This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the annual Munich Security Conference. First focused on Europe, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Cold War, several years ago the conference broadened its agenda to cover global security. That said, the future of NATO must remain among the West’s highest security priorities. For a number of reasons, that is not happening.
The dissolution of the Soviet Union a quarter of a century ago removed the threat for which NATO was uniquely created. The alliance manfully began the transformation to a post-Cold War world. Since major threats now lay beyond NATO’s borders, the alliance expanded its reach. “Out of area or out of business” became the new mantra.
September 11th, 2001 tested the alliance. The day following the attacks, NATO invoked the centerpiece of its security guarantee—Article V—for the first time in its fifty-two year history to support America. Article V specifies that an attack against one is an attack against all. NATO would shortly join the U.S. in the Afghan mission.
Against the background of the 2008 financial crisis and struggling economies that mandated defense cuts, the 2010 biannual NATO heads of government and state summit held in Lisbon agreed on a new strategic concept. Three core tasks were approved: collective defense; crisis management; and cooperative security. Since then NATO expanded its partnerships with non-alliance members and intervened in Libya precipitating the end of the Qaddafi regime.
The Obama administration would shortly announce a “strategic pivot” to Asia. That pivot distressed, frightened and perplexed NATO allies, worried Asian allies and angered China. Along with the pivot, the U.S. reduced its ground forces in Europe, augmenting its naval forces and arguing that this rebalancing would not alter the American commitment to the continent.
The Afghan mission is about to end. Before it does, the next biannual summit convenes in Wales this September to discuss the alliance’s future post-Afghanistan. As important but less likely, the summit should address rejuvenating the alliance at a time of both diminished public support and defense spending. That rejuvenation requires re-examining and asking what the three core tasks in the strategic concept now mean and restating the case for the alliance in plain terms readily understood by publics and politicians alike.
Four years after Lisbon, the questions are “collective defense” against whom or what; “crisis management” under what circumstances; and “cooperative security” with whom and for what purposes? Obviously, the newer and eastern most member states remain concerned about Russia and its intentions. Russia’s decision to increase its defenses is unsettling. Moscow’s creation of an economic partnership to counter the European Union; its use of its energy resources as a lever with the west; and its influence in Ukraine do not ease these concerns.
The immediate dangers come from the south—the Maghreb and the Middle East. Syria is the largest crisis where possibly thousands of Jihadis are flocking for training. Egypt and Libya are wracked with violence and uncertainty. And possible spillover to the very substantial Muslim populations in Europe is serious.
Similarly, the alliance must redefine what it means by crisis management. It has given lip service to cyber, infrastructure protection and energy security. It now must be more specific. Likewise, NATO must determine how to manage cooperative security given that it has set in place global partnerships.
Given economic realities, NATO cannot count on increased defense spending over the short to mid-term. But it already spends quite a lot and U.S. demands for greater expenditures will not work. NATO should not worry too much about its total military capability and concentrate on ensuring interoperability so that when called upon the forces will successfully execute missions.
Greater staff exchanges and command post exercises can offset the decrease in large scale military maneuvers if done appropriately. Strengthening education and training using advanced simulators and war games to compensate for reductions in operations can also reduce the impact on readiness.
Last, NATO does not do a good job in making the case for its importance. More than sixty years ago, NATO’s first Secretary-General British General The Lord Ismay quipped that the alliance’s purpose was to keep the U.S. in, Germany down and the Russians out. Ismay’s quip was more than jest. Today, it can be expanded to advance the reasons why NATO is the centerpiece of western and global security.
NATO’s purposes in the 21st century are to keep Europe safe, danger out, Russia with and the U.S. in. But then the alliance must broadcast this message widely and persistently to skeptical publics and politicians of its twenty-eight members. Unfortunately, the alliance seems to prefer the status quo. If that attitude continues, the summit will be a lost opportunity. And NATO cannot tolerate many more losses.