NATO Unraveling— What Does It Mean?

From the August 2011 Trumpet Print Edition

War in Libya has exposed a major problem: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization—the alliance that has defined security in the Western Hemisphere for around 60 years—no longer works.

nato started off strong enough. After the Cold War, the military organization was dubbed “the most successful alliance in history” because it had prevented the Russian Army from crossing into Western Europe.

Post-Cold War realities, though, have raised existential questions about nato. The last few years have revealed deep fissures in its integrity. And, most recently, its ongoing involvement in Libya has plainly shown that in some fundamental ways, it is a fictitious organization.

Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on June 10 that nato risks “collective military irrelevance” because most of its members put so little toward defense spending that the organization is not even able to defeat a tin-pot dictator like Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. The heart of nato’s problem, according to Gates, is a staggering imbalance in the defense contributions of the member states.

“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country—yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference,” Gates said in his speech to the Security and Defense Agenda think tank in Brussels.

While all 28 nato members voted in favor of the Libyan operation, less than a third of them have participated in the strike mission. Gates explained that it’s not necessarily because they don’t want to participate, “but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.”

Even some nations that are contributing to the campaign, like France and Britain, are quickly exhausting their munitions supplies.

Gates called today’s nato a “two-tiered alliance,” with the U.S. footing 75 percent of its bills and the other 27 member nations paying the rest. nato’s membership rules say a country must spend 2 percent of its gdp on defense in order to be part of the alliance, but only France, Greece, the UK and Albania reach this target.

The U.S., by contrast, spends a startling 4.7 percent of its gdp on defense. Gates called the disproportionate spending “unacceptable,” and cautioned Europe that the disparity is whittling away at Washington’s willingness to keep nato afloat financially. Washington is fed up with shouldering the responsibility for Europe’s defense. It wants European nations to bolster their defense capabilities so debt-ridden America can put those billions of dollars—which it doesn’t have anyway—somewhere else.

Europe has heard, and dismissed, such warnings before, but now things are different. EU nations are witnessing China’s rapid rise, intensifying volatility in the countries around the Mediterranean and Middle East, and the inevitability of a nuclear Iran. The multiplying threats may persuade EU states to take America’s warning more seriously.

The uncertain future of Washington’s financing has already prodded some European states to devote more resources and effort toward building a European military alliance—one that is not dependent on the U.S.

In May, Stratfor’s George Friedman wrote about “a new European military force” that consists of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. He wrote the following: “On May 12, the Visegrad Group announced the formation of a ‘battle group’ under the command of Poland. The battle group … would not be part ofnatocommand. … Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the primary focus of all of the Visegrad nations had been membership in the European Union and nato. … [T]hey believed that membership in nato, with strong U.S. involvement, would protect their strategic interests. Of late, their analysis has clearly been shifting” (May 17; emphasis added throughout).

This shift stems from the Visegrad nations’ doubts about nato’s ability to protect them. The Visegrad Group is becoming more focused on defense in response to those doubts. Its decision to form a battle group, Friedman said, illustrates how European nations perceive the “status of nato, the U.S. attention span, European coherence and Russian power.” “It is not the battle group itself that is significant,” he wrote, “but the strategic decision of these powers to form a sub-alliance, if you will, and begin taking responsibility for their own national security …. [I]t is significant that they felt compelled to begin moving in this direction.” He called the creation of the new battle group “a punctuation mark in European history.” (Read more about this development in the story on page 8.)

The nato alliance, a long-lasting pillar of Western security, is unraveling.

America’s complaints about bearing the bulk of Europe’s defense burden were once driven by annoyance. Today, though, they are driven by necessity and desperation. The U.S. no longer has the economic strength to project the power required to defend Europe, even if it desired to. European nations can plainly see that the U.S. is a bankrupt nation with a broken will.

If Eastern European countries have picked up on America’s fading capability and have taken drastic measures to compensate for it, surely Western European nations like Germany will soon do the same. Germany taking drastic measures to project European power independently will be bad news for all involved.