NATO Needs To Get Serious At Seventy-Five – Analysis


By John Sitilides

(FPRI) — NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently arrived in Washington seeking to persuade the White House and Congress to successfully negotiate legislation that would free up $60 billion to help Ukraine defend itself against Russian forces. 

He delivered his remarks on the occasion of the defensive alliance’s imminent seventy-fifth anniversary. His audience expected to hear a blueprint for readying the alliance for the next twenty years, in preparation for its hopeful centennial in 2049. 

Stoltenberg first underscored the need to “ensure robust deterrence,” hailing that “NATO has implemented the most robust collective defense since the Cold War. We have more forces at higher readiness. And more capabilities to protect our people, and our territory.”

What he could not proclaim is that these force, readiness, and capabilities levels are sufficient to prevail over present and anticipated geopolitical risks confronting the alliance. Comparing today’s levels with the past offers zero insight into current and near-term will and preparedness to deter and, if needed, to compel NATO adversaries towards preferred diplomatic outcomes. 

Stoltenberg then stated that “we must eliminate harmful dependencies on critical Chinese raw materials and products,” and that “we need to protect our critical infrastructure, strategic materials and supply chains. We must not lose control of our ports, railways, and telecommunications.”

According to the Alphaliner shipping database, Chinese companies in August 2023 were invested in thirty-one European container seaport terminals, twenty-three of which are held by state-controlled companies COSCO and China Merchants, and the remaining eight by Hong Kong’s privately held Hutchison Ports.

Stoltenberg’s third point was to emphasize that NATO members have added $450 billion dollars to overall alliance defense. But that figure dates back to the 2014 Wales Summit, after Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine, not since the second invasion in 2022. He added that “NATO Allies have committed to spending at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. And many are exceeding that target already.”

As of July 2023, eleven of the alliance’s thirty members were spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Led by Poland, the United States, and Greece, the remaining countries are Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and new member Finland. Wealthy European countries such as Germany, Italy, and Spain trail significantly, while France fell just below in the prior year. 

Beyond these three key priorities, Stoltenberg was unable to deliver credible solutions to the additional manifest challenges the NATO alliance faces in this hallmark anniversary. Several weeks earlier, NATO Military Committee Chairman Admiral Rob Bauer warned against continued alliance complacency and for the need to undergo a “warfighting transformation” in preparation for a major European war. He stated that “the tectonic plates of power are shifting, and as a result, we face the most dangerous world in decades,” calling on NATO members to adopt greater interoperable munitions standards to replace the current market fragmentation that has hampered speedy and adequate supplies to Ukraine. 

Stoltenberg offered no insight into the alliance’s future battlefield environments, embodied by Azerbaijan’s swift, drone-led 2020 defeat of Armenia, intensification of electronic and unmanned vehicle warfare between Russia and Ukraine, and Houthi attacks that disrupt global shipping and Europe’s energy supply. 

Acute problems have arisen in the United Kingdom, whose House of Commons defense committee warned that British forces have been insufficiently prepared since 2010 for warfighting due to stockpile shortages, overstretched deployments, and recruitment and retention shortfalls. Nonetheless, London is prepared to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Red Sea, in addition to its air-defense guided missile destroyer, to bolster US operations that protect shipping lanes from Iranian-sponsored Houthi missile, rocket, and drone attacks from Yemeni bases. UK Defense Minister James Heappey added that British sovereign military bases in Cyprus have already dispatched Typhoon air power support to attack Houthi targets.

But many NATO members have been lackluster in their support for US regional operations, even after Iranian-sponsored militias in Iraq and Syria attacked US forces in Jordan, killing three American servicemembers. In December, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Spain. Days later, France, Spain, and Italy withdrew, preferring instead to take action outside of US-led NATO command. French forces are coordinating with the Pentagon, ensuring the safety of French-flagged shipping and avoiding offensive strikes, but remain under Paris’ control.

Italy’s former naval chief of staff lamented that NATO’s inability to coordinate a joint naval response—in a region through which Europe obtains most of its energy resources—demonstrates the alliance’s weak cohesion amid a geopolitical crisis, especially as member countries fail to produce a credible alternative de-escalation strategy. 

Greece later announced it is sending a frigate to join the US-led operation, even as it hosts a parallel European Union land-based command in Larissa, home to the Hellenic Air Force and the country’s NATO headquarters. The EU mission is purely defensive, according to EU High Representative Josep Borrell, focusing only on protecting commercial shipping, their crews, and transported goods to avoid having to circle around Africa’s Cape of Good hope, and is scheduled for formal approval in Brussels later in February. 

NATO member and EU aspirant Turkey has proceeded on a wholly separate course with Ankara initially careful to avoid any attacks, offensive or defensive, against Houthi forces and opted to maintain a balance of diplomatic leverage among its Middle Eastern neighbors to the south. After US and UK retaliatory strikes, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticized the operation for the “disproportionate use of force” that would only serve to further inflame the region. 

NATO’s haphazard stance in the current Middle East crisis follows its uncertain strategic response to Russia’s February 22 armored invasion of Ukraine.

The matter of alliance priorities also warrants review. In July 2022, five months after the largest armor assault in Europe since the Second World War, Stoltenberg heralded the NATO Strategic Concept’s determination that climate change is “a defining challenge of our time.” Accordingly, he proclaimed that the alliance would undertake reducing their collective military-carbon emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030, with a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, so that “in the future, the most advanced military vehicles, and the most resilient armed forces, will be those that do not rely on fossil fuels.” 

Yet no rational pathway in accordance with the laws of physics and economics can deliver the effective electrification or alternative power generation to support military transport, strategic lift, or other facets of operational mobility. One must simply take at face value that NATO will be a net zero carbon emitting military superpower in twenty-six years. 

There are no similar energy retreat targets in Moscow, Tehran, Beijing, or other potentially adversarial capitals. That path is rendered more difficult by Europe’s current and near-term difficulties in meeting the ambitious renewable targets set forth in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Despite the sanctions imposed against Moscow after the 2022 Ukraine invasion, Belgium and Spain increased their liquefied natural gas imports from Russia by another 50 percent in 2023, while France increased its Russian gas imports by 40 percent. 

It is perhaps too easy to pick away at the alliance’s unserious directions or operational deficiencies at the expense of its historic victory over the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, culminating in the communist state’s dissolution in 1991. The defeat of Soviet communism and the liberation of Eastern European nations captive under Leninist tyranny is the embodiment of the alliance’s founding mission. 

One may question the extent of which NATO went astray in the 1990s seeking to justify its bureaucratic perpetuation, starting in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and the Balkan wars more broadly after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Out of area operations and training missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf of Aden from 2009 to 2016, near where NATO is now unable to cohere against Houthi assaults on European and international shipping, have safely sustained the alliance for decades. 

The NATO decision to intervene in the 2011 Libyan civil war delivered a chaotic and inconclusive outcome—including modern slave markets—that has opened the Mediterranean Sea to hundreds of thousands of migrants from African countries seeking asylum and permanent residency throughout Europe. Yet even that disastrous political, socio-economic, and humanitarian decision has not compelled a serious reconsideration of the alliance’s mission. 

Today, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third year, there are no clear signs that NATO is positioned to realistically advance Kyiv’s objective to win back Crimea and its four eastern oblasts, to ultimately prevail over Moscow. European countries are providing weapons to Ukraine in addition to significant tranches of financial and humanitarian assistance to sustain the besieged country’s military, economy, and society. 

But there is still no evidence that Vladimir Putin intends to invade any NATO member. He could direct his military deeper into Ukraine to occupy the entire eastern half of the country up the Kyiv’s Dnieper River shore. He could move the Russian military into Moldova from the breakaway region of Transnistria, where Russian forces have been stationed since 1991. He could further consolidate military occupation and basing in Georgia’s republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or expand the occupation deeper into the Caucasian republic. Putin could even seek to further encourage Serbian forces to engage against Kosovo. Azerbaijan’s leadership may perceive Putin’s Ukraine concentration as an opportunity to launch a full-scale invasion of Moscow’s historic Caucasus ally Armenia. But none of these actions violate NATO sovereignty or territory. 

The NATO secretary general, as its highest-ranking international civil servant, is “responsible for steering the process of consultation and decision-making in the Alliance and ensuring that decisions are implemented.” Those responsibilities are more effectively implemented by fostering thoughtful debate on whether Russia actually has the will and capability to launch an invasion of any NATO country, from powerful Poland to weaker Baltic countries such as Latvia

If Putin were genuinely planning such a kinetic assault, NATO’s European members would have bolstered their defense capabilities with serious alarm over the past two years. They have not, at least not commensurate with their pronounced fears of Moscow’s purported next invasion after it consolidates its gains in Ukraine. Simply put, NATO’s feeble military preparedness, beyond supplementing Washington sizable delivery of offensive and defensive weaponry, do not mirror Europe’s pronounced threat perceptions.

NATO can more sharply focus on 3 percent of GDP defense spending. NATO can reinforce and augment military deployments along the Russian, Belarussian, and Ukrainian borders, as well as around Kaliningrad. NATO can concentrate on the European continent and defer from out-of-area operation participation except freeing up US forces and assets more suitably deployed on a global scale. 

Intra-alliance partnerships such as Polish-British security arrangements, French-Greek Mediterranean patrols, and possible German deployments in Lithuania help advance a more purposeful and strategic alliance that is truly defensive and postured to deter any conceivable Russian threat. Furthermore, the alliance can consider internal contingencies for a Russian response if Poland calls for a more robust joint national/alliance nuclear deterrence strategy, including participation in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group and enabling the deployment of nuclear weapons on its territory. 

As NATO prepares to celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary in July, a bolder, more critical, and self-correcting vision for the hard work of confronting genuine and emerging transatlantic threats will provide greater certainty that an alliance centennial can be commemorated in prosperity, peaceful security, and reflective gratitude.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.

  • About the author: John Sitilides is a Senior Fellow in the National Security Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is Principal at Trilogy Advisors LLC in Washington, D.C., specializing in U.S. government relations, geopolitical risk, and international affairs.
  • Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

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