NATO – Strong, Rough and Ready?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the only guarantor of Western civilization’s safety. Yet, never before has it been so weak and fragmented.

Never has it happened before, that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has had to solve so many problems with such scarce funding. The participants and observers at the NATO summit in Chicago held between 20th and 21st of May 2012 devoted most of their attention to the topic of the war in Afghanistan, the only reason being that it required the most pressing decisions. But this is by far neither the largest problem nor the greatest challenge.

The far-sighted participants should have adopted a different priority list of challenges: most of all, the economic and financial crisis deepening in the European Union, and only partly dealt with in the United States and Canada, as well as atomic weapons and strategy. But also, not as obviously, the strong relationship between economic and atomic issues. Moreover, the antimissile shield, treated by Russia as part of a strategic game led by the largest atomic superpowers, and not simply as a means of defense against the arsenal of minor and potential members of the so-called nuclear club. Finally, something that is closely connected with nuclear and economic issues, the nuclear program pursued by Iran, threatening with a new Persian Gulf War and a new energy shock with global consequences.

All those problems are in fact even more essential and difficult to deal with than the crucial and hard fought war in Afghanistan or other local and regional conflicts, such as the one in Syria, or potential conflicts which might erupt in various hot spots. Never before, since NATO signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, has the to-do list been so extensive. It was not the case even in such breakthrough moments as the start and the end of the Cold War or the beginning of the “War on Terror”, declared in response to Al-Qaeda attacks orchestrated on 11th September 2001.

Only a few of the problems were solved in Chicago. Most of them were simply put off for the future, with occasional declarations of partial progress. The problem of funding Afghanistan’s authorities after 2014 is still pending. Behind the smoke screen of paper, you find disjointedness and weakness.

A Big Reduction

NATO found itself in the position of an employee with a boss—or consultant—who says: you need to work more, use fewer tools and get less remuneration. Or in the position of a country which gets this message from the International Monetary Fund or European Union: you need to produce and pay out more, at the same time reducing your budget and demand. There’s a certain line behind which such advice no longer leads to the rationalization of operations but to collapse from exhaustion. In the case of NATO, this line is defined in terms of human resources, weapons and equipment; it depends on combat capacity and military credibility. These two cannot be accomplished without appropriate funding and political will. At the same time the Alliance is permanently told: you need to protect us from an increased number of risks and solve more conflicts, having less people, weapons, equipment, capacity and credibility. The demise is getting closer and closer.

As a result of Great Recession, which brought lingering stagnation to the European Union, and of the Great Bubble in public and private finances on both sides of the Atlantic you see a big reduction in defense spending, in the armed forces and combat capacities of the NATO member states. The West will admit it only reluctantly, but it is the only world region to reduce its military potential. Big cuts in Europe were the reason why the American share in joint funding for NATO went up from 50% before the crisis to about 75% as of today. This happened despite the fact that the American budget was reduced as well. And so we are witnessing the disappearance of the last manifestation of equality in the military abilities of the two pillars of NATO: Europe and North America. Numerous European states are losing their fundamental defense capacities. The UK is currently left with one aircraft carrier and is no longer able to “rule the waves”. Poland, the Eastern gate of NATO is not intending to replace obsolete anti-aircraft systems. A similar situation can be observed almost everywhere in Western and Central Europe.

The NATO summit in Chicago could have gone down in the history of the West and of the world, if only there was demonstrated sufficient will and courage to resolve: we shall put an end to the declining funding of defense and security since the loss of security is more dangerous than the economic crisis and may only aggravate it. We commit ourselves to gradual reconstruction and stabilization of defense potential at a clearly defined level, and should the need arise to increase it. This should have been one of the breakthrough decisions in the whole history of NATO, inscribed with golden letters on the pages of its next chapter.

And this decision was most painfully missing. There were no attempts at a breakthrough. The participants took the liberty of drifting together down over a waterfall. And instead of a breakthrough, a Smart Defense program was adopted, aimed at compensating for weaknesses through a better division of roles. This however also means sharing poverty and coming to terms with an extreme decrease in self-reliance for many states—for instance, the complete lack of modern combat aircraft—even though in the meantime other states are growing in strength. From a military perspective, those moves are merely covering the retreat. And the world noticed it, heard it and read about it. No doubt the world will draw appropriate conclusions as well.

A Nuclear Balance

President Barack Obama—because of his function he is considered to be a NATO leader— organized the summit in his political bastion also in order to show off the fact that the Alliance is rolling out his program of “freeing the world from nuclear weapons.” This already forgotten promise was given to the American and global public during the President’s first visit to Europe, in Prague, 2009. His motivation to keep the promise was additionally reinforced by the Nobel Peace Prize which he was awarded in advance.

Antinuclear movement is the jewel in the crown of pacifism. And pacifism is frequently mistaken for peace. Nuclear weapons in the world—mainly as a result of strategic relations between the USA and Russia, and the former USSR—belonged to a small set of international affairs which can impact American elections. Even partial delivery of the denuclearization promise may mobilize Democratic voters and encourage the invaluable independent voters to cast their ballots for Obama in November 2012.

However, president Obama, or more precisely candidate Obama, is silent about the fact that nuclear weapons were what saved the West in previous periods of weakness. It constituted the basic element of the NATO military strategy from the very outset; a fact proven by declassified documents after the victory in the Cold War. The Alliance has always had a nuclear nature which is more important than its naval or air capabilities despite the fact that some of the parts of its territory are separated by an ocean. Nuclear deterrence against all—not only nuclear—critical military risks is the only tried and tested credible guarantee of safety on a global scale.

Russia, China and the other nuclear superpowers outside of the West are perfectly aware that nuclear weapons give them the ultimate level of security. Even though in day-to-day situations this might not be clearly visible, the nuclear distribution of power exerts a strong and stabilizing influence on the present global power structure. The key meaning of nuclear weapons is underlined by the fact that this is the central issue of concern, being objects of international disputes, whereas the oligopoly of nine states with nuclear arsenals is prepared to do anything in order to prevent Iran from joining the club, rounding it up to ten. This tendency was perfectly visible in Chicago.

One of the proven advantages of a deterrence strategy is especially vital in times of economic crisis: nuclear weapons cost far less than conventional ones. It is the most viable option for the West today. At the same time, NATO adopted the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review drafted according to the American model, the first in its history, declaring its readiness to reduce regional nuclear capabilities in Europe and encouraged the USA to further reduce their intercontinental nuclear arsenal. This path may lead, among others, to the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from NATO territories in Europe: from Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey in various strategic spots. Simultaneously, NATO acknowledged their far-reaching self-limitation. These are the so-called “negative assurances” for nonnuclear states and were introduced in recent years by the USA, the UK and France in their national strategies. Altogether, these factors essentially undermine both the real power and the legitimacy of deterrence.

A Prodigal Alliance

Managing a multinational military alliance and making decisions whose consequences will be felt for years and decades to come demands the ultimate prudence. It is incautious and wrong to cut conventional forces and nuclear forces at the same time. The Chicago summit should have left untouched either the former or the latter if it really was not in the position to do more. Especially in a situation when—including Asia and the Middle East—nobody reduces either. The global balance of power has been shifting for years to NATO’s disadvantage. As a consequence of the Chicago summit it is bound to change even faster.

Even though the term “peace dividend” long ago lost its relevance the Alliance should receive the “security dividend” after the completion of operations in Afghanistan. In this respect conclusive decisions were made during the summit; it was announced that the army would be withdrawn at the end of 2014, unconditionally, even if the war is lost in the end. It’s worth mentioning that it turned out that the mission’s character undergoes a change from a combat mission to an observation mission much earlier, in mid-2013.

This huge comeback to Europe and America has turned out to be the comeback of a prodigal alliance. Notwithstanding the released military resources and the positive experience of victory in Libya in 2011, NATO is not prepared for potential intervention in Syria, despite obvious humanitarian reasons and security-related interests in the West, including Turkey which is a member of NATO neighboring Syria.

The European Union as of today is inept, both economically and politically, to facilitate common defense. The dream shared by many citizens of a “European superpower”, confirmed before the crisis by the 80% rate of relevant declarations in public surveys, is by no means getting closer, but is rather more and more distant.

It’s even worse. The EU’s common foreign policy and security policy is a pure fiction, despite the Lisbon Treaty. This is happening against the background of considerable diplomatic, economic and military fluctuations visible in other superpowers like Russia and China. Vladimir Putin, yet again taking office in the Kremlin, rejected an invitation to Chicago for a meeting with NATO and to Camp David for a meeting with the West at the G8 summit. Instead, he ostentatiously paid a foreign visit to Belarus and then to China. There can hardly be a more direct signal.

Nobody and nothing can replace the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. It is the sole guarantor of safety for Western civilization. Having survived the inconceivable power of the Eastern block and having won the Cold War, it is now doomed to failure because of the West’s weakness and the war over resources which was led by its own member states.

There is an old story popular in Central Europe concerning weaning a horse off eating. This was a working horse. Weaning off eating lasted three days. The owner summed up the process in this way: “On the first day without hay, the horse worked as if nothing happened. On the second day, it grew sad and worked reluctantly.” And this is precisely how NATO is behaving now with regard to Syria and Afghanistan. “It has almost got used to the new situation, but then on the third day, it died.” The biggest irony is that NATO is at the same time the owner and the object on which it performs this cruel and absurd experiment.

Grzegorz Kostrzewa-Zorbas

is a political scientist and Americanist, graduated from Georgetown University (National Security) and Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D. in Strategic Studies). He conducted research on international security at the Georgetown University Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in the United States, and at the Japan Institute of International Affairs. In Poland, he was a political director at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of National Defense, and the chief negotiator of the agreement on the withdrawal of the Soviet Army from Poland. He is now Professor of National Security at the Military University of Technology in Warsaw and a media commentator.

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