NATO comes “Home” as Traditionalists Prevail

Frederic Labarre, MA

Paul Kennedy, in his seminal work “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” (1988) argued that the strategic relevance of political agents rose or fell according to their economic fortunes. This observation is also pertinent to NATO’s future as well, since the military health of the Alliance is directly dependent upon the ability of its members to meet their budgetary commitments towards the organization not only as national defence expenditure – the famous 2 percent of GDP – but also in terms of contributions to the common budget. The two budgets are interdependent insofar as the political power of the Alliance is concerned. Only through national agreement can the organization move forward on an issue, and since moving forward eventually means using military force, the fiscal health of individual members becomes centrally important.

While most member-states do indeed meet the requirements towards the common budget, it does not follow that they will agree to engage in security operations any time soon. Contributing to military adventures remains an expensive proposition, as those countries who have participated in the Libyan operations will attest. In this context the current economic crisis acts as a major brake on initiative.

All NATO members are feeling the pinch of the economic crisis, and its primus inter pares country, the United States, upon which the Alliance’s core capability rests, is not immune. The American public is so concerned with the state of the U.S. economy that for the first time in several decades, no issue of foreign or defence policy has penetrated the campaigns of the recent presidential candidates. The South of Europe, from Portugal to Greece, is struggling not only to maintain fiscal balance, but domestic stability as well. The recent intervention in Libya, which should have been a matter of deep strategic interests to that region of Europe, does not make headlines anymore, despite the continuing signs of unrest and its evident consequences (displacement, emigration, and looming refugee crises, not to mention movement of extremist elements seeking ingress into Europe).

NATO had made the North African and Middle Eastern regions areas of strategic focus through the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. But this crucial part of the Alliance’s engagement with the Muslim world is coming to rest on the rocks of fiscal austerity, which is the main driver for NATO’s “return home”.


Austerity Leads to Defence Budget Cuts

Clearly, NATO members are opting for pragmatism, but this pragmatism is not driven by another strategic actor, but by the widespread public discontent at austerity measures which could worsen if certain countries facing a debt crisis were seen engaging in peace support operations or security interventionism without a clear need to do so. What is foremost in people’s minds are their immediate livelihoods, not the threat of some potential terrorist miscreant. To a great extent, this has been reflected in dwindling defence budgets. Already in 2008, NATO nations were undertaking rather severe defence budget cuts. According to a NATO communiqué, only Greece, Latvia and Poland had increased their defence expenditure levels by the time the economic crisis hit. Three years later, in 2011, no NATO member had increased their defence budget as a percentage of GDP; Albania, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Canada had maintained the level of expenditure, but everybody else had reduced their share of GDP. The biggest spending cutters were Greece (1.1%), then the U.S., Bulgaria, Lithuania and Slovenia, at 0.6, 0.5 percentage in cuts, and 0.3% for the latter two. This explains the underwhelming results of the 2012 Chicago NATO Summit, the concerted silence at the situation in Syria, which grows steadily worse as each day passes. Several factors contribute to this general indifference.



Indifference is indicated by the fact that the rhetoric seeking the removal of Bashar el-Assad from the Syrian presidency has been backed by no action at all, either from NATO or the UN. The international community’s intervention has been limited to issuing demands of abdication and deploring atrocities and the loss of life. Note how NATO has not hinted that it might intervene despite the fact that the unrest is taking place and even affecting one of its members, namely Turkey. Other factors militate against collective action.

First, the cost to bear, which would be additional to nation’s planned budgetary estimates, would be prohibitive. Indeed, Syria is the cradle of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism. It is not Libya. Furthermore, some of the more powerful NATO members who harbour sizeable Muslim minorities will not be keen on being perceived as once again levelling their wrath against a Muslim country. NATO members, fiscal crisis notwithstanding, are much less willing than before in interfering in a nation’s destiny, particularly in the absence of a full intelligence picture, and also after the uncertain results of past experiences in trying to change regimes and install democratic national orders.

Second, NATO needs a good relationship with Russia, and while previously Alliance members’ “post-modern” (to take Robert Cooper’s meaning) conflict management approach ran contrary to that of Russia’s “modern” foreign policy which insisted on the non-intervention in internal affairs by foreign powers, the current reluctance makes it easier to agree with Russia. This concordance of approaches is not out of deference to Russia; the international community – understood here as the U.S., the EU and NATO – has come to the conclusion that its support in struggles for self-determination, no matter how decisive, rarely produced benefits for Western powers. The cases of Kosovo and Libya have served as examples of intervention that ultimately portray well-meaning Western decision-makers as hopelessly naïve when it comes to the ability of the new regimes to move towards internal stability and functional democratic government. There is definite fatigue at proselytising models of governance for peoples challenged by circumstances not conducive to responsible government.

Third, the Alliance’s forces are exhausted. No individual country is able to match the level of commitment that the United States can muster. In fact, this author holds it on good U.S. authority that the American martial system must make a pause of some time, if only to collect, analyse and integrate the lessons learned of twelve years of operations in Afghanistan and nearly a decade in Iraq. These in turn have to be fed into renewed military training and education. This process is at work in all countries of the Alliance, and the more ironic part is that military training and education is the first casualty of defence budget cuts. The force generation system employed in the United States has also placed unacceptable burden on certain local economies by calling and re-calling the reserves to serve as many as three or four tours of duty for basic operations. As a result, the very principle of “economy of forces” is imposed upon the US military, making the mere consideration of the Syrian impasse impossible for NATO.

Turkey: Most Ferociously Independent within NATO

Fourth, one cannot discount Turkey’s own interests. It has faced recurrent Kurdish insurrection, the threat of spillover of South Caucasus conflicts in the early 1990s, the impact of both Iraq wars (1991 and 2003), and now contends with Syria. Turkey is among the most ferociously independent members of NATO, and in view of its regional relations (including those with Russia) and stewardship of the Montreux convention regulating use of the Black Sea, it could be understandably reluctant to have foreign powers involved in regional tensions when the political status quo is not under threat.

The absence of the NATO variable in this equation can also be attributed to Russia, which would be understandably nervous at seeing the Alliance deploy in its Southern flank. Turkey’s own agenda could be undermined; Ankara has been busy repairing its ties with Armenia, where sizeable Russian forces are stationed – and where they will remain until 2044, judging by a recent agreement between Yerevan and Moscow. The Russian forces act as security guarantee for Armenia in its on-going conflict with Azerbaijan, but the same forces can also deter a perceived NATO threat on Russia.

Regrouping to Take on Iran?

Finally, Iran’s intransigence is stressing the patience of the international community, which has to spare its forces if it is to remain credible in dealing with Tehran in the future. Prior to the U.S. elections, the international community had stopped short of making overt threats to stop Iran’s nuclear program, going only as far as a general embargo. If the U.S., the EU and NATO have to muster the political will to act in any way shape or form, they must spare their own forces if they are to address the threat of a nuclear Iran effectively.

In this latter scenario, the foregoing conditions of military exhaustion, public fatigue, fiscal austerity, not to mention national and political impediments will still operate. What we could be witnessing right now is a lengthy operational pause designed to freshen the troops in case the international community really has to be decisive in the Iran case.

It must be stressed that in this case, the “regime change rationale” which has been promoted during the Bush years will not be honoured for its own sake. Not only for its nuclear ambitions, but for its active role in the insurrections in Iraq and Syria, and its explicit threats against American interests and the state of Israel can Iran be rightly condemned. The international community is less willing and able to engage in the luxury of democracy imposition and regime change, but it still has responsibilities which can only be honoured if its military apparatus is able to meet the challenge.

NATO Has No Business in Afghanistan, Libya or Syria

The foregoing analysis has tried to explain the Western behaviour in the face of widespread atrocities in Syria, and spiralling instability in Libya. The five motives for relative inaction also act as the driver for NATO’s “homecoming.” It is now easy to acknowledge that the traditional region of operation, as described by the NATO Treaty, is the only area that deserves – or can – be protected. Unless attacked, NATO has no business in Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, or anywhere else outside its traditional zone of operations. This should come as a relief to those members who had no choice to tag along in the US-inspired “global war on terror” and regime change of the Bush years. Currently, lobbying is being undertaken so that the UN can take over the dwindling ISAF mission in Afghanistan, and some European members of NATO, such as France and Germany, are accelerating their pullout, further supporting the notion that fiscal pressures – not to mention the security of their own troops in the face of the less-than-reliable Afghan National Army and Police – drive this withdrawal.

Although action against Iran is a distinct possibility, it is unlikely that it will involve NATO assets – such as AWACS planes based in Geilenkirchen, Germany – or decision-making mechanisms, even if it involves countries that are formally members of NATO. What this means is that the “traditionalists” among NATO members have prevailed. Those who argue for strictly European role for NATO are many; there are those, like the Baltic States, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland, who will maintain that NATO’s role is (still) to deter and contain Russia – even if the evidence of that country’s willingness to alter the status quo in Europe is absolutely nil. But there are other large powers, like France and Turkey, which have regional preferences out of NATO’s area, where they would prefer to act alone. In some sense, the leadership displayed by France and the UK in Libya is symptomatic of this preference.

More than their lobbying, however, it will have been the cost, political irrelevance, and lack of interest of NATO members which will have forced the Alliance to withdraw from “out-of-area” operations – even at the price of letting a certain “laissez-faire” take place in Syria. At least, those NATO members who argued for years for a concentration of NATO forces in its traditional area will have cause to feel reassured, and they may even be thankful for the economic crisis for pointing NATO the way “home”.