TCS Daily

Whither NATO?

By Dale Franks - June 25, 2002 12:00 AM

For half a century, NATO existed for the sole purpose of defending Europe against the Soviet bloc nations of the Warsaw Pact. But, the Soviet Empire is long gone, and with it, the original reason for NATO's existence. Indeed, many of the former Warsaw Pact Nations are now clamoring to join the alliance that, not so many years ago, was their chief enemy.

As a result, NATO's member states must address the key question of what NATO's purpose now is. It is clear that NATO is no longer a military alliance against Russia. But, if it is to remain a military alliance, then what is its new defining purpose? As it stands now NATO has no clear mission. It exists to defend Europe from... what?

Some European states, especially Russia, prefer NATO to become a political, rather than a military alliance. They no longer believe in the necessity of a military alliance to defend against a threat that no longer exists. At the same time, they wish to keep some level of American engagement -- and protection -- available in Europe, just in case it should become necessary.

The trouble with this idea is that such an organization already exists, in the form of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Recreating NATO in the image of the OSCE seems, at the very least, redundant.

If, however, NATO is to remain viable as a military alliance, European nations must all shoulder the burden for maintaining its effectiveness. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has already urged the European member states to increase their military spending to 2%-2.5% of GDP, in order to modernize their forces.

From the US point of view, such spending is nearly mandatory if the European armed forces are to be expected to work with US forces on the battlefield. In general, the Europeans lack the mobility, accuracy, or technological sophistication required to interoperate with US forces. This leaves the Europeans with the ability to perform rear area security, POW detention, and other "coat-holding" activities, but without the ability to work side by side with the US in combat operations. This is not an arrangement with which one can expect Americans to be happy over the long term. An alliance in which Americans do all the fighting will not, in the end, seem much like an "alliance" to the American people.

Nevertheless, European reaction has been less than enthusiastic. Most European member states spend less than 2% of DGP on defense. Some spend far less. There are two reasons for this, one that the Europeans are willing to talk about publicly, and one that they are not.

The European public response has been that, since Europe does not have the international security obligations that the US has, they have no need to spend a commensurate amount on defense. Privately, however, the real truth is that, even if they wished to spend a congruent amount on defense, it is in most cases not fiscally possible.

Europe long ago made the choice to concentrate government spending on social projects. As this social spending has increased, it has not only crowded out military spending, it has pushed most European governments into structural budget deficits.

The introduction of the Euro currency area has complicated this fiscal picture. In order to remain in the Euro area, member governments must keep budget deficits below 3% of GDP, or face fines as high as 0.5% GDP. This requirement tightens the fiscal straightjacket of many European nations. Even Germany, widely regarded as the most fiscally conservative Euro-area nation, is currently running a deficit of 2.8% of GDP. This means that increasing military spending through borrowing is simply not an option for most of the Euro-area nations.

At the same time, budget cuts -- which, as a practical matter, mean cuts in government social services -- remain politically unpopular. In the absence of a clear military threat, European politicians seem at a loss to explain to the electorate why they should cut popular social programs in order to increase defense spending.

If NATO is to remain viable, its member states must concentrate on redefining NATO's mission in terms of Europe's security. European governments must also make clear to their citizens why NATO modernization is important, and how it will contribute to European security. European governments must also cooperate in creating units such as the European Rapid Reaction Force proposed by France, which would give the Europeans the ability to rapidly project combat power to other parts of the world.

A clear emphasis on the modern security threats to Europe, combined with a program to modernize and provide mobility to European military power, will keep NATO viable for the foreseeable future.



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