international analysis and commentary

NATO’s Chicago Summit: how smart is the alliance?

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Is it possible for Western nations to pursue effective defense policies in times of draconian economic austerity? This is the question that NATO leaders will have to answer as they gather in Chicago on May 20th and 21st for the alliance’s 25th summit.

The summit is expected to set a new landmark in the alliance’s long-lasting process of transformation. Much of the discussions will likely revolve around the “exit strategy” from Afghanistan: members are certain to reaffirm the withdrawal of all combat troops by the end of 2014 as well as their commitment to provide further assistance and support to the Afghan security forces in the future.  

However, the Chicago meeting’s main goal will be the implementation of the new strategic concept adopted by NATO at the 2010 Lisbon summit. This document envisions a doctrine of “active engagement and modern defense” through the “reform and transformation” of the alliance’s integrated commands and shared capabilities. The development of common ballistic missile defense, and of intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance systems will be at the top of the agenda.

The notion of Smart Defense will drive the summit, what NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has described as “a new culture of cooperation” that can ensure NATO’s military effectiveness even in the face of more limited economic resources. European countries are essentially asked to reduce their capability gap with the United States and to do it in a sustainable way, maximizing their assets and exploring new forms of military collaboration and economic integration. Certainly not a new request – in fact, it is a long standing aspiration, restated countless times in recent years – but in the current context a newly urgent one.

“In Chicago, I want Europe and North America to adopt a new mindset for how they approach the business of security, making cooperation on defense programs a priority, rather than a last resort,” Rasmussen said recently.

At a closer look, however, smart defense envisages an even more remarkable change in transatlantic relations as it lays down (at least theoretically) a radical transformation in the role of the European allies, from security consumers to security providers. This is not, of course, anything new. Throughout the post-Cold War era burden sharing has been a key issue for NATO, and several attempts have been made to rebalance defense spending and reduce the gap between America and Europe. The wars in Bosnia and Kosovo prompted the largest efforts of this kind: the 1999 “Defense Capabilities Initiative” and the 2002 “Prague Capabilities Commitment” sought to create a NATO Response Force that could be quickly and effectively deployed. Around the same time, the EU also aimed to launch a common European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) on the basis of the 1999 “Helsinki Headline Goals”.

Successful or not, those attempts were based on a fundamental premise: that even in the post-Cold War era the US would continue to consider Europe as its most important strategic playground. Yet, political and financial events of the past decade have changed the situation dramatically. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently wrote on Foreign Policy, this will be “America’s Pacific Century.” The future of global politics will be no longer decided in Europe or the Middle East, but in Asia. This shift became clear during the “Arab Spring,” the conflict in Libya in particular: the US unwillingness to play an active leadership role left most European countries unprepared and unable to deliver a collective response. NATO was asked to step in and coordinate military operations, but, at the end of the day, it was the US that played a crucial role in creating the military conditions for a no-fly zone.

In other words, NATO needs to inaugurate a new phase, transitioning from demand-side to supply-side transatlantic relations. Globalization has not only brought about the universalization of US security interests, but also (and more subtly) an increasing separation of regional theaters. Unlike during the Cold War, Washington now has a vested interest in relying more directly on local partners – and views the European members of NATO in this light.

Smart defense is a stimulating project. It is probably the most optimistic way to think of the alliance’s future: the establishment of a new political agreement that would transform NATO into a Transatlantic Union and strengthen the basis of the Euro-American partnership.

Yet, there are at least three obstacles to “smart defense”, at least for the time being. First, and perhaps foremost, it is fiscal austerity itself. The impact of the economic crisis on Western countries, particularly in Europe, is so great, and budget cuts so deep, that military spending appears all but a priority. Growing sectors of European societies are calling not only for a rationalization, but also for a significant reduction of such costs. This is not just a re-edition of the butter-or-guns dilemma; rather, it embodies rising concerns for future living standards and the awareness that traditional welfare systems are going through radical, but unavoidable transformations. Incumbents are losing elections and extremist parties are rising. Globalization dictates that effective reform should be based on long-term planning, but the difficult economic times that so many countries are experiencing makes such planning very complicated.

The second problem for smart defense is the inherent (and apparently increasing) lack of strategic cohesion between America and Europe as well as among Europeans themselves. The evolution of transatlantic relations is punctuated by recurrent crises. Yet, while pre-1989 pressures were absorbed by, and within, the Soviet-US divide, tensions between NATO members have gradually started to erupt since the 1990s. As we know from history, triumphant alliances contain the seeds of their future shocks: the lack of a common enemy, in this case the USSR, frees parties to pursue their own interests, even at the expense of the alliance.

The third challenge to smart defense has to do with the issue of “cooperative security” and NATO’s network of partners, another item on the agenda for Chicago. At the macroeconomic level, reinforced consultations are aimed at expanding available capabilities in a more flexible way. But at the microeconomic level, this “28+n” formula is likely to discourage existing members from complying with the provisions of smart defense. Unknown security threats and the absence of enforcing mechanisms could tempt some nations to free ride on others and/or to rely on the greater engagement of partners. This could lead to the rise of a multi-speed NATO, serving more as a consensus-building and fund-raising security organization than a standard defense institution.

The eurozone crisis shows us that convergence pacts have their drawbacks. European economies have remained asymmetric and are now left in a limbo of sovereignty, stuck between national and supranational authorities. The same dilemma could plague NATO.