As one or two of you might already know, I spent a couple of days in Bratislava at this year's GlobSec, a marvellous conference organised by the Slovak Atlantic Commission. And I promised some impressions from the event, so while still being in self-imposed exile, here is what I took away from the summit.
1. We are screwed
The most candid assessment on NATO's current state from an elected official came, as might have been expected, from the Norwegian minister of defence. To put it all in proper context, some might recall that in the early 1990s the challenge for NATO was to find a new consensus on where to go (actually that challenge was never really resolved and NATO still disagrees on where to go exactly). But one sentence came close to formulate the little consensus that was there: go out of area or out of business. The reasoning was that with the Soviet Union imploding and a power vacuum all around NATO's territory, military conflicts at NATO's periphery went unchecked. NATO had to leave its own area and take the lead in responding to these conflicts, because no one else could or would. Would it not have reacted, NATO would have been a mere paper-tiger and when it finally rose to the occasion, it ended it bloody civil war in Bosnia that the United Nations were unable to respond to firmly. But that was in the old days, when NATO states still had impressive armies. These days, as one might have noted, are gone. NATO as a whole is trying to get through a difficult time of general austerity and only a mere five of its members spend the two percent of GDP on defence the alliance has agreed upon as being necessary to sustain at least some of its capabilities. But while the alliance cuts its defence spending to the bone (and cracks some while doing so), symmetric warfare becomes more feasible again and the Norwegians rightly wonder, how we ended up in a situation where the alliance has not done anything in contingency planning for some its members for years. That is a very Norwegian position, of course, since Norway finds itself confronting a resurgent Russia from the first row. But to put it differently: Now the challenge is to be in area or in trouble.
2. We Germans screw all the rest, really
Which leads me to comment on Germany's role. Germans in general do not seem to be overtly interested in security and foreign policy, but even when they are they are not very likely to see Russia as a challenge. And fully satisfied with their piecemeal contribution in Afghanistan, they are willing to go back to the early 1990s, when they could write checks instead of marching orders. But every-time a Polish defence minister challenges his German counterparts by pointing out that they are not spending enough on defence, you know you're in trouble. And while the Germans were hard-pressed to explain the precise amount of their cutbacks in defence, the Polish are wondering how they ended up having more than twice as many main battle tanks than Germany in their arsenal. In fact, Germany is so radically and rapidly getting rid of its military assets that it is hard to imagine what Germany's contribution to NATO's core mission—territorial defence—would actually look like, should it ever come to that.
3. And before I forget, we do not have a plan. Really, we don't
So Germany came up with a plan. Berlin introduced, what in NATO jargon is sometimes called smart defence or pooling and sharing. Its not that we had stupid defence, before someone came up with smart defence. Its that NATO, as its Secretary General likes to point out, wants to do better with less. That is as lovely a notion as it is laughable. Not doing worse with less would be a challenge hard enough to accomplish. But alliance members want to spend even less on defence then they are already spending, so pooling resources might be a sensible proposition. Germany for instance is taking a leadership role in pooling and sharing of airborne maritime surveillance capabilities. As sensible and promising as this initiative is, pooling and sharing is coming dangerously close to finally pressing Europeans to come up with a plan on what to do when half the nations that have pooled want to go into action, and the other half does not. And what when more than one country, because of a natural disaster, suddenly need the same capabilities? At the same time, pooling and sharing is a pretty good indicator of the alliance's overall problems. It is finding and building of niche-capabilities by default, not by design. Or is anyone seriously thinking that the good people of NATO, the German defence ministry and other states sat down, took a hard look at the last Strategic Concept and the overall threat environment and then concluded that what we really needed more of is airborne maritime surveillance capabilities?
Bottom Line: Did I mention that we are screwed?
NATO might be considered—as it is by some—as a force multiplier. But in order to multiply, there needs to be a force. And there is less of that today than at any other time of the alliance's rich history. Operation Unified Protector in Libya is yet another interesting demonstration of NATO's continuing problems. After all, as the Norwegians try to point out, the initial phase of the Libya campaign was not that different from an early phase of an Article 5 NATO mission. And against that background, the shortcomings in command and control, target identifying and intelligence capabilities—a full twelve years after NATO's mission in Kosovo—have to be really scary. At least for anyone who is seriously thinking that NATO might be able to defend you. In a world where symmetrical warfare is becoming a more realistic prospect again, that is not exactly reassuring news.