hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

NATO and a Lost America

”We think the strategic priorities that were identified in the QDR [were] rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region: two, maintaining a strong commitment to security and stability in Europe and the Middle East; three, sustaining a global counterterrorism campaign; four, strengthening key allies and partnerships; five, and prioritizing key modernization efforts”.

US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Bob Work, 28 January, 2015

Austin, Texas. 4 November. For me one of the pleasures in life is to come to America’s heartland and to get a feel for how everyday Americans feels about America and their place in the world. Thanks to my friend Sharyl Cross of the Kozmetsky Center at St Edward’s University and Global Austin I have had a chance this week to feel real America’s strategic pulse before I fly to the other end of NATO and the Riga Conference. My conclusion? There is a crisis of confidence and trust between DC power and the US people that feels not unlike Europe. Worse, the United States is drifting strategically, unable or unwilling to confront its many problems at home, and unsure and uncertain of its place in the world. My purpose in coming here was to talk about NATO and the EU. However, I will leave here with a profound sense that the greatest threat to the transatlantic relationship and the Alliance is posed neither by Russia nor ISIS, but by an America lost. America is tired.

The implications of a tired America for NATO are profound. Indeed, the Alliance is in danger of being ground down by Euro-isolationism and thirteen years of American over-exertion. The tragic irony is that Americans and Europeans have never needed each other more. NATO remains vital to a declining US and its over-stretched grand strategy. At the very least NATO should and could act as a force multiplier of US leadership and a legitimiser of US action. Indeed, NATO is as much America’s insurance against dangerous strategic change as Europe’s.

Domestic politics here is killing American strategy. Although a bipartisan deal was reached to extend the US federal budget for two more years at current levels and thus prevent federal shutdown the very fact that Washington is bumping along the bottom of politics in this way reflects the extent to which the US is lost in the strategic wilderness. The world is simply too dangerous for such nonsense.

A major victim of Washington’s seemingly endless political impasse is the US military which is still being ravaged by sequestration, which has in turn savaged US long-term defence planning. Worse, an awful lot of that money the US military does get is spent badly precisely because of stinky, pork barrel politics in Washington. The American taxpayer getting nothing like the bang for the buck they should expect.

America’s retreat is compounded by a Europe mired in Euro-isolationism with too much of the Continent obsessed with the shape of institutions, the workings or otherwise of the Euro, and the extent of social entitlements. This week’s decision by the British Government to shelve a parliamentary vote on extending RAF air-strikes to Syria simply reinforces the sense of decline, and irresolution at the top of power in Europe.

Consequently, the absence of US leadership will likely see Europeans continue to mouth platitudes about security and defence as they also continue to slash hard security to afford state-busting social security. Indeed, whilst the Allies agreed last year to try and spend 2% GDP on defence the NATO average (excluding the US) remains stubbornly stuck at c1.5%, whilst the EU average is around 1.3%.  Indeed, thirteen of the world’s top twenty defence cutters between 2012 and 2014 were to be found amongst NATO Europeans who sliced a further $90bn from already weak defence budgets over that period.  One simply cannot do more with less.

What to do? Crazy though it may seem the US should use NATO more not less. NATO is the European Wing of a US-led World-wide West that is today more an idea than a place. NATO is also the enabler of the West’s hard core - the Anglosphere. NATO Standards for force generation, command and control and military interoperability, and shared concepts of military transformation, also remain vital to a new balance that must be stuck between military efficiency and effectiveness that will help offset weakness (far more than the Pentagon’s latest gobbledygook called the 3rd Offset Strategy).

However, if NATO is to reinvent itself in American eyes the Alliance will need to confront once and for all its many weaknesses. The most important challenge is establishing a new ‘contract’ so that NATO can remain relevant to twenty-first century US grand strategy and thus ensure an America committed to the twenty-first century defence of Europe.

At the very least, such a contract will mean a NATO finally released from short-term politics and the sham that is the NATO Defence Planning Process.  Indeed, if NATO collective defence and forward deterrence is to become credible it is vital the Allies together begin a proper consideration of the likely impact of new technologies and strategies on Alliance cohesion. This will include a proper analysis of such threats as area access, area denial (A2/AD) strategies and technologies, how to effectively balance so-called 6th Generation warfare at the high-end of conflict with 4th Generation ‘hybrid warfare’ at a lower level of conflict, as well as a collective grip of military nano-technology, cyber warfare, missile defence etc.

Critically, a new transatlantic contract will require Europeans to face a simple truth; their US-led defence can only be assured if Europe finally becomes a source of strength for the US not a bottomless pit of weakness and thus help take the pressure of an increasingly over-burdened America.  Since the early 1950s Europeans have played at burden-sharing knowing full well that America was strong enough and rich enough to effectively go it alone. Not anymore. Those days are over.   

My sense from being here in Austin this week that there is no room for any complacency on the part of Alliance leaders and yet complacent is precisely what Alliance leaders have become. Or, rather complacent and over-whelmed – a strange and acute condition. Whilst the people with whom I have spoken clearly remain committed to the transatlantic relationship they are by and large the converted. In truth here in Austin support for both the transatlantic relationship, and by extension NATO, is at the very best soft.

Therefore, European leaders must stop thinking that Europe’s defence is itself a form of ‘social’ security entitlement paid for by the American taxpayer. If not it may just be that real America here in Texas and elsewhere across this great country at some point concludes that America does not need entangling alliances like NATO and had best look after itself. In this complex and ever more dangerous world an America that seeks to combine exceptionalism, isolationism, and relative weakness would be as much a disaster for the West and the world as an irresolute Europe obsessed with petty and not-so-petty institutionalism.  

As Winston Churchill once said, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies. That is to fight without them”.

Julian Lindley-French

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