The original idea of NATO essentially as an alliance of equals standing shoulder to shoulder in the defense of one another is dead. It died with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the threat of massive physical aggression or of the political intimidation of individual NATO members. NATO’s subsequent strategic idea of projecting collective power abroad to counter instability and global terror is dying under the twin assaults of an unpopular war in Afghanistan and looming cuts in defense budgets and military forces. The effort to define a new strategic concept for the alliance is likely to founder over the growing disconnect between appetite and wallet.
NATO needs to rethink its vision for the future. The desire by major nations such as France and the United Kingdom to maintain the shadow of a great power military is unsustainable at budget levels those countries’ governments are willing to provide. Equally unsustainable is the goal of many other NATO nations to have a hand in every major domain of military capability — land, sea and air. Behind all this is the fear in European capitals that unless they demonstrate a certain degree of military heft and a willingness to act abroad the U.S. will no longer be willing to honor its commitment to the defense of Europe.
Rather than trying to cover all the bases, as NATO used to do, or becoming the global response force against terrorism, the alliance needs to focus on the few serious military threats to Europe. There is no near-term threat to the physical independence of NATO members. Europe has rightly treated terrorism as a law enforcement problem for decades, regardless of its source. The real threats to Europe in the future are in such areas as ballistic missile launches, cyber attacks and efforts to block critical land, sea and air lines of communications.
NATO in the future needs to focus less on projecting combined arms power outside Europe’s boundaries and more on protecting the continent from these new types of dangers. This means less investment in ground forces and more in such areas as integrated air and missile defense, cyber security, local sea control and regional reconnaissance. NATO’s Secretary General is pressing the alliance to make the necessary investments in missile defense to provide a credible shield against launches by rogue nations.
Investments in these areas will help to maintain the relationship between the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. is pursuing a phased adaptive architecture for missile defense that will deploy land-based interceptors in Europe. A number of NATO countries are part of the international consortium building the Joint Strike Fighter. NATO should at least consider creating a cyber shield.
If NATO pursues such a course it should do so seriously. The commitment to defending the continent against air threats, ballistic missiles and cyber attacks needs to be supported by significant additional resources.
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