NATO, The Existential Question

With major geopolitical changes and severe economic restraints, some wonder if the military alliance is destined for the dustbin of history.

NATO's mission in Afghanistan is approaching its end date.
NATO's mission in Afghanistan is approaching its end date.
Jean-Pierre Stroobants

BRUSSELS - It is a profound problem, which may evolve into a true existential crisis. It is prompted by a question that organizations must sometimes confront: “What purpose do we serve?”

This is the question that is starting to be asked at the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Meetings in Brussels without any real agenda, that lead to summits without decisions, the organization gets by actively trying to “redefine” itself. In reality, the end of the organization’s mission in Afghanistan in 2014, and its economic uncertainty due to the crisis that its European members are facing, puts it in a very difficult situation.

An outward sign of just how delicate the situation is for NATO's General Secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen and his associates was the recent cancellation of the governmental summit because US President Barack Obama’s presence could not be assured.

Since 2010-2011, the Europeans have all exhausted their military budgets, an easy enough target for cuts. Public opinion in member countries is a bit less sensitive to these measures than to others that concern individuals on a more direct daily basis. The continent dedicates today to its defense a total of 15% less than in 2001. Neither France nor Britain any longer reach the NATO standard of 2% of the GDP that should be dedicated to the military. The French share is expected to drop to around 1% in 2025. Even though Germany, in terms of conventional weapons, disposes of the same budget as France, it still hesitates to take the step forward necessary to move to a status of a military power, as well as an economic one.

Libyan differences

In NATO, the Europeans take on only one-third, soon to drop to one-quarter, of the expenses, even though they accounted for half of it a decade ago. Some smaller nations are simply incapable of bringing to the organization military resources that provide real value.

It will thus be more and more difficult to continue to function in the long run, as a united and unified organization. Things grow even more troublesome when political differences appear, like during the war in Libya when eight members favored intervention, but Germany, Poland and Turkey didn't even show up.

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U.S. and NATO soldiers parachuting - Photo: U.S. Army

NATO was absent altogether in Mali, where nobody asked for its help, even though it is meant to also serve as an anti-terrorist force. And in the Syrian conflict, its role was limited to the deployment of missiles in Turkey and to plan an attack in a “just in case” scenario. Since 2002, the alliance boasts a special force dedicated to quick reaction in emergency situations, but it has never been deployed. NATO finds itself busier than ever trying to calm internal tensions, and rediscover its raison d"être.

The organization thought to have found its new path with the smart defense: an approach based on the sharing of expenses, with a better coordination of investments and the payoff of economies of scale that could benefit everybody. In light of today's financial constraints, the lead members could continue to accept paying for those who benefit from the common resources despite contributing very little.

What Congress wants

Washington doubts the Europeans’ will to assume more responsibility in attempting to resolve the conflicts in the Middle East or in Asia. However, with this new plan, Washington may see an advantage in the economic part of the project. Developing more cooperation and common funding may mean a new way to sell more American military equipment and impose “Made in USA” as the norm for NATO members.

Now that concrete new projects of cooperation have been launched, we must wonder how many will be successful? It is hard to say, given their large scale, the lasting financial difficulties in Europe and a diffused lack of enthusiasm in some quarters. Furthermore, there is internal competition with the ambitious “European Defense Initiative,” which has launched projects of pooling and sharing resources, putting France as much as Germany in a difficult position. The two countries, with a bit more ambiguity from the latter, are wondering if it would be smarter to develop a capable power inside the EU rather than consider a new division of roles in the graying halls of NATO.

It is a good subject of reflexion for the successor of Catherine Ashton, EU's chief diplomat, who, in theory, is in charge of questions of security. It will likewise be on the frontburner for the person to follow Aders Fogh Rasmussen, who will leave office in 2014. And then there is the US Congress, which may decide once and for all, to take the lead on reorienting their participation to the Alliance, which many in Washington have long believed is in decline.

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