Carl Bildt is a former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden.
What is left of NATO and the transatlantic order after U.S. President Donald Trump’s tumultuous week in Brussels, the United Kingdom and Helsinki, where he defended Russian President Vladimir Putin against accusations of cyberwarfare by America’s own intelligence agencies?
Watching events unfold through rose-tinted glasses, one might think that the West’s most important strategic alliance is more or less okay, or even growing stronger. In fact, NATO is in peril, and its fate now lies in Mr. Trump’s contemptuous hands.
Prior to and during the NATO summit, there was much hand-wringing over member states’ military spending as a share of GDP. Each member is expected to increase its spending to 2 per cent of GDP by 2024, but Mr. Trump seems to think that this already should have been done. And at the summit last week, he suddenly called for a new target of 4 per cent of GDP – which is more than even the United States spends.
To be sure, over the past few decades, NATO’s primary focus was on peacekeeping operations in distant places, rather than on its core function of territorial defence. For most European member states, the peace dividend from the alliance’s operations justified cuts in domestic military spending.
But this attitude changed in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and launched secretive military incursions into Eastern Ukraine. Since then, NATO member states’ defence budgets have increased by around 4 per cent a year on average, making the 2024 target eminently achievable.
More fundamentally, Mr. Trump’s complaint that the United States is shouldering an unfair share of the burden for NATO’s collective defence is dubious. While the U.S. military budget equals roughly 72 per cent of combined defence spending by all NATO member states, roughly three-quarters of US military spending is directed toward regions other than Europe. Around half of the U.S. defence budget is spent on maintaining a presence in the Pacific, and another quarter is spent on operations in the Middle East, strategic nuclear command and control, and other areas.
Moreover, although the United States has increased its defence outlays in Europe substantially over the past few years, it is worth remembering that most U.S. forces and facilities there are actually focused on the geostrategic arc from India to South Africa. With facilities such as Ramstein, Fairford, Rota, Vicenza and Sigonella, the United States has long used Europe as a staging ground for deploying forces elsewhere. And the early-warning and surveillance facilities that the United States maintains in Britain and Norway are there to defend the continental U.S., not Europe.
The fact is that total European defence spending is around twice what the United States spends on European security, and also roughly twice what Russia spends on defence, according to estimates produced at the U.S. National Defense University.
The critical importance of U.S. command, control and intelligence forces in Europe should not be minimized, but it should at least be put into perspective. Although the U.S. Army recently rotated heavy brigades through Europe for military exercises, its permanently stationed troops are equipped only for limited interventions.
This is why NATO must continue to improve its defence capacity in Europe. At a minimum, Europe needs more military forces, and those forces need to be equipped for rapid deployment to critical areas. The new mobility command that is being established in Germany is a promising first step.
And yet, Russia’s advantages over NATO have less to do with resources than with command and control. As a single country, Russia’s military forces are more integrated, and can be deployed more quickly in pursuit of strategic directives from the Kremlin. Such nimbleness was amply demonstrated in Crimea in 2014 and in Syria the following year.
For its part, NATO does have a deeply integrated command structure for the forces that are assigned to it. But that hardly matters if political decisions to deploy forces or launch operations are not taken in time. In any military confrontation, unity of will and the speed of high-level decision-making determine the outcome.
The problem is that while NATO’s military capacity is actually improving, its political decision-making capacity is deteriorating. Imagine what would happen if a NATO member state sounded the alarm about Russia launching a secretive Crimea-style military operation within its borders. Then, imagine that U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that an act of aggression was indeed under way, despite Mr. Putin’s denials.
Finally, imagine how Mr. Trump might respond. Would he call Mr. Putin to ask what’s going on? And would Mr. Putin make another “incredible offer” to help U.S. investigators get to the bottom of things? Even more to the point: Would Mr. Trump quickly invoke the principle of collective defence under Article 5 of the NATO treaty? Or would he hesitate, question the intelligence, belittle U.S. allies and validate Mr. Putin’s denials?
These are truly disturbing questions to have to ask of an American president. They will now hang over Europe’s head indefinitely.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.