Revitalizing the Atlantic Alliance
A decade ago, European members accounted for half of NATO's total defense spending. Today they're less than a third.

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Article Highlights

  • As NATO summits go, this weekend's meeting in Chicago may be memorable if only for being the least memorable

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  • The goal of NATO member states keeping a floor of 2% of GDP for defense expenditures is now a distant memory

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  • NATO remains the West's foremost—and, for many European members, the only—anchor of security

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As NATO summits go, this weekend's meeting of the alliance's members in Chicago may be memorable if only for being the least memorable one in recent history. Of course, quiet summits are not necessarily bad summits. If the alliance is in good working order, then a lack of headlines or new initiatives is appropriate.

But if there are serious problems facing the member states collectively, then a summit that produces little of substance cannot be considered a success. And as friends of the transatlantic relationship know, this is an alliance facing real problems.
The fact is that NATO remains the West's foremost—and, for many European members, the only—anchor of security.
First, there is the creeping disarmament of America's European allies. A decade ago, European NATO members accounted for nearly half of the alliance's total expenditures on defense. Today that figure is less than a third. The goal of member states keeping a floor of 2% of GDP for defense expenditures is now a distant memory—a problem compounded by the significant cuts in budgets by Europe's great powers: Germany, France and the United Kingdom. Given the euro zone's fiscal crisis, there seems little hope for reversing this trend anytime soon.

The summit's answer to this problem will be a string of initiatives under the heading of "smart defense." In theory, by pooling and sharing capabilities member states seek to enhance overall military efficiency while allowing for greater national specialization and more targeted, less redundant procurement of weapon systems.

Yet in reality, most of the "smart defense" initiatives are either old hat—air policing, joint headquarters—or have been in the works for many years. The alliance-wide program to acquire ground surveillance capabilities falls into this latter category.

Moreover, the "smart defense" initiative lacks the necessary political foundations. The effectiveness of pooled and shared capabilities depends on a common view about potential threats, with the accompanying certainty that political leaders across NATO capitals will be in agreement on when and how to use armed force. As the Libya mission showed last year, the alliance is far from such a consensus.

The second major problem facing NATO—one obviously connected to the first—is its diminishing capacity to fulfill its own stated goal of handling external crises that affect security in the region in addition to providing for its members' collective defense. Here, too, the Libya operation is a prime example: The alliance can still "kick in the door," but sustaining a campaign or stabilizing a country after a conflict is becoming more difficult to do.

Given America's strategic turn toward the Asia-Pacific, European NATO members will have to take on greater responsibility for their own continent and neighborhood—a role for which they are not fully prepared.

The third problem NATO will face in Chicago is devising a road-map for winding down the mission in Afghanistan that is more than just a cover plan to "get out of Dodge." The rhetoric leading up to the summit has largely been about withdrawal—troop numbers and timelines—with far less discussion on how to ensure that the handover of security responsibilities to Afghan forces is successful.

Judging by the lack of hard pledges by alliance members for on-ground and financial support to Afghan forces in the post-2014 timeframe, there is a serious gap growing between what the alliance had wanted to accomplish in Afghanistan and what it's willing to do.

Tackling these problems will be difficult but not impossible. As a first step, the alliance needs to insist collectively that defense cuts be capped. With defense budgets where they are, doing more or better with less is just wishful thinking. Less will be less.

Second, it is vital for NATO's legitimacy that Afghanistan not fall into chaos after 2014. The country cannot become a home once again to terrorists, and its government cannot be allowed to systematically violate the basic human rights of its citizens. It will be impossible to continue to say that NATO has been the most successful military alliance in history if its most prominent effort to date falls short for lack of political will.

Finally, and most difficult of all, NATO's member states must resurrect a shared security vision. The close alignment of its members' fundamental values and interests alone is no substitute for a common understanding of today's security challenges and NATO's plans for meeting them.

It has long been difficult to find a common strategic outlook for an alliance of 28 members in which significant differences in political will, military capability and strategic priorities are only natural. Add to that today's pressures of economic crisis and the feeling of overstretch after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan, and it can seem virtually inevitable that the alliance will atrophy and decline.

Yet NATO's obituary has been written prematurely many times in the past. The fact is that NATO remains the West's foremost—and, for many European members, the only—anchor of security. Washington should not forget that over the past decade and a half, it is with its NATO allies that the U.S. has gone to war in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. None of these conflicts were anticipated and, arguably, none would have been quelled or controlled without NATO's efforts.

There is no reason to believe that similar crises will not occur in the future. We should get ready for them, and this weekend's summit is the place to start.

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Gary J.

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