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Atlantic Council Report: NATO Alliance at Risk

100415a-HQ28-007 NATO Headquarters Brussels.

In Europe, “you find a kind of the perfect storm”—a resurgent Russia in the east, thousands of refugees and migrants arriving daily in the south, terrorist attacks in Paris, the rise of nationalist parties and economies flailing skewing political debates—that NATO is trying to weather.

Those simultaneous crises were at the heart of Friday forum on a new Atlantic Council report looking at six nations in NATO and the challenges they and the alliance face and what can be done to meet them.

In answer to a question, Julianne Smith of the Center for a New American Security said the time is ripe for closer cooperation between the alliance and the European Union in meeting those challenges and other threats, such as cyber and communications. “We need the capabilities that both institutions can bring to bear.”

But what is happening is that NATO is becoming even more a “two-tiered alliance” with the eastern members looking at Moscow’s willingness to battle Georgia over breakaway provinces, its seizure of Crimea, and continuing military support of separatists in Eastern Ukraine as a serious military threat— while southern members confront a rising flood of refugees and migrants fleeing wars in the Middle East and poverty there, in North and sub-Saharan Africa.

Smith said, “There is no longer the level of solidarity we once saw” in NATO and the European Union and a growing feeling on the continent that the two are not responsive to the public’s needs to meet these challenges. As a sign of that fraying, she said later that although sanctions against Russia will likely be extended later this year some alliance and union “countries are really feeling the pain” and looking for relief of their own.

“The threats against Portugal are not the same” as those Lithuania faces, said Andras Simonyi, a retired Hungarian diplomat now with Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced and International Studies.

The idea that the United States will always rise to the occasion in meeting the continent’s security needs “made Europe complacent” ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the alliance expanded eastward, he added.

What has happened in their harvesting of the “peace dividend” is that “many militaries in the alliance are in pretty bad shape,” he said.

As an example of reduced readiness, even among nations presumed to have strong militaries, Jorge Benitez of the Atlantic Council noted that the United Kingdom had great difficulty fielding a combat-ready armored brigade to a recent exercise in Poland, having to draw on equipment it had in Canada for training.

Estonian troops conduct a march past during the Opening Ceremony for Ex STEADFAST JAZZ on the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, Poland, on Nov. 3, 2013. NATO Photo

Estonian troops conduct a march past during the Opening Ceremony for Ex STEADFAST JAZZ on the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area, Poland, on Nov. 3, 2013. NATO Photo

While the report and panel members agreed that alliance members on the continent needed to do more to provide for their own security, there is “no consensus in Europe that a permanent presence [by the United States or NATO in the Baltics, for example] is a good idea,” Smith said. To many, “a persistent presence is good enough for us.”

The author of the United Kingdom’s section of the report, however, recommended stationing a corps-sized headquarters and three brigades in the Baltics to deter Russian aggression in that part of Europe.

All agreed that simply spending 2 percent on defense was not the right approach to enhancing continental security. The money needs to be spent in a coordinated way and forces stationed where needed, not where it is easiest to send them, Simonyi said.

Benitez said the European Union needed to be more flexible in allowing nations to spend more to meet internal security challenges. He noted the union only allowed France one year of increased spending in response of the two terrorist attacks in Paris during 2015 and the same for Italy and Greece to cope with the continuing refugee/migrant crisis.

Likewise, the United States’ European Reassurance Initiative, twice passed as emergency defense spending rather than part of the defense budget, is a one-year commitment. Benitez said the question from the United States should be to the Europeans “what are you willing to put on the table?”

“Washington really has to make the call,” said Smith, who worked for Robert Gates and Leon Panetta when they were secretaries of Defense, regarding spurring the alliance members to commit to their own and collective security. Even though the secretaries came to the Europeans with different approaches to get them to spend more with little success, it was important to “keep pushing.”

The United States should be “blunt and clear” that the “more you take care of yourself,” the more [the United States] will be willing to do, Simonyi said.

Congress already is showing an aversion to “swallowing the bitter pill” of having to spend more for European defense, Benitez said.

  • James Bowen

    I have mixed views on the future of the U.S. in NATO. I am inclined to think that, with a larger industrial base than the U.S. and a technological base that is as good as that of the U.S., Europe should be responsible for its own defense and the U.S. and Canada should distance themselves from NATO. However, at the same time we have deep historical and ancestral ties with much of Europe (particularly with Germany and the British Isles), and if need be they are very capable of bringing something to the fight. At the very least, we should insist upon our continued membership in NATO being a two-way relationship instead of an arrangement where we do all of the heavy lifting.

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      At the NATO summit in Wales in 2014 allies were begged to up their game.
      And tbh, there seems to be no movement there, looking at the hapless state of the decrepit German armed forces things are getting worse….

      The time is coming for some tough love from the USA.
      There are 60,000+ personnel in Western Europe… including 5 very pricey BMD enabled Arleigh Burkes in the Mediterranean providing a missile shield for southern Europe.

      Scale it all back, save the stretched military some cash & make Europe up its game.

  • Michael Nunez

    As long as Eastern European Countries are spending only 2% of their GDP on Defense , it’s Painfully Clear , They do not take Safety as a Priority . Eastern NATO Countries are completely exposed to Russia’s Mad-Max Putin , and yet offer only a Feeble Response…… WHY , ?

    • Corporatski Kittenbot 2.0

      2% would be great…. but they are not even doing that.
      Taking the 3 baltics for example…
      Only Estonia is spending 2%, but in real terms this is tiny because of their meager economy,
      Latvia & Lithuania are at around 1.4%

      • Michael Nunez

        This is a Screaming Tragedy .

  • Jopp

    We are all members of a maritime alliance. In times of globalization it seems very strange that Patrick Keller didn’t mention maritime security and with it the Deutsche Marine with just one word.

  • El_Sid

    You can’t criticise the UK for struggling to deliver a brigade to Poland, and then call for “coordinated spending”. Coordination means specialisation and playing to strengths. The UK has never been much of a continental power and it brings near-unique assets to Europe, like SSNs, a lot of ISR and heavy airlift and (soon) carriers with 5th-gen aircraft. In contrast, an aircraft carrier isn’t much use to land-locked Slovakia, and the Netherlands, though rich and coastal, could only afford 1/10 of a carrier, it’s rich but just too small. So let the UK concentrate on bluewater stuff, the land armies belong on the Continent.

    The trouble is that the likes of Bulgaria and Romania are poor – their GDP is similar to Mexico, and you wouldn’t expect Mexico to be buying CVNs and B-2’s. The real problem is Germany – it has the size and per-capita wealth to be a leader in NATO, but after the events of the last century it’s perhaps not surprising that they think military spending is a losing game, and Russia has got them in their net with the Baltic gas pipeline. France as well to a lesser extent.