August 1, 2011  

NATO on the ropes

Libya has highlighted the diminishing power of the Atlantic alliance

The continued viability of the NATO alliance, the bedrock of U.S. and European defense policy since 1949, is in jeopardy. I suppose it still serves a middling political role in occasionally gathering some senior ministers together to talk about important stuff, but it is a weak stepsister as a robust military power that in its heyday kept the mighty red menace at bay (maybe not quite so mighty, in retrospect). But then even a cursory reading of associated tea leaves might tempt one to ask, “So what?”

The biggest worry is military preparedness. Then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates addressed the issue in a June 10 speech in Brussels. Speaking about the Libya mission, he told our reluctant NATO allies: “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.”

The U.S., already burdened with a crushing national debt, contributes more than 68 percent of the coalition force in Afghanistan, has somewhere around 45,000 people still in Iraq and then is asked to reassume more of the air operations over Libya. Josef Joffe of the Hoover Institute, writing on the New York Times website, put it this way: “Here are 500 million inhabitants of the European Union with a gross domestic product that is the world’s largest,” yet the U.S. has to fly many of the air sorties for which the Europeans assumed — no, insisted on assuming — responsibility.

With Libya’s proximity to European alliance members, it would seem that ridding that country of a 40-year tyrant would be more in their interest than ours, but the alliance’s lackluster performance since early U.S. operations to create a no-fly zone and protect rebel forces leaves U.S. leaders perplexed. It is difficult to believe, but it appears that the eight NATO nations directly participating in the Libya air operation (including the U.K., France and Italy) are barely able to continue the limited effort they signed up for, and that is with the U.S. providing the vast majority of the air refueling and intelligence support.

The alliance is sure to be tested again. As the Balkan operations of the 1990s, Afghanistan and now Libya prove, new threats to NATO have emerged in the post-Soviet world. Chances are that others, involving both new and old adversaries, will appear.

Admittedly, absolute numbers of committed forces per nation are seen by some as presenting an unfair comparison. Some analysts say that percentages of population and the gross domestic product are a far better assessment. O.K., if the fact that the world’s largest collective GDP can’t handle the task is not enough, let’s take a look at the nations involved. Joffe says the “French defense budget is 1.8 percent of GDP, the British is 2.2 percent — a long way from the 3 to 4 percent during the Cold War. Or from the 4 percent the U.S. is spending. But it is a lot more than the 1.2 percent of Germany, which is currently reducing its force to 185,000 from 250,000.”

Again, Gates blasted allies who are in his view “willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.” The Libya operations appear to prove these accusations. There is likely to be a time, and it may be fairly soon, when the U.S. public and our political leaders are no longer willing to foot the bill for such a one-sided arrangement. At that point, NATO will be all but dead with nothing remaining but a lot of former European allies looking for somebody else to protect them.

Many already question the need for the NATO alliance in a post-Warsaw Pact environment and seriously question continued American financial support. In a political environment where single-nation military action is increasingly risky, this is a dangerously naive point of view. However, it is increasingly clear that supporters will have to prove the alliance’s value — an uncertain prospect without strong European financial and political support.


So much for NATO military anemia. We also have another issue. The Atlantic alliance is now a bloated, ponderous shell of what it was. Its membership has swollen to 28 nations from the 19 in its ranks just after Sept. 11, 2001, when it unanimously sided with the U.S., invoking the alliance charter’s provision that an attack on one nation is an attack on all, and the 15 nations with which it faced the Warsaw Pact for more than three decades. These new constituencies, which did not even exist as fully functioning independent states a little more than two decades ago, include Estonia, Albania, Latvia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, with Georgia and Ukraine waiting in the wings. At the risk of really annoying political leaders here and there, I must say that these folks’ contribution to a major “military alliance” does not amount to much, but — and here’s the real rub — they each have a say in the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body. These seven nations together contribute only 2 percent of NATO’s budget (Albania contributes essentially nothing — 0.076 percent), but they can conceivably stop a proposed alliance action cold, or at least drag out council deliberations.

A review of the much validated law of diminishing returns is appropriate here. It says that more is not necessarily better. Beyond a certain point, the more people you have on a committee, the longer deliberations will take, with diminishing chances that the airing of everybody’s opinions will result in a truly effective plan — and NATO is certainly one of the world’s biggest committees. I think we will soon discover the relevance of diminishing returns to such an international alliance. I fail to see the logic of NATO’s drive to arbitrary inclusiveness, other than to maintain the traditional “buffer state” tripwire structure between the “old regime” (U.K., France and Germany) and what is left of the old Soviet archenemy — and perhaps keep a political finger permanently stuck in a still-antagonistic Vladimir Putin’s eye. It’s not like these countries can make a real difference in a conflict or are reducing the financial burden of NATO’s “big brother” members.


In his unusually harsh assessment in Brussels, Gates said that NATO’s prospects are “dim, if not dismal.” Dim indeed! The end game here eventually could be an alliance in name only. Gates seems to think this is a very real possibility. With NATO’s military teeth rotted by neglect and its political tail paralyzed by too many waggers, there just won’t be anything left. The U.S. may eventually bow to the reality of an out-of-date alliance with its trans-Atlantic membership unwilling to recognize a changed geopolitical environment of new generation threats. It may balk at carrying such a large portion of the financial and personnel burden while its allies blithely buy more butter over guns and invite everybody with a government to the party. At best, we may draw attention to the problem by just ignoring alliance needs and abandoning America’s traditional political, military and moral leadership, or in an unfortunate flash of temper, the U.S. may withdraw from NATO altogether.

One thing our flagging allies should already know is that U.S. politics are unpredictable. They probably shouldn’t provide much more incentive. AFJ

GROVER E. “GENE” MYERS is a retired Air Force officer and independent defense consultant with more than 30 years’ experience in joint and aerospace concepts and doctrine and defense policy.