WASHINGTON – At what point will the gap between NATO’s mission to defend all members and the actual military means at its disposal becomes so wide to allow most observers to conclude that this venerable institution is no longer credible?
If we looked at the “delinquency” of most NATO members regarding unmet obligations to contribute to the common defense with national defense budgets amounting to at least 2% of GDP, we are already there.
Only 4 NATO countries, including the United States, are in compliance with this solemn obligation. Please note: this is just 4, out of 28 members. And it gets worse. While most countries are below 2%, (including Germany, Europe’s economic superpower that allocates 1.3% of GDP to defense), some NATO members are actually below 1%.
More with less?
Now, one could argue that goals like “defense spending equal to 2% of GDP” are not meaningful, because what counts is how the money is actually spent. We should look at capabilities actually deployed in the field, and not at percentages. Well, yes and no. After all it was NATO itself that set this goal, after having observed how defense spending in free fall in most NATO countries affected collective military capabilities.
In principle one could argue that it is possible “to do more with less”. One could also argue that, assuming the successful pooling of resources allocated to defense by all members, NATO could still buy significant defense capabilities. May be.
Reduced spending, reduced capabilities
But the truth is that in most cases declining defense spending also signals reduced capabilities. As for the goal of new synergies that could be achieved by effectively pooling resources, well…it has been tried many times. But results are not impressive.
And so, what is NATO going to do? Accept the fact that this alliance, due to systemic under investment, is structurally weak, hoping that no one will notice? Or is there an effort to regain credibility through serious and verifiable commitments to higher defense spending?
Political compromise signals no change
The actual new “commitment” regarding defense spending is a sorry looking political smoke screen that barely disguises the inability to do anything serious. Here is what the NATO members decided on this issue at the end of the NATO Summit in Wales (September 4-5, 2014):
“…The aim [of the NATO countries] is to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s Capability shortfalls.”
(Please note that this language is buried at the end of paragraph 14 of a lengthy NATO Communique). So here is another fudge. NATO set as a new goal something that should have already been implemented.
But NATO also added that delinquent members (practically everybody) have another 10 years to meet this (old) obligation. (Again, note the deliberately vague expression “within a decade”, as opposed to establishing a firm date).
Nothing will be done
Translation: “Nothing much will be done regarding significant defense spending increases; and we accept this.”
As I said above, there is a point beyond which carefully nuanced diplomatic language will be unable to hide NATO’s structural military weakness.
I would argue that we are already there.