NATO: Death by a thousand little spending cuts?

Can a debt-ridden U.S. still afford to pick up the cheque?

A thousand little cuts

Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

The sobering reality became clear before the NATO summit even began. For a day and a half, the leaders of the world’s biggest economies hunkered down at the woodsy presidential retreat of Camp David, huddled around circular tables sharing frank details of the fragile state of the global economy and how in Europe, the situation could get much, much worse.

There, Prime Minister Stephen Harper slept in a small rustic cabin named Rosebud, where Soviet security guards were housed when Nikita Khrushchev met with Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958. (Harper’s aides bunked in a nearby firehouse.) But the threat hovering over this meeting was economic. Ahead of a conference to decide how to keep the security alliance of Western democracies relevant two decades after the end of the Cold War, it was clear the piggy bank was empty.

When the security summit itself got rolling, NATO’s members agreed to an endgame to the war in Afghanistan. (Harper confirmed that Canadian troops would leave by March 2014, and pledged $110 million annually for three years to help pay the $4.1-billion annual bill allowing the Afghans to maintain their “own” military.) But the allies did not agree to spend more on their own defence budgets, something Washington has been asking them to do for years. Going forward, that is the issue facing the winner of the 2012 presidential election. In a world that looks likely to deliver more humanitarian crises like Libya—and at a time of fiscal tightening in Europe—can the debt-ridden U.S. still afford to pick up the cheque?

It has been almost a year since former U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates, who served both Bush and Obama, focused his final speech on blasting NATO allies who are “apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources to be serious and capable partners in their own defence.” NATO allies contribute to the common budget according to a formula based on the size of their economies. Last year, the U.S. covered 22 per cent of the budget, and Canada covered close to six per cent. But major NATO efforts, like the air war in Libya, require the devotion of national forces, and only five countries spend the agreed upon two per cent of their national budgets on their own defence capabilities, Gates noted at the time. That number has now fallen to only three countries. Meanwhile, 18 European nations have seen military spending drop by more than 10 per cent since 2008. And more cuts are coming: Britain plans to cut its defence spending by 7.5 per cent over the next few years, and Germany by about 10 per cent by 2015. Meanwhile, military spending by both Russia and China has been rising.

At a U.S. Senate hearing prior to Chicago, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker asked what the Obama administration could do to “cause this to be a true alliance—not one of us, again, providing security services, and [NATO allies] being the consumers.” The Obama administration points to Libya, which they consider a lesson to Europe in the dangers of under-resourcing NATO. When Washington joined the mission at least ostensibly aimed at protecting Libyan civilians from a massacre, the war-weary Americans entered with a caveat: they would perform in a support role, while allies like France and Britain would take the lead. But even though a Canadian commanded the mission, and Europeans flew the bombing missions aimed at Libyan forces, the exercise revealed major weaknesses in the alliance. The allies ran out of bombs—the kind of precision-guided munitions necessary when it’s important to hit tanks, not the school next to them. And they had to depend on the U.S. for most in-air refuelling and reconnaissance for target selection; the Americans also fired their own specialized missiles aimed at suppressing Libyan air defences both from unmanned drones and fixed-wing piloted aircraft. Such awkward details have led some critics to dismiss NATO’s supposedly leading role in the effort, and the United States’s posture of mere support, as misleading advertising.

“While every alliance member voted for the Libya mission, less than half have participated at all, and fewer than a third have been willing to participate in the strike mission,” Gates noted in last June’s fiery speech. “Frankly, many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren’t there.” A survey of 60 officials in Europe and the U.S. done in advance of the Chicago summit by the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, found the same thing: an overwhelming majority believed the mission could not have taken place without the U.S., and most predicted the alliance would not have the ability to carry it out alone.

And so, Philip Gordon, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told the Senate hearing, the U.S. is “now able to say, ‘Well, there’s the example: if you don’t continue to invest in advanced fighter planes, precision-guided munitions and intelligence assets, then you won’t be able to do this in future, and you can’t expect the United States to do it for you.’ ”

And the worry in Washington is that Libya is just the beginning. With the Arab awakening, and increasing instability across the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. officials fear more and more such operations lie in NATO’s future.

But the allies’ response to Washington’s entreaties, lectures and threats has not been to provide more spending, but the precise opposite: to seek to do more with less—“security in an age of austerity,” as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put it in Chicago. Rasmussen pledged to reduce the number of NATO headquarters from 11 to seven, cut the number of posts by more than 30 per cent, and reduce the overall size of the Brussels headquarters. The allies also agreed to take part in an initiative called “smart defence,” aimed at increasing co-operation and coordination among member states, and to purchase more shared equipment for the alliance, including five of the Global Hawk drones used in Libya, and bomb-clearing robots. Smart defence’s crown jewel is a $1-billion European missile defence system. The co-operative effort would see the U.S. provide the bulk of the necessary technology; Turkey, a radar station; Spain and the Netherlands would hand over radar technology; Germany would contribute a base to serve as a command-and-control centre.

These new capabilities are expected to “allow NATO allies to diminish reliance on U.S. assets,” said a Canadian Department of National Defence official. But some observers say the moves are too modest. The Transatlantic Council’s NATO specialist Jorge Benitez predicts “greater friction and division within the alliance” when the next humanitarian crisis crops up on Europe’s doorstep. As in Libya, “the Europeans will be interested in crisis management,” says Benitez, but “the U.S. will say: ‘You want to buy things on the NATO credit card? We’re about to cut the credit card.’ ”

Even before the current financial problems, European allies had been cutting national security spending—by 20 per cent since the Cold War, in part because of a lack of public support, said Benitez. Those clamouring to get involved in missions to protect human rights and women’s rights, to prevent future Rwandas and Srebrenicas, are exactly the same people who “don’t want to fund institutions like NATO,” he says, adding he was “disappointed” by the summit, even by Rasmussen’s “smart defence” project. It’s “better than nothing,” he concedes, “but I have yet to be convinced smart defence will substantively resolve the defence capability gap between the U.S. and Europe,” he warned.

Meanwhile, domestic political pressures intruded on the international summit, even as Obama played host to allies in Chicago. As the meetings got under way, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney penned an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune blaming the President for setting a bad example. “The administration’s irresponsible defence cuts are clearing the way for our partners to do even less,” he wrote. Romney, who routinely campaigns on the notion of “American exceptionalism” and is fond of calling the U.S. “the hope of the earth,” cited “an Iranian regime with nuclear ambitions, an unpredictable North Korea, a revanchist Russia, a China spending furiously on its own military, to name but a few of the major challenges looming before us” as evidence that “the NATO alliance must retain the capacity to act.”

For Canada’s part, the Harper government has been increasing the size of the Canadian Forces and acquiring new equipment. But Canada has not been immune to cuts. Last June, Ottawa announced it was pulling out of a successful NATO air surveillance program, known as AWACS, to cut costs.

At the conference, Harper conceded that the United States remained, perhaps too much, the “indispensable partner” of the alliance. “I do share the President’s concern that the United States does often still share too much of the burden,” Harper said, when asked about allied spending. “The world always has a lot to say to the Americans about how they should be doing this or that,” he added. “We should all be prepared to contribute.” Financial pressures on many countries, “including the United States,” he added, are “going to make collective action and collective responsibility more critical than ever.”