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Syria and the Decline of NATO Military Clout

By Erik Brattberg

Despite calls on Capitol Hill for international intervention as the Syrian crisis, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has repeatedly ruled out the option of the Alliance involving itself in Syria, most recently at a conference in Brussels two weeks ago.

Arguing that Syria is very different from Libya in that the situation on the ground is more complicated, regional support from key countries is still missing, and that no UN mandate currently exists, Rasmussen has instead called for a regional solution to end the spiraling violence in the country.

The Secretary-General may certainly be right that any international intervention in Syria would be extremely cumbersome, but he has not addressed the issue of whether present-day NATO is actually able to carry out what would be its second out-of-area mission in the Arab world in less than a year.

While last year’s operation in Libya has broadly been hailed as a success, it also highlighted a number of shortcomings in terms of military capabilities and follow through. After all, it took NATO no less than 214 days to finally bring the Qaddafi regime down. Removing Assad from power would probably require an even greater transatlantic commitment—something that the Alliance could not likely muster at the moment.

As financial austerity continues to ravage both sides of the Atlantic, further cuts in defense budgets are unavoidable. And unless something can be done, and done quickly, the end result will be a diminished Euro-Atlantic security alliance in the years to come—and this in a time of unprecedented crises on Europe’s southern doorsteps.

Three problems in particular stand out with regards to NATO’s military readiness. The first and most obvious problem is Europe’s inadequate spending on defense. While this issue has been a long-standing source of friction between Washington and the European capitals, it has recently reached unsustainable levels. The U.S. accounts today for about 60 percent of NATO defense spending. Unless the transatlantic gap in defense spending is addressed, the Alliance, to quote Robert Gates, faces a “dim if not dismal future.”

A second related problem is the recurring transatlantic capabilities gap. While the U.S. currently spends 11.2 percent of its defense expenditures on investments the same figure for Europe is only 4.4 percent. While this may have been tolerable in the past, Europe’s lack of military capabilities makes no sense under the new de facto Obama doctrine of robust military sharing. Whereas the Libya mission signaled an opportunity for Europe to rise to the occasion and contribute a bigger slice of the military burden, it also clearly illustrated European NATO members’ reluctance to assume leadership (although some smaller European countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and the Netherlands should be commended for punching above their weight in Libya).

The third problem is slightly different than the previous two, but arguably just as important: the lack of strategic coherence within the Alliance itself. Again, the Libya crisis offers a useful comparison. Only a few months after NATO had adopted its new Strategic Concept, staking out the course for the Alliance over the next ten years, Europe’s 'Big Three'—France, Britain and Germany—found themselves divided in the Security Council over whether or not to intervene in Libya, evoking painful memories of the Iraq debacle almost a decade ago. So far, Europe has not utilized the Libya crisis to conduct a proper debate on its strategic options for protecting the neighborhood.

These three problems—lack of lack of defense spending, lack of new critical capabilities, and lack of strategic coherence—must be immediately tended to should NATO wish to remain a viable security alliance in the 21st century. Again, three sets of solutions to these problems stand out.

First, European leaders must resist the obvious temptation of further slashing defense budgets in the current age of austerity. In this regard, the Smart Defense concept with its emphasis on pooling and sharing offers a workable method for maintaining capabilities and reducing the gross deficiencies and redundancies that have long characterized the European defense market. But this cannot be just another NATO initiative that never sees the light of day; it must be implemented.

Second, in the long run Europe also needs to develop new critical capabilities. While cuts to procurement programs and research and development are often easier to implement than politically sensitive cuts to personnel costs, such an approach will only ensure that gaps in these key capabilities will persist. Instead, the money freed up from increased pooling and sharing should go towards developing new critical capabilities.

Third, to improve strategic unity, Europe and America desperately need to engage in a more active strategic debate. In this regard, one option is to update the EU’s own European Security Strategy, which marks its 10 year anniversary next year, to reflect changes wrought by both the Lisbon Treaty, which among other things strengthen the powers of the European Parliament, and the Arab Spring.

Unless Europe can get its act together on defense, NATO risks becoming increasingly irrelevant as the U.S. turns elsewhere for reliable military partners. The very least Europe can do is to get its own house in order, assuming responsibility for its own backyard. The looming crisis in Syria should serve as a stark reminder to European leaders that the neighborhood remains unstable, constituting a long-term threat. At the same time, this realization should also provide impetus for Europe to improve its military ability to respond to future crises in its neighborhood. Otherwise, NATO may see its Libyan operation as its Last Hurrah, fading into insignificance in the 21st century. 

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Erik Brattberg is a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

(Photo courtesy of United States Marine Corps Official Page's Photostream)

 

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