Alphen, Netherlands. 2 July. US Secretary for Defense Chuck Hagel said of America’s allies recently “…lopsided burden threatens NATO's integrity, cohesion and capability - and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security…We must see renewed financial commitments from all NATO members.” Sir Adam Thomson, Britain’s Ambassador to NATO rammed that message home at an event at the Institute of European Studies in Brussels on Monday. Most NATO Europeans simply do not get just how much the strategic landscape will change over the next decade and the extent to which the American conventional deterrent is facing a profound crisis.
Indeed, many Europeans seem to think that somehow NATO will continue with business as usual. and that the Americans will go on essentially paying for European defence whilst Europeans go about fixing their Euro-ravaged economies at their political leisure. It is as though Europe’s defence has somehow become detached from the rapidly-shifting global strategic balance. One would have thought Russia’s aggression in Ukraine would have been seen as a symptom of this shifting balance. Instead it is being conveniently finessed away in many chancelleries as a ‘one-off’ that was not really Russia’s fault.
The reality of strategic change should also have been made clear by the decision yesterday by Japan to abandon the principles of self-defence which have driven Tokyo’s defence policy since World War Two. Japan understands perfectly that it needs to enhance its defence effort to enable the American conventional deterrent to remain credible in East Asia. By 2020 the US will cut its defence expenditure by more than the entire annual expenditure of Europeans on defence. Given that both Europeans and Japanese live in rough neighbourhoods soon the Americans could simply be unable to provide credible conventional defence for both Europe and Asia-Pacific without allies that can first respond to crises in their backyards.
Much is being made of the agreement that all NATO nations should spend a minimum of 2% GDP on defence. The target is of course nominal and pedants will point out that it is not actually a binding commitment. Moreover, whilst four NATO Europeans currently spend the magical 2% and some four more are making the effort to get there one of those states is Greece (which is both worrying and uplifting given how broke the Greeks are) and some of the rest of deploying that most devastating of defence weapons – creative accountancy.
In fact the point of the 2% target is to get NATO’s many “one-percenters” to stop killing NATO. Sadly, not only do most of the “one-percenters” spend too little on defence they also spend badly. Another key target is that at least 20% of the budget should be spent on defence investment. Several Europeans spend as low as 5% on the future force which is creating a dangerous so-called interoperability gap within the Alliance.
Ambassador Thomson said the US and UK “are leading the charge” to get allies to spend more and spend better. However, even the UK which makes much of its spending 2.4% of GDP on defence is guilty of fiddling the figures. The Financial Times recently ran a report that British defence spending would soon fall to 1.9% GDP.
Furthermore, this Friday will see the launch the first of two brand new super-carriers the HMS Queen Elizabeth. She will operate the vertical take-off version of the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35B) rather than the conventional version. This decision was made to save enough money on construction of the ship to allow her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales to also be commissioned into the Royal Navy. And yet in spite of Britain’s commitment to the 2% target “pour encourager les autres” London seems to have gone soft on the second carrier. This now leaves open the possibility that the second ship will be sold once complete after the British 2015 General Election.
Let me be blunt; if a British Government were to sell a brand new state of the art super-carrier to a foreign power it would kill Britain’s case for enhanced defence investment across the Alliance. It would also have a devastating impact on Britain’s influence and reliability in Washington both of which are still in intensive care after the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review. These two ships are more than ships; they are statements of British and European ambition to support the US world-wide if needs be in future conflicts. Given these ships will be supporting the Alliance well into the 2060s to abandon HMS Prince of Wales would be mad, short-term accountancy at the expense of sound long-term defence strategy.
Interestingly, an academic from one of the “one-percenters” challenged me over my assertion that if they are not prepared to spend 2% GDP on defence then they will be forced to consider defence integration and the loss of national sovereignty. He was trying to trip me up and not for the first time. Surely, he suggested, the bigger states should lead the way towards defence integration. My response was twofold. First, many of the “one-percenters” refuse EITHER to increase or enhance their defence spending OR consider common funding let alone defence integration. As such they are simply not facing strategic reality. Second, how can they be trusted as allies? Too many of the “one-percenters” refuse to share the point of contact with danger on operations with the likes of the US and UK claiming “can’t do, won’t do”.
The 2% target is a political target. If achieved it would send a message that Europe still believes in the Alliance and is prepared to invest in it and the twenty-first century transatlantic strategic security and defence compact upon which NATO is founded. If Europeans demur then one day they could awake to find Americans simply cannot defend them even if they wanted to. It is for that reason that burden-sharing is simply self-interest because the cost of Europeans defending themselves would be very much higher.
And one final thing; if I hear one more bloody diplomat (not Sir Adam) say that talk of NATO’s demise is again premature I will be, er well, undiplomatic!