and out of a job. Since no one likes to sustain the unemployed in this era of austerity, NATO has to reform and find itself a new occupation. Without a genuine raison d'être, it will be increasingly hard for allies to justify paying fees for a club that does little more than fostering transatlantic debate.
The Chicago summit last Sunday and Monday was an opportunity to have a serious brainstorm on the future of NATO. The gathering in the hometown of United States President Barack Obama could have been the venue for outside-the-box thinking. There was momentum. NATO summits have seldom seen as much of a public relations offensive as Chicago 2012, which even included the US ambassador Ivo Daalder making an appearance in 'The Daily Show' on Comedy Central. Yet after two days of discussions, there is little new to report.
Admittedly, there were some achievements. The allies lined up over Afghanistan and agreed on continuing non-combat activities after 2014. They also recognised the need for much closer cooperation on defence capabilities in order to achieve economies of scale. They even presented a number of capabilities projects, in which they may cooperate. Finally, the Chicago summit provided a welcome break from the economic crisis and allowed NATO leaders to focus for once on important security issues.
The elephant in the room remained, however, the future of the alliance itself. To be fair, NATO is useful beyond Afghanistan. In Kosovo, for instance, it regularly separates local Albanians from Serbs. Allies also have several ships in the Indian Ocean protecting merchant vessels from pirates. Many central and eastern European states still consider NATO critical in 'keeping the Russians out'. Finally, the command structure remains a strategic asset sine qua non, as evidenced by the recent Libyan intervention. The question is whether these activities merit the existence of the NATO organisation in its current format.
During most of its history NATO soldiers never fired a single bullet. Such inactivity was possible in the Cold War context. In fact, it was evidence of the strength of the alliance. Between 1949 and 1989, few serious politicians ever questioned the relevance of the organisation in light of the Soviet threat. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was debate on the future of NATO. Yet this proved premature due to the new military operations in the Western Balkans and the willingness in Washington to keep the alliance alive.
This time is different. The US no longer has a real security interest in the European continent and focuses increasingly on the Asia-Pacific region. It can also no longer afford to pay for security in Europe. After all, it has lost its AAA status and has to make tremendous cuts in its own defence budget. In short, the US wants Europe to carry a larger share of the budget. Europe has to take responsibility for its own security.
This explains why the US has made such a big point of military capabilities in the last couple of years. Of the European allies, only Greece and the United Kingdom spend more than two per cent of their gross domestic product on defence. The US currently spends three times more on defence than all other allies combined. Given the ongoing crisis, this will not change any time soon. In fact, many member states are already cashing in on their post-Afghanistan peace dividend.
Much of the effort in Chicago has focused on keeping the capability of power projection intact through "modern, tightly connected forces equipped, trained, exercised and commanded so that they can operate together and with partners in any environment". The magic formula is called 'smart defence'. Through joint production and procurement of military capabilities, allies hope to buy more with less money. In reality, of course, the savings are minimal and various European allies use it as an excuse to avoid far-reaching domestic defence reform.
The real trouble, however, is that capabilities are only a means to an end. Without agreeing on what the North Atlantic alliance is for, it makes little sense to try to achieve smart defence. Chicago was a missed opportunity to tackle NATO's purpose head on. European allies have the biggest interest in keeping the organisation going. What NATO therefore desperately needs is for the European leaders to make up their minds about what they want from the alliance. They have two years left.This article first appeared on sister site PublicServiceEurope.com