Alphen, Netherlands. 29 September. Winston Churchill once said, “Civilization will not last, freedom will not be kept, unless a very large majority of mankind unite together to defend them”. This week Norway’s former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg will take over as NATO Secretary-General. In the wake of this month’s NATO Wales Summit Stoltenberg will face the greatest strategic challenge to the Alliance since the Cold War. The threat comes not specifically from Russia or Islamic State unpredictable and potentially dangerous though they are. Indeed, no NATO member presently faces an existential threat. No, the real threat to the Alliance comes from the members themselves and the steadfast refusal of many of them to see the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. European leaders bereft of vision and political courage talk endlessly about long-term strategy when they mean short-term politics. Solving NATO’s strategy conundrum is without doubt the greatest challenge Stoltenberg faces.
In that light Stoltenberg’s tough job will be no less than to nudge the European members of the Alliance back to a strategic reality in which credible military power is re-established in Europe as the hard rock upon which the twenty-first century influence of a twenty-first century Atlantic Alliance must necessarily be built. Sadly, all my research shows the exact opposite is happening. Only four NATO members meet the Alliance target of 2% GDP on defence and if one looks closely at the language of the Wales Summit Declaration few have any appetite to meet it.
Even those states that nominally spend 2% GDP on defence either spend badly or use accounting tricks to maintain the illusion of upheld defence expenditure. Take my own country Britain. David Cameron made much of his commitment in Wales that Britain would continue to spend 2% GDP on defence. Sadly, like so much of his smoke and mirrors premiership the ‘commitment’ is in fact a political illusion and a mask for further defence cuts. Senior word from within Parliament tells me that Britain will only maintain the 2% target on defence by including costs hitherto outside of the defence budget, such as nuclear forces, pensions and operations. As ever with Cameron clever politics masks appalling strategy as in all likelihood should he win the British general election in May 2015 he will move to cut the conventional force even more. Proof of this is the difficulty the Royal Air Force has had mustering six ageing Tornado aircraft for operations against Islamic State this week and the spin operation by London to pretend otherwise.
Strategy-killing politics oozes from the many pages of the NATO Wales Summit Declarations and reflects a fundamentally false assumption; that the United States is and will remain the strongest military power on the planet, by some distance and for the foreseeable future. Yes, the Americans are still the strongest military power on the planet but Washington is mired in debt and uncertainty with the US military facing defence cuts between now and 2020 greater than the combined defence expenditure of ALL the NATO Europeans. In other words, the great age of unrivalled American supremacy is coming to an end and NATO needs collectively to get its heads around the implications of that.
The terrifying truth Secretary-General Stoltenberg will face this week is that the military balance of military power is shifting away from the West at breakneck speed. By 2016 Russia will spend more on defence than France and Germany combined. China, which now spends at least $130bn per annum on it armed forces (and probably far more) has been investing per annum double-digit percentage increases in defence ever since 1989. President Xi is determined to further increase such expenditures. Contrast that with NATO Europe. Thirteen of the world’s top twenty defence slashers between 2012 and 2014 are in NATO Europe. These are cuts upon cuts for between 2008 and 2012 many NATO Europeans cut their defence budgets by up to 30%.
And yet, if NATO members got their collective act together as part of a twenty-first century transatlantic security contract they could a) help keep the US strong where it needs to be strong – Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific; and b) demonstrate to the world that whatever a state spends on armed force such expenditures will never outstrip those of the West and are thus a waste of money. To do that NATO and its members will need to look hard at how to generate real efficiencies and generate new strategic partnerships the world to multiply real effectiveness. That will require a radical NATO. Sadly, the words ‘radical’ and ‘NATO’ are strangers to each other.
There is one other challenge Mr Stoltenberg will need to consider on his first day in the office – the coincidence of crises. It is annoying that the Russia-Ukraine War and the threat posed by Islamic State to the Sykes-Picot Middle Eastern order should come at one and same time. It would be so nice to deal with crises separately and sequentially. Welcome to the real world. The future Alliance will rarely be allowed the luxury of choosing crises. Indeed, the West’s adversaries will do all they can to complicate American strategy (and by extension NATO ‘strategy’) by generating simultaneous crises.
NATO’s bottom-line is this; the United States is the world’s only world power that is present in strength in every world region. However, to be critically strong in every region the US will need NATO Allies that can act credibly in and around Europe as crisis first responders. Succeed and NATO will reinvent itself as an Alliance and regenerate itself in the American political mind. Fail and NATO will simply fade into anachronistic strategic irrelevance and the world will be a very much more dangerous place for that.
European defence irresponsibility has been a major factor in making the world today more dangerous than it need be because it has made the costs of challenging the West’s supremacy both achievable and bearable. Therefore, if freedom is to be defended Stoltenberg’s first challenge will be to shift the Alliance beyond its false comfort zone. To do that Secretary-General Stoltenberg will need to get the North Atlantic Council to look up and outwards at big strategy rather than down and inwards at narrow politics where so many of Europe’s short-sighted leaders find false comfort.
Good luck, Mr Stoltenberg!