Falling Short in Wales: The 2014 NATO Summit and the Capability Gap

Meetings of NATO Foreign Ministers in Brussels - Unveiling of the logo for the NATO Summit, Wales 2014 and family photo of NATO Foreign Ministers

by Michael Woolslayer

Leaders from the twenty-eight member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gathered in September in Newport, Wales, for a summit considered by many as the most important since the end of the Cold War. The packed agenda included the looming end of the decade-long mission in Afghanistan, the conflict in Ukraine, and the ravages of ISIS in the Middle East. The spate of crises represents both major challenges and a revitalizing opportunity for an alliance searching for a purpose following the disappearance of its initial raison d’être, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Yet, a longer-term threat to its viability and, perhaps, existence remained largely unaddressed at the Wales Summit: the growing disparity in capability between the United States and the rest of the alliance.

NATO member states maintain the most technologically advanced militaries in the world, accounting for 65 percent of global military spending. U.S. military expenditure is 75 percent of this total, up from 50 percent during the Cold War. Only six members meet the minimum threshold of 2 percent of GDP spent on defense agreed at the 2006 Riga Summit. “The U.S. spends three times as much as Europe on equipment, four times as much per soldier, and seven times as much on defense research and development,” summarized former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder. Such inequality raises the specter of a “capability gap,” making it difficult to work with less proficient members and to maintain domestic U.S. support for the alliance, given the perception, as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted, that Europeans “are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” As the center of gravity of U.S. interests shifts toward the Asia-Pacific, the continued outsized U.S. role in NATO is under question.

Uncertainties are not new to the alliance. NATO responded to its post-Cold War identity crisis with a new, less expensive, purpose as an institutional framework tying the former Soviet republics to Western-style democracy and liberalism under Article V’s collective security umbrella. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary – the “Visegrad 3” – joined the alliance in 1999 and became EU members in 2004, thus creating a precedent of membership as an initial step toward full integration into the European project. The mission was redefined again following the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 with a major “out-of-area” operation – the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The undertaking marked the first time NATO operated outside of Europe, and brought accusations of mission-creep and purpose-drift from some critics. The majority of alliance members, particularly in the wake of the recent financial crisis, shrank their defense budgets.

The recent tensions in Ukraine have revived calls for NATO to return to its traditional mission of territorial security in Europe. According to several Western countries, Russian action in Crimea is in violation of Russia’s obligation to respect Ukrainian territorial integrity and refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances. The annexation may signal that President Putin is seeking to revise established norms of international relations – sovereignty and territorial integrity, for example – and may act to further destabilize former Soviet states in Eastern and Central Europe in order to restore Russia’s regional influence. NATO promises to Georgia and Ukraine of eventual membership at the 2008 Bucharest Summit revived Russian opposition to NATO expansion for fears that the organization is entering Russia’s sphere of influence. Russian officials cite enlargement as a provocation, although no Membership Action Plans (MAPs) have been signed with former Soviet states since the fifth expansion in 2004, and Ukraine repudiated any long-term affiliation plans in 2010.

Recent events and the new atmosphere of insecurity in Europe lend the U.S. commitment to European collective security greater importance. U.S. public support for NATO, at 78 percent, is the highest it has been in 40 years according to a May 2014 poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. A rekindled American guarantee also fortifies NATO’s function as a propagator of shared democratic values and liberalism. The U.S. will continue to benefit from maintaining a “coalition in waiting,” such as that which assisted operations in Afghanistan. Ad hoc joint operations like UN peacekeeping missions rely disproportionately on single nations, but NATO provides battle-tested common command and control structures necessary for complex joint operations. The U.S. will likely continue to shoulder the largest share of the burden in the alliance, but the benefits from interoperability, coordination, and stability will generally outweigh those direct costs.

Yet revitalized U.S. commitment to NATO may inadvertently signal that the U.S. will continue to assume responsibility for peace in Europe, allowing other partners to avoid meeting their obligations on defense spending. “NATO is turning into a two-tiered alliance with a shrinking percentage of members willing, and able, to pay the price and bear the burdens of common defense,” former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton warned in 2013.  At the Wales Summit in September, leaders agreed to maintain a weak commitment to the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, with 20 percent to be invested in new equipment over the next decade. The now-former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen indicated the necessity for greater investment in a statement after the Summit, noting that Russia had increased defense spending by 50 percent in the past five years, while NATO states’ expenditures fell by an average of 20 percent.

Leaders missed the opportunity in Newport to ensure each state meets its responsibility. Amending the North Atlantic Treaty to set binding minimums for member state defense expenditures with an effective punishment mechanism for those that fail would reinforce that collective security requires collective commitment to sustained levels of outlay in order to maintain the credibility of such security guarantees. All allied nations, but especially states on the alliance’s eastern border that have led calls for a stronger NATO stance in the area, like the Baltics and Poland, must at least meet the minimum acceptable defense contribution to which they agreed nearly a decade ago. Closer coordination with the EU’s nascent defense structures could harmonize this expenditure across Europe, and harness the EU’s existing accountability mechanisms.

The addition of a binding target would help ensure U.S. presence in and the viability of NATO for decades to come, while bolstering native European defense capabilities. Unfortunately, the lasting legacy of the 2014 NATO Wales Summit may very well be the failure to leverage current crises to help guarantee the long-term capacity and sustainability of the alliance.

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