When NATO heads of state meet in Chicago this Sunday and Monday, two key worries will be on their minds. In a departure from the past six decades, the US has come to style itself as a Pacific, rather than Atlantic, power. And the Europeans are busy plundering their defence budgets in order to cope with the economic crisis. Any one of those two events alone would have a dramatic effect on how the alliance works. Taken together, they risk pushing NATO into irrelevance.
The CER recently explored NATO's future in a new report, 'All alone? What US retrenchment means for Europe and NATO'. It concluded that the US 'pivot' away from Europe towards Asia will remain in place irrespective of who wins the presidency in November. Because the US is cutting defence budgets too, the Pentagon will conserve resources. And the United States sees few threats emanating from Europe; it also regards the remaining ones, such as the frozen conflicts in the former Soviet republics, as matters for diplomacy, not arms. NATO has also lost some of its military utility to the US. The Americans have invested far more than the Europeans in their armed forces, and have greatly improved their ability to strike quickly and across long distances. The US military has less need for help from European allies, and finds it increasingly difficult to assign them meaningful roles in joint operations.
In principle, the Europeans ought to be buying new weapons to fill the gap created by the reduced US role in European security. But the US demand for Europe to do more for its defence has come at the worst possible time: Europe is in the midst of an economic crisis, and the allies, instead of buying more weapons, are busy cutting defence budgets to stave off defaults. The UK will be without aircraft carriers for a decade, Spain seems ready to mothball its only remaining one, while Denmark has abandoned submarines and the Netherlands has ditched its tank forces.
This will have a three-fold impact on NATO. Firstly, the Pentagon is cutting two of its four brigades in Europe. While the US is not reconsidering its obligation to come to its allies' defence, the reduction will extend the timelines on which military enforcements can be rushed there. This will delay the actual moment at which the US comes to the continent's defence, and shifts more of the burden for common defence onto the Europeans.
Secondly, in operations fought not in self-defence but on behalf of causes such as human rights, the US will not necessarily lead. The Libya war established a new operating principle: there, the US handed the command to France and the UK after destroying Gaddafi's air defences. From now on, America will sometimes behave like any other ally, sitting out some of NATO’s wars, and doing just enough to help other operations to succeed.
Thirdly, NATO may well fight fewer wars in the future. The Europeans lack some of the hardware such as spying and targeting 'drones' and precision bombs, which are crucial to making wars swift and relatively safe for allies and civilians. If NATO is to fight wars without American help, conflicts will take longer, cause more unintended civilian casualties, and more lives on the NATO side. The European allies, with exceptions such as the UK and France, are already reluctant to fight today's wars. They will grow even more skittish if human and political costs of future conflicts increase. In practice, this means that some future crises similar to those in Kosovo or Bosnia in the 1990s may go unanswered.
Given the confluence of budget cuts and US rebalancing, NATO ought to give serious consideration to reducing its ambitions. Its militaries aspire to be able to fight two major wars and six minor ones simultaneously, which does not seem very credible. To stem further loss of military power, the European allies also need to try much harder to squeeze efficiencies out of collaboration. As a forthcoming CER policy brief notes, governments can buy more power for less money by getting rid of unneeded equipment, merging their defence colleges, sharing training grounds, or buying and maintaining future generations of weapons together ('Smart but too cautious: How NATO can improve its fight against defence austerity', out in May 2012). At Chicago, the alliance will take the first steps by announcing that NATO countries are to jointly finance a new fleet of spying drones. More such projects are needed: the US pivot and European budget cuts have left the alliance undermanned and underpowered, and collaboration is one of the few good solutions the allies have at their disposal.
Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.
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