Samstag, 11. Juni 2011

Gates is Right. NATO's Future is in Limbo

When NATO released its new Strategic Concept late last year I was invited to a conference of experts on transatlantic security in Wildbad Kreuth, a beautiful and mountainous retreat in Bavaria usually used by a conservative foundation. Behind closed doors we were talking about the impact of the new strategic concept and attending to the recreational needs and the comfort found in good wine. I raised the issue of NATO's partnerships during the meeting and argued that I was struck by the lack of thought NATO had given the various partnerships that already exist. I was complaining about the lack of direction and thought NATO had given the topic. While I have argued for quite some time now, that if NATO wants a future, it needs to seriously rethink the nature of its partnerships, in fact start to elevate them to serious elements of planning and decision-making (I did so as early as 2009 and should you have access to the American Foreign Policy Interests, do read it), the need to reevaluate these partnerships has in fact risen dramatically, as European capabilities are on the decline and the American appetite for stepping in where Europe falls short is clearly fading away.

Figure this for a moment. For a very long time the United Kingdom has had the fourth largest navy in the world. But that's about to change, the Royal Australian Navy is going to overtake the British, as the British are beginning to scrap some of their ships. At the height of the Iraq war, London had deployed 40.000 soldiers to Iraq, while maintaining a sizeable contingent in Afghanistan only a couple of years following a major intervention in Sierra Leone. In terms of mil-speak that meant that at the height of its commitment the United Kingdom had some eight brigades in various conflict theatres. With the new defence planning, drafted under immense pressure for some real austerity, Britain now plans to maintain a capability to deploy one and a half brigade. In the medium run, the British capability will end up being somewhat similar to the German, a mere 10.000. That's saying something, after all, since the British basically provided the European pillar to NATO. At the same time Australia and New Zealand are stepping up to the plate without any sort or representation for their taxation.

When I brought up the topic at the conference last year and complained, a very esteemed colleagues responded arguing that she meant NATO did pay attention to partnerships. And technically that's correct. There is a paragraph in the Strategic Concept that deals with partnerships, but it deals with all the partnerships at once, the global partners, the partnership for peace, etc. But the question was and still is: is this a sustainable approach given that New Zealand and Australia stepped up to the plate while we in Europe continue to trim our budgets and try bringing home a peace dividend that simply isn't there? It clearly is not and that's why one should re-read the comments made by Robert Gates at the SDA conference. Here is how he eased in:

What’s changed is the political and economic environment in the United States. I am […] essentially the last senior leader who was a product of the Cold War. […] The kind of emotional and historical attachment [to NATO] is ageing out.”
And he went on to to say: “[T]he 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.”
[I]f current trends in the decline of European defense capabilities are not halted and reversed, future U.S. political leaders—those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me—may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”
For most of the Cold War U.S. governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending. [...] But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. share of NATO defense spending has risen to more than 75 percent – at a time when politically painful budget and benefit cuts are being considered at home.” 
Gates struck a nerve indeed and reminded us to sometimes be a little more careful on the sort of policy decisions we are making. Andrew Exum has summarised the point in his typically terse way and I can only hope that it comes across (I for one am with him on that and allow myself to look at my own government):

“If Germans complain with justification that their workers subsidize Greek hair-dressers taking early retirements, it's perfectly fair for the United States to complain German workers enjoy comfy state benefits in part because U.S. tax-payers underwrite their national defense.”

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