NATO and the International Order: It was Kind of Nice, Wasn’t It?

by Stephen M. Saideman

People have been asking me lately–what is the big deal with this international liberal order?  What has it ever done right? What has it ever given me? There are lots of pieces to it, but I am focused on NATO for obvious reasons, including my assignment at next week’s Kingston International Conference on Security.

So, here’s Mattis’s quote from the NAC (North Atlantic Council) Defense Ministerial:

and my reaction.

I used to scoff at the usual NATO existential crisis stuff–that NATO needed a reason to exist in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, that there was some conflict within that might lead to the alliance breaking up, etc.  But now I am in the club of those who fear for NATO’s future.  Why?  Trump.  It is that simple.  Putin actually did more for NATO unity in 2014 than anything else by making folks remember NATO’s day job–keeping Europe peaceful and, as a result, prosperous.  But his gambles on Trump, on Brexit, on supporting right wing aspiring autocrats (Orban of Hungary, Erdogan of Turkey, etc) have worked out.

The alliance has worked and changed our conception of alliance not just because it is far more institutionalized than any other alliance past or present, but because all of it relied on largely shared values.  Not just democracy but democracy with embedded liberalism–that governments played a role in adjusting to international shocks, made easier by international cooperation.

And now is a splintered G-7 meeting due to Trump using “national security threat” to play a particularly problematic card–to impose tariffs on allies without the consent of Congress.  To be clear, this is the opt out card built into the agreements.  He does not really believe that these countries or their exports to the US are any kind of threat, but he does not believe in norms, rules or the future. So, Trump has used this exception, antagonizing everyone except maybe the Italians (their own populist election results are handy for self-destruction).

So endeth the shared values.  Orban has already promoted illiberal democracy, and Trump would too if he could articulate anything (note that Gorka is back, and Gorka is a living embodiment of Orban’s illiberal democracy).  True, Trump is not the US, but he is, alas, 40% of it, and the GOP seems ok with selling out American values for tax cuts and court seats.  So, even if/when the Democrats come into power, they will not be able to reassure the Europeans and the Canadians.  After all, this big split is the most significant … since the last Republican president and the misconceived Iraq war of 2003.

So, how can NATO provide security by reassuring nervous members and deterring adversaries?  The lack of common values undermines NATO credibility–will the US show up if Russia does something?  Perhaps not since Trump is now trying to get Russia back into the G8 despite everything Russia has done since seizing Crimea.

NATO isn’t dead, and I hope to see signs of life when I go to the expert side party at the summit next month. But NATO is far from healthy, and I worry that we soon look back at those 70 years Mattis speaks of and wistfully remember the good old days.  Maybe the good old days weren’t as good as they seem, as Billy Joel reminds us, but they were better than the days before that–WWI, WWII and all that.

 

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Guidelines for NATO Spending: Inputs, not Outputs or Outcomes

I tend to complain a lot about the NATO 2% expectation – that members are supposed to spend 2% of their GDP on defense stuff, which probably makes more Canadian than anything else I do (I don’t skate or watch hockey much).  This is aspirational and countries are supposed to reach it by 2024.  I have written much about why this is problematic (it tends to make Greece look good, which is a clue; doing is more important than spending, etc), but today I want to focus on the heart of the matter: 2% is a measure of input and nothing else.

The basic idea is if we all spend a significant hunk of money, we will get more defense than if we spend somewhat less money.  But spending more money on defense may not improve NATO’s ability to field effective armies, navies and air forces.  For many members, spending more could simply mean spending more on personnel, which might lead to a more capable force or it might not.  There are additional NATO goals which get far less coverage, which are aimed at persuading members to spend significant hunks of cash on capital–building ships, planes, tanks and other equipment.  Again, this is a focus on input.  Spending more on equipment does not necessarily mean getting better or more equipment.  It could simply mean more waste.

The funny thing is that the US is pushing Belgium to buy the F35, suggesting that this would help them get to 2%.  Buying a super-expensive plane may or may not improve Belgian military performance, but it might get Belgium off of the free-rider list?  I am trying to remember a similar example of being so focused on inputs that they become more important than outcomes, but can’t at the moment.*

Sure, we tend to focus on inputs or even outputs because they are easier to measure, and in NATO dynamics, are things about which it is easier to come to a consensus.  It is hard to measure outcomes like readiness and effectiveness.  Also, big numbers are not secret whereas actual military capability–what can a country really do–might have to be covered in secret sauce.  But what really matters is whether NATO can fight better (against others, not against each other) or not.  Spending more might help, but it might not, depending on where the money goes.  When countries underperform, is it because they underspend or because they have restrictive rules or because they have lousy strategies (who could that be?) or because their procurement processes are busted (hello Canada!) or because the adversary gets a vote?

One last semi-related point: asking the Western democracies to spend more on defense after encouraging austerity post-2008 is a hard sell, and, yes, domestic politics is a thing.  After years of saying that spending must be cut on social programs because debt is the supreme evil, saying that the first priority now must be defense is just not going to fly, especially with all of the complex coalitions that are barely governing so many members of the alliance.

So, as we keep invoking 2%, let’s keep in mind that many countries will never reach it, as it would require more than a few to increase defense spending by 50-100% AND it allows us to ignore the bigger challenges of how to foster greater effectiveness and readiness.

* The only thing I can come up with would be examples from the Soviet Union of meeting five year plan targets by building huge non-usable things that helped reach the goals measured by weight like one really ball-bearing or something like that.

NATO Spark Notes for President Trump

by Stephen Saideman

Dear President Trump,

I see that you are still confused about how NATO works.  While there is, indeed, some money that goes to keep the lights on at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Mons, and elsewhere, and there are a few key NATO military units (early warning planes, some drones, a few other bits and pieces), the burden-sharing problem is not about that.

In your meeting with Chancellor Merkel, you said:

I reiterated to Chancellor Merkel my strong support for NATO, as well as the need for our NATO allies to pay their fair share for the cost of defense. Many nations owe vast sums of money from past years and it is very unfair to the United States. These nations must pay what they owe.

No, that is not how it works.  The burden-sharing problem that has been the subject of many NATO meetings, including the Wales Summit, is about each country paying enough (the 2% of GDP aspiration) for their own defense.  It is not about Germany or France or Estonia giving money to Brussels or to the US, but about Germany spending enough on new tanks, planes, ships and enough on a large enough armed forces and enough on fuel and all the rest.  The idea is not that the US is getting ripped off, that somehow countries owe the US money, but that the alliance would be better off if all the allies spent more on their armed forces.  The past shortfalls do not mean that countries are in debt to the US or to NATO–it just means that their militaries are not in as good shape as we would like.  It means that they don’t have as many tanks or planes or whatever or that their personnel are not as well trained.  The underspending over the years is problematic, but these countries do not owe any debts from the past to catch up in their accounts at NATO HQ.  Again, this is not how it works.

So, next time you complain about burden-sharing, don’t suggest that the US is owed money.  Because it is simply wrong.

Thanks,
Sincerely,
Steve

Provoking or Tempting the Bear

by Steve Saideman

I wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail where I advocate Canada take a significant role in NATO’s new “persistent presence” mission on the Eastern Front (the Baltics plus Poland).  I didn’t spend much time arguing for the NATO mission itself, as it is a done deal to be announced at the Warsaw Summit in July.  Instead, I argued for Canada’s participation, which is really the decision up for grabs this week.

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The Most Important Corpses

By Steve Saideman

I was on twitter talking with some folks about what Canada might promise at the Warsaw Summit, with the focus on who is going to provide the troops for the four battalions that will be based in the Baltics and Poland.  The conversation went into a bunch of directions, so I had an epiphany while shopping–it is not about proximity or folks who have ties to the Baltics–it is about whose corpses would have the greatest international political relevance.

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Why invite Montenegro into NATO? It’s all about Russia

By Steve Saideman

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced this week that it is inviting Montenegro to join the alliance.  The essential meaning of this is that once it is a member, Montenegro will be committed to participate in the defense of NATO members if anyone is attacked AND the alliance will be committed to defend Montenegro if it is attacked (Article V of the NATO treaty).  To be clear, this commitment is not as ironclad as people believe, but still has much political weight.

To borrow from Bill Simmons, when considering membership in NATO, the question to ask is: How much does potential member X bring to the table versus take off of the table?  What kinds of contributions to NATO capabilities/geographic position/whatever does a country bring?  What kinds of problems, such as domestic conflicts, extending NATO credibility too far, risk of international adventures, does the potential member bring?

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NATO 101 Again

By Steve Saideman

Lots of folks are asking about NATO Article V in the aftermath of the Paris attacks.  So, let’s run through the basics, FAQ-style.

What is Article V?  The heart of the NATO treaty–that an attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all.
Is it automatic?  No.  NATO representatives have to meet and reach consensus.
What is consensus?  Does every member have a veto?  Yes/no.  While an individual country could block it, the more likely outcome is for less enthusiastic members to choose not to “break silence”, which is the NATO term for sticking one’s hand up and asking for modifications or refusing to go along.

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