March 7, 2013 5:29 pm

Pay up for Nato or shut it down

Being prepared for new threats requires military capabilities but no one wants to pick up the bill
Ingram Pinn illustration©Ingram Pinn

The world’s pre-eminent military alliance is losing a war and casting around for a role.

Nato would dispute that the departure from Afghanistan marks a defeat. The Taliban has not bested it on the battlefield. The Nato-led coalition is “transitioning” to Afghan security forces. Some troops will stay behind in a training role. That’s all true. But measured against the blood and treasure expended on a mission to create a shiny Afghan democracy, what is being left behind does not resemble victory. We are witnessing an exit without a strategy.

This puts the alliance in something of a quandary. It was robbed of its founding mission by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Not a shot had been fired in anger. In subsequent decades entire forests have been sacrificed to the drafting and redrafting of something called a new strategic concept to renew the organisation’s purpose.

In truth, Nato has been saved by events. The early 1990s were taken up with embracing the new democracies of eastern and central Europe and the framing of a precarious modus vivendi with Russia. Then came wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya. Nato was an anachronism, but at least it had something to do. As Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary-general, puts it, it became an “operational” alliance.

There were great hopes. For a time – remember those heady days during George W. Bush’s presidency when the US aspired to permanent global hegemony – it seemed Nato would be the world’s policeman. “Out-of-area” operations were all the rage at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. Afghanistan, it was confidently predicted, would be only the first of many successes. Even the peacenik Germans turned a blind eye to their constitution and sent troops beyond Europe’s shores.

That was then. A decade is several lifetimes in geopolitics. The appetite for intervention has been sated – nowhere more than in Washington. Barack Obama wants to be remembered as the US president who brought the troops home. Enemies can be dealt with at a distance with drones and special forces. Syria can fight its own civil war. As for Germany, it has readopted Switzerland as its model. The Berlin government has found itself in political trouble for sending a handful of soldiers to oversee the evacuation of German nationals from Libya.

The absence of war does not deprive the alliance of a raison d'être. If the west has learnt anything about the post-cold war era, it should be that life is unpredictable. The Middle East is in flames, Iran is building a bomb and jihadist extremism has been spreading into Africa. Cyber space has added the threat of mass disruption to that of mass destruction. The rising states, not all of them natural allies, are spending more on their militaries.

There is still something to be said also for collective European defence. Russia’s rusting tanks would never make it across the plains of central Europe, but Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin is menacing for all that. In central Asia, the Caucasus and Ukraine it has set about re-establishing suzerainty over the old Soviet space. Mr Putin has never got over the loss of the Russian empire. A grievance-based foreign policy offers a convenient excuse for domestic failures. Bizarrely, Nato’s plan for missile defence against Iran is characterised as a fiendish US plot to create a nuclear first-strike capability against Moscow. Such are the delusions of decline.

Mr Rasmussen is parti pris, but his speech at last month’s Munich Security Conference made as good a case as I have heard for sticking together. He acknowledged, though, the rather significant snag. A Nato properly “prepared” to confront new threats requires military capabilities. They have to be paid for. No one wants to pick up the bill.

Austerity has bred complacency. Most of the European members of Nato long ago abandoned a supposed commitment to spend 2 per cent of national income on defence. Now they are looking for a post-Afghanistan “dividend”. Britain and France, in relative terms the big spenders on the European side, are hollowing out their militaries.

These two nations’ palpable enthusiasm for foreign intervention, whether in Libya, Mali or Syria, sits in inverse proportion to their willingness to spend money. Military budgets elsewhere in Europe are heading below 1 per cent. Even the former communist states that voice alarm about Russia’s intentions have taken an axe to their own forces.

As long as the US was prepared to pick up the bill, this could be glossed over. Washington’s share of Nato spending has jumped from 50 to almost 75 per cent. But sequestration has brought down the curtain on the era of American military plenty. Even if the White House and Congress strike a fiscal deal, the US defence budget faces deep cuts. Politicians in Washington are not willing to pay the price of European parsimony.

The case for Nato should make itself. Anyone who thinks the advanced nations can afford to spend less on safeguarding their security need only glance at events in the Middle East and the Maghreb, at nuclear proliferation, clashes in cyber space or at the violent extremists populating failing states.

What all these threats have in common is that they require collective defence. But even as they reduce their own spending, Nato governments prefer the illusion of inviolable national sovereignty to the pooling of capabilities and sharing of secrets. The present approach ultimately condemns Nato to slow death by a thousand spending cuts. The more honest thing to do would be simply to shut it down.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

SHARE THIS QUOTE