WASHINGTON – “[At the forthcoming NATO Summit in Wales] we will send an unmistakable message: Today and in the future, NATO means one for all, all for one”. This is the upbeat conclusion of a WSJ op-ed piece co-authored by Anders Fogh Rasmussen and by General Philip Breedlove, Secretary General of NATO and Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and Commander of US European Command, (A NATO for a Dangerous World, August 18, 2014).
We stand united
The gist of the piece is that NATO stands absolutely united, now as before, while the Alliance has done or is doing all that is necessary to strengthen the political and military cooperation among its 28 members.
While the Cold War is over, the authors argue, there are many potential threats out there, from further deterioration in the Middle East to possible escalation of the crisis in Ukraine.
Well, it is nice to read reassuring words from the top civilian and military authorities of this old Alliance. The trouble is that most of what they say regarding NATO being ready to meet challenges is either grossly exaggerated, or not at all true.
Disconnect between commitments and budgets
The two authors vaguely hint at the enormous disconnect between declared goals and objectives (ambitious) and real defense budgets (ridiculous) when they write that: “The Wales summit is a key opportunity to reverse the trend of declining defense budgets and to share the responsibilities for security more fairly”. So, they admit that there is a defense spending problem. But they do not even begin to say how big it is.
Defense spending in free fall
The US is the NATO member that spends the most on defense: about 4% of GDP. No other European NATO member comes even close. Britain leads the pack with defense at 2.4% of GDP. France dropped military spending from 2.5% in 2004 to 1.9% in 2013. Germany is at 1.3%, Italy a bit less with 1.2%. Poland does better with military spending at 2%, while economically challenged Spain went down from 1.2% in 2009 to 0.9 today.
And do keep in mind that America is already cutting its military spending, with more cuts coming in the near future.
So, there you go. We stand united. Our resolve is unshakable, blah, blah, blah. Unfortunately, this is mostly “feel good” nonsense. The Alliance is there, and so are all the trappings of a peace time integrated military structure. The commitments are there, and nobody says they will not be honored.
However, the sad reality is that most European NATO countries cannot field credible armed forces. And even the best do not have that much. For example, shortly after the beginning of the air campaign against Gaddafi’s Libya, led by France and Britain, the Europeans were asking America to give them precision guided ammunition, because they had run out. And this was a small war against Libya, a third-rate military force.
And leaving aside the actual level of spending, if we look closely at the actual military preparedness of the armed forces theoretically fielded by –say– Romania, Estonia or Portugal, we are not going to be impressed.
Related to this, there is the perennial shortcoming resulting from a lack of real “military integration” among NATO countries. Which is to say that there is no way to get “more bang for the buck” because military spending is highly fragmented.
Indeed, many attempts notwithstanding, the individual European NATO members, plus America and Canada field separate armed forces. There are few if any effective synergies when it comes to procurement of new weapons systems.
Over the years weapons standardization and interoperability have improved some. But we do not have a fully integrated “NATO Army”. Which is to say that the little money that is indeed spent does not buy as much as it could in terms of joint NATO capabilities.
When the Soviet Union collapsed
The truth of the matter is that when the USSR disappeared back in 1991 the real rationale for the NATO Alliance –protecting Europe against a possible Soviet aggression– also disappeared. And so most European countries, whatever their public pronouncements, started cutting defense spending.
Today we have an Alliance which is actually much larger in terms of members, (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, the 3 Baltic countries, and many more joined in recent years), but with minimal military capabilities.
Please, tell the whole truth
The pep talk-editorial authored by Secretary General Rasmussen and General Breedlove is in fact a disservice, as it hides the stark reality about lack of resources behind NATO-speak verbiage on theoretical commitments, coupled with a routine reassertion about steadfastness and unity.