NATO: Silly Proposals and Enduring Realities

by on 2014-08-23 in Duck- 2 Comments

I was going to post about my talk in Toronto on NATO , but now I have a slightly different NATO post to write: a response to this piece by Anne Applebaum proposing that Obama magically fix NATO.  Given that the title of my talk was “The Present and Future of NATO: More of the Same,” it is inevitable that I would be a skeptic of Applebaum’s piece.  

The basic thrust of the talk was that NATO’s flaws are both baked into NATO’s design (see the opt out language in Article V–an attack upon one equals an attack upon all and each country responds as each deems necessary) and inherent in alliances.  Which is why I argue that NATO is the worst form of multilateral military cooperation except for all the others.  Contributions have been and always will be voluntary–that no country will obligate themselves to follow orders from on high without the ability to opt out.  If such rules did exist, imagine how hard it would be to gain consensus–which is required to make a decision. 

Applebaum argues that Obama should spend his last two years as President revising a new North Atlantic Treaty.  Um, yeah, two years.  Good luck with that.  Her first point is that the new treaty should require countries to pay in order to receive protection… and she uses the figure of 1% of their national budget.  Strange, since pretty much everyone hits that target.  They tend to fall short of the NATO-expected 2% of GDP, but that is always bigger than 1% of the national budget.  Bad math here.  Bad logic too, as countries that are not on the frontline and less needing of protection from the threat might opt out. So, the new NATO might have Poland and the Baltics and Turkey but Italy?  Spain?  Portugal?  Germany?  Hmmm.  Starts to look like a coalition of the willing than an alliance with a history of credibility, legitimacy and practiced inter-operability.

Applebaum also calls for more of each country’s military spending to go to NATO efforts.  The only countries that really spend much on their military that is used in non-NATO efforts are … the US, France and the UK.  So, I am not sure what is going on there.

Applebaum then goes onto call for re-aligning the bases where NATO’s troops are deployed.  There is something to this, but she really wants a magical wand:

The basing of troops and equipment needs to be rethought completely: If we were starting from scratch, nobody would put them where they are now. NATO needs to shut down unnecessary commands and legacy bases, and move on.

Why should other democracies not have the same kind of base closing politics as the U.S.?  It is well known how hard it is to close military bases, with the BRAC process* aimed at reducing Congress’s accountability and temptations to engage in pork-type politics.  Congress has prevented any new BRAC process despite the pressures of sequestration and all that.  Why should European countries facing higher unemployment rates close bases that help to provide jobs?  If the Americans cannot do it, why expect anyone else to do it?

*  The BRAC process is not strictly focused on military utility as it has to consider economic impact.  Oops.

Yet, there is some truth here–that there should be more troops from NATO countries based in and near Poland and the Baltics.  The Russian threat is significant and we need trip-wires to deter Russia and to reassure the un-reassurable–those closest to Russia.

Applebaum is correct that enlargement should be more focused on what countries can bring rather than just filling in holes in a map.  So, Sweden and Finland, sure.  Serbia and Bosnia?  No.  Georgia?  Hell no since too much reassurance and security guarantees can lead to overconfidence and less restraint (see Glenn Snyder on the Alliance Dilemma).

Applebaum concludes with the least realistic recommendation–if the Europeans and Canadians don’t fall in line, Obama can leave the alliance.  Really?  No, not really.  It would be very difficult  in US domestic politics because treaties involve … the Senate.  Abrogating treaties is serious business.  He would be pilloried by politicians across the spectrum.  Internationally?  He would be alienating America’s best friends who are actually quite helpful most of the time.  And he would be sacrificing something that works better than the alternatives.

Decades of effort to build technical interoperability would be tossed away.  Political interoperability problems–caveats, differential burden-sharing, etc–would remain as they are inherent in the enterprise when multiple democracies seek to cooperate militarily.  Countries do not give up national control of their militaries when they join a coalition or an alliance, and domestic politics will shape how that control is exercised.  It is inescapable.  At least with NATO, we have learned how to deal with such challenges.



Print article

  • http://crisispress.com Mike Vasiliou

    I definitely agree, especially on the last part about leaving NATO. That just isn’t possible and would never even be considered. Even if the US were to leave the alliance, it would likely get involved and defend attacks on former NATO allies anyway.

  • Jarrod

    Great post Steve. I love the line about NATO being the worst form of multilateral military cooperation except all the others. Applebaum’s suggestion that Obama even threaten to leave the alliance is bizarre to me. I don’t think threatening to leave would make European partners ‘shape up’, it would just create another crack in the transatlantic relationship and accelerate the demise of NATO. Her basing comment is also a bit puzzling, as from what I recall NATO doesn’t have much in the way of flagged assets aside from AWACS. So there really aren’t ‘NATO’ bases to move/close.