George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute. He is the co-author of the 2014 Strategic Outlook, and has served in NATO, Bosnia, Cyprus and Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.
This week, NATO heads of state will meet in Wales. Those waiting for pronouncements of substance in the face of developing crises in Ukraine, the Middle East (ISIS), in Iraq, and myriad smaller problems, will be sorely disappointed. Rhetoric will abound, but results will be of no greater importance than deciding how to dress for a funeral.
Already, pronouncements indicate the wide chasm between what nations wish to occur versus what they are willing to do. In Iraq and with respect to ISIS, it’s a choice between not getting embroiled or a sense that it’s someone else’s problem. In Ukraine, leaders wish for Russian President Vladimir Putin and other problems to go way or to somehow sort themselves out. They are not willing to do much to accomplish either.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made clear on several occasions that there is no military solution to the Ukrainian crisis even though there is little doubt that the Russian military nurtures the Ukrainian revolt if not actively engaged in it. For her, increasing the breadth of sanctions, which so far have proved ineffective, are the route to follow.
Echoing Germany’s response, the NATO alliance has said repeatedly it has no intention of intervening militarily to protect Ukraine, which it is not obliged to defend as a non-member. So any request by Ukraine to accede to membership or for NATO military help will fall on deaf ears. In that environment is is difficult to see a cohesive alliance response developing to anything else.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has urged that all nations invest to stem the decline experienced in many NATO militaries. Canada under allied pressure appears to be on the verge of agreeing to an aspirational target of 2 per cent of gross domestic product – but aspirations are not commitments and the government would have to restore close to $3-billion in funding which has been cut since 2012.
Either way, increased military spending in the alliance alone achieves little without the political resolve to create a strategy when the mantra of ‘no boots on the ground’ and non-engagement has become so pervasive in the lingua franca of western capitals.
Since the precipitating events of the Crimea crisis, few allies have contributed forces to shore up the Baltic states, with only10 nations out of 28 having done so. Only Canada, France and the United States have contributed minor forces to eastern NATO countries. If this tokenism is a “reinvigorated” NATO as many have claimed, one wonders what it will take for NATO to credibly influence events in its immediate periphery let alone support its eastern members.
What the summit will most likely produce, is a new “spearhead” force, but it will be a paper force in that it won’t actually deploy, train or work together, much less be sent to bases in NATO’s eastern flank. It will be much like the NATO Response Force (NRF) which emerged from the 2002 NATO Summit.
On paper, the NRF force of 17,000 of on-call contributions by nations appeared to be an effective tool providing the alliance some flexibility to respond to crises. However, the NRF has only been used six times since its inception if the imagination can be stretched to actually consider that it was used.
Even modest missions unravelled because NATO common funds wouldn’t pay for the deployments – with the costs instead borne by the individual nations which had contributed, rather than the collective.
It is no wonder that Gen. Rick Hillier, a former Canadian chief of defence staff, had said “why would I tie up Canadian assets to a force that is never used, isn’t financed, and by the time NATO political consensus is achieved to use it, the crisis is all but over?”
Canada’s contribution to the earthquake in Haiti, or the multinational response to the 2004 Tsunami were far greater than anything NATO could cobble together.
NATO’s residual value as a defensive alliance is that adversaries will have to think twice before directly attacking a member state. But, it appears the collective defence provisions have become limited to the defence of European member states – and even that deterrent is questionable, given how few have contributed to shoring up Eastern Europe or the Baltic states.
NATO remains a venue for political and military dialogue, a transatlantic link which keeps the U.S. and Canada involved in European defence and a platform for interoperability between nations. But it is becoming a two-tierd alliance of those who contribute, and those who do not. It also has limitations, as information exchanged between the “five eyes” community is often not shared with key NATO partners such as France, which is at the forefront of anti-jihadist operations in Africa, for example.
Unless a miracle occurs in Wales, NATO will not be the vehicle to make Mr. Putin think twice in Ukraine – the political wherewithal to do so is simply not present. If any response to the Ukraine is to emerge – or to issues like ISIS in Iraq, it will come – if at all – from like-minded nations acting in concert in pursuit of their own interests, not through the alliance itself.
In the meantime, NATO will provide garlands of reassurance but, in the end, have achieved nothing substantive at all. For Canada, the lesson is that its interests overseas can only be assured by the investments it is prepared to make; there is no free ride anymore.