NATO Allies Must Pay More for Europe’s Security
NATO Allies Must Pay More for Europe’s Security
I attended my first meeting of the defense ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Istanbul in 2004, as the senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld. The gatherings are held three times a year, and provide an opportunity for all of the equivalents of the US secretary of defense to discuss key issues. At that time, I was a 3-star vice admiral, but essentially served as the bag carrier for Rumsfeld. After watching the long, ponderous speeches for a couple of days, I thought, “Boy I hope I never have to actually serve in NATO.”
Later, when I became the supreme allied commander of the alliance from 2009-2013, I attended every ministerial meeting. By then, the secretary of defense was Robert Gates, who shared my sense of frustration with the slow pace and deadly bureaucracy in Brussels. Yet despite my resorting to crossword puzzles to get through the speech-making at times, we both ultimately valued NATO’s immense capability — because we needed it in Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, and Syria and in pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a former commander of US Central Command, just completed his first ministerial session, albeit a virtual one. Judging by the statements issued by the allies and the Pentagon, it was an amicable initial set of meetings. That’s a welcome change from the often-angry treatment the alliance received from the White House under Donald Trump.
Austin, who exudes a commendably calming presence, talked about wanting to revitalize the US-NATO relationship, and underlined America’s commitment to Article 5 of the NATO treaty — an attack on one is regarded as an attack on all. He spoke of the destabilizing behavior by Russia, the rise of China, terrorism, the pandemic, and climate change. It was a reassuring and well-received performance.
President Joe Biden backed up this transatlantic commitment in a speech at the Munich Security Conference on Friday: “The United States is determined — determined — to reengage with Europe.”
But underlying the relief at the return of a cooperative US are three very hard problems that the 30 members of NATO cannot wish away.
The first is the uneven level of defense spending between the US and the rest of the alliance. Even if the defense budget dips under a Biden administration (most analysts expect a 1% to 2% decline), the US will still spend more than all of the other nations combined. Only nine of the alliance’s 30 countries meet the agreed goal of spending 2% of GDP on defense (the US, Greece, Britain, Bulgaria, Estonia, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania). The alliance is flirting with the idea of more “pooled” funding for conducting operations, which would potentially get more European and Canadian spending into the mix, but the idea has not gained traction. The argument over defense spending, particularly as all the nations seek to rebuild Covid-ravaged economies, will continue (albeit with a polite tone) for years to come.
A second major challenge is Afghanistan. There is very little enthusiasm for pressing on with the NATO mission given the painful two decades of engagement. But with the Taliban’s presence throughout much of the country, a sudden departure of the remaining NATO force of around 10,000 troops (2,500 US and the remainder allied) could present existential difficulties for the Afghan government. A collapse in Kabul would unwind the real advances in human rights, education, gender equality, and democracy of the past two decades.
It seems unlikely the US will simply pull out on May 1, as previously planned, without the Taliban showing far better compliance with the painfully negotiated peace agreement. It appears that NATO will muddle along with a reduced troop presence and hope that Taliban behavior improves. That seems unlikely, and the defense ministers will probably be discussing Afghanistan at meetings for the foreseeable future without much resolution.
Finally, there is substantive disagreement over the alliance’s approach to China. The US wants to pull the NATO nations and other European countries into a global pro-democracy alignment as a global counterweight to China. Many of the NATO nations don’t want to be put into a binary choice between Washington and Beijing, and the European Union in particular wants strong economic and tech relationships with China. This will wear away at NATO cohesion.
There are plenty of other hurdles facing the alliance: The counterterrorism mission in Iraq; Russian adventurism in Ukraine; naval tension in the Arctic; cyber vulnerability; refugee flows from the unrest in the Levant and Libya. But the big three are unbalanced defense spending, what to do in Afghanistan and how to confront China. With this week’s summit, Lloyd Austin’s honeymoon period is over.