August 03, 2015

A Defining Moment for the Alliance?

By Julianne Smith

Williams: To what extent is it fair to classify Europe's lack of investment in defense technology and national defense budgets as a threat to the capabilities of the Atlantic alliance?

Smith: NATO is only as strong as its individual member states, which means that when members make insufficient investments in their forces, the entire alliance suffers. During the Cold War, the United States complained about its allies’ declining defense budgets but NATO was able to maintain a relatively high level of interoperability and readiness due to the scale and types of budget cuts. In the last two decades, though, the situation has become much worse. Countries that once cut defense budgets by a single digit, say four or five percent, suddenly started to cut their defense budgets by double digits. When a member state cuts its defense budget by 20 percent or more, it is often forced to eliminate full capability sets, creating capability gaps that have real consequences for the Alliance as a whole. As the Alliance has undertaken new missions in places like Afghanistan and Libya, the impact of years of “vertical” defense cuts in a number of capitals across Europe (including some of the larger allies) has become blatantly apparent. In an effort to stop the bleeding and ensure that the Alliance could maintain the full spectrum of defense capabilities it would need to face future challenges in NATO’s East and South. NATO used its Wales Summit to secure commitments from its members to halt additional cuts and, to the extent possible, work toward the goal of meeting the longstanding NATO defense spending standard of two percent of GDP. At present, roughly two-thirds of NATO members have delivered on this pledge, but implementation of those pledges is by no means guaranteed.

Williams: It seems the presence of nuclear weapons in Europe is an oft-neglected topic of conversation, yet would it be fair to say that nuclear weapons remain a cornerstone of transatlantic defense? What challenges do you see in the Euro-Atlantic world in sustaining this capability?

Smith: At its Lisbon Summit in 2010, NATO tasked itself with a comprehensive review of its defense posture – including nuclear weapons. The so-called deterrence and defense posture review (DDPR) reaffirmed that nuclear weapons remain a core component of the Alliance’s deterrence and defense capabilities. But the review itself revealed a number of divides inside the Alliance between those that possess nuclear weapons and those that do not. Some Allies, like Germany, were advocating for further reductions of non-strategic nuclear weapons in Europe but met stiff resistance from France, among others. One thing all NATO members at the time agreed on, however, was the importance of laying the groundwork for future confidence-building talks with Russia on tactical nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, that enthusiasm to pursue a dialogue with Russia in the nuclear sphere (in the wake of the U.S.-Russia New START agreement signed in April of 2010) has now been eclipsed by one of the lowest periods in U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia relations. In light of the Russia/Ukraine crisis, Russia’s nuclear saber rattling, and its violation of the INF Treaty, the core activities of the NATO-Russia Council have been suspended, and allies are now raising new questions about the degree to which the Alliance should be bolstering its deterrence and reassurance efforts. Some analysts have also suggested that the Alliance make changes to its nuclear posture1. With tensions so high between Russia and the West, it is hard to imagine the Alliance making any major changes to its nuclear doctrine and posture, in any direction.

Williams: NATO's Libya campaign demonstrated gaps in European capability. Are those gaps wider today?

Smith: The gaps that were exposed during the Libya campaign were a result of years of declining defense budgets and a lack of investment in high-end capabilities, training and personnel. Since that mission, the Alliance has worked to identify the capability gaps and sought opportunities to fill them. That said, because European defense budgets have continued to decline even after the Libya mission, many of those gaps have continued to widen. Thanks to the pledges at NATO’s Wales Summit, however, the hope is that most members of the Alliance will reverse years of declining budgets and gradually make new investments that will increase members’ – and therefore NATO’s – ability to project power and sustain medium- to long-term operations.

Williams: Does Article 5 offer enough assurances of defense to NATO's allies in the Baltics?

Smith: Over the course of the last year, the Alliance has undertaken a number of measures designed to reassure allies in Central and Eastern Europe. Those measures include new training and exercises, the creation of a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) inside the NATO Response Force, an expansion of NATO air policing over the Baltic States, and a U.S. decision to preposition military assets in Central and Eastern Europe. While the countries of Central and Eastern Europe appreciate those initiatives, many NATO members in the region continue to worry whether the Alliance would come to their aid in the face of an Article 5 attack. Such concerns are particularly acute in regards to hybrid warfare. For example, how would NATO respond if a Baltic State experienced a devastating cyber attack that was attributed to Moscow? Would allies believe that such an attack justified an Article 5 response? Polling data from publics on both sides of the Atlantic show a range of views, including uncertainty about the need to respond2. Of course, one hopes that the elites of those countries would not exhibit the same level of hesitation, although informal conversations I have had with European policymakers on this subject do give me pause.

Williams: Has NATO reached the limits of expansion in Europe?

Smith: At its Wales Summit, the Alliance agreed to review Montenegro’s progress towards NATO membership by the end of 2015 with the goal of deciding on whether to invite it to join the Alliance. In addition to this very specific plan in regards to a single candidate country, NATO continues to state that its door remains open to those that aspire to join. Unfortunately, the hopeful rhetoric coming out of NATO and member states does not always match reality. The truth is that members remain deeply divided on the questions of enlargement, with some questioning whether additional rounds of enlargement would unnecessarily escalate the already high tensions with Moscow.

Williams: Has the idea of Europe and the European Union been damaged by the near exclusive focus on the Euro-crisis, rather than a wider concept of “Europe whole and free”?

Smith: The EU’s heavy focus on the Euro-crisis has certainly served as a distraction, but policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic tend to appreciate the nature of this extraordinarily complex challenge. What perhaps frustrates policymakers, particularly those in Washington, more is the EU’s failure to put the resources and political will behind its security and defense policy. We have witnessed the creation of a number of new initiatives and institutions in this area over the last twenty years (the European Defense Agency and the External Action Service to name just two) but most of those have failed to turn the EU into a bold and innovative foreign policy actor.

Williams: Some experts claim that the Obama Administration “lost” the post-Cold War status quo in Europe due to a lack of interest in Europe during this presidency. What is your perspective on this?

Smith: It is preposterous to blame the recent instability in and around Europe, particularly in Ukraine, on the Obama administration. President Putin arrived in office in 2012 disinterested in the U.S. “reset policy,” deeply suspicious of the U.S. role in Russia’s 2011 elections and the protests that followed, and determined to maintain his grip on power even at the expense of his relationship with the West. Could the United States and its allies have prevented him from sending covert forces into Crimea in early 2014? We will never know. What has become crystal clear, however, is President Obama’s commitment to the security of our NATO allies. Despite the oft-repeated narrative that this administration has not invested enough in Europe, the United States was the first country to dedicate both troops and resources ($1 billion) to reassure allies in the face the Russia/Ukraine crisis.

Williams: How much will the generational shift in leadership in the United States affect transatlantic relations over the next 20 years?

Smith: The transatlantic community has already witnessed a major generational change since the end of the Cold War. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said himself during his last trip to Brussels before retiring, “I am… essentially the last senior leader who was a product of the Cold War. … The kind of emotional and historical attachment [to NATO] is aging out.” Both Washington and capitals in Europe have fewer senior leaders with a strong affinity and knowledge of Europe as emerging leaders on both sides have turned their attention to the Middle East and Asia. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have certainly served as a reminder about the critical importance of the transatlantic link, but that isn’t enough to counter the shrinking pool of experts that have dedicated decades of their life to the transatlantic relationship. In fact, President Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and elsewhere in his neighborhood has simply highlighted that gap and revealed just how much both sides of the Atlantic have allowed their Russian knowledge and expertise to atrophy.

Williams: How important are mutual exchange and education programs in developing European-U.S. cooperation in the Atlantic World?

Smith: Mutual exchange programs like the ones I have participated in (The Robert Bosch Foundation Fellowship and the Manfred Woerner Seminar) are indispensable in establishing a network of individuals that have a rich understanding of both our shared values and our differences. These networks help us weather stormy periods in our relationship such as the deep divisions the two sides of the Atlantic experienced over the Iraq War in 2003. They also help us create new opportunities for cooperation and leverage each other’s strengths. Personally, I worry about our collective ability to maintain and strengthen transatlantic ties in the coming decades and hope that the organizations that support exchange and education programs will broaden and deepen their programming on transatlantic relations going forward.