Focus Recommendations for NATO’s Summit in Chicago

Logo for NATO Summit meeting in Chicago

By Darren Ruch

As a general rule, wars are not fought unilaterally without the financial, political, and materiel assistance of other states.  Examples of historical, large-scale alliances include Allied (Entente) Powers and the Central Powers during World War I, the Allies versus the Axis during World War II, and the Cold War, involving a prolonged war between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members and the Warsaw Pact nations.  The commonality of alliances and multilateral action in conflicts remains today, such as in the Libya Civil War, in which the National Transitional Council, NATO, and other states formed an alliance to topple the Libyan regime.

Maintaining well-established alliances is a smart investment because of their many benefits and military effects.  Coming into its 63rd anniversary, the NATO alliance has survived the end of the Cold War, the Balkan wars in the mid 1990s, and the Libya intervention in 2011.  As the 25th summit in Chicago approaches, NATO will need to reaffirm its mission and prepare for another decade of following its charter and continuing the strongest and oldest alliance still in effect.  Furthermore, it is in every member’s interest, especially the U.S., that NATO not only remain intact, but continue to be a strong alliance for the future.  This paper will argue that NATO is far from retirement or in need for a major overhaul, but rather should continue promoting its values and demand an equal contribution from all its members.  The paper will briefly touch on NATO’s values and ideals, identify some shortcomings of the alliance with lessons learned from the Libya campaign, and conclude with some recommendations for the upcoming Chicago Summit.

On April 4, 1949, NATO was founded on the foundation of “democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.”[1]  Within the first five articles of the treaty, the principles of joint negotiation, training, sovereignty, defense, and alliance are emphasized to promote defense stability and economic collaboration between its members.[2]  Successfully carrying out those ways and means is an important end for all the participating states: providing financial and materiel support to the military-strong states (US, UK, France, and Germany) and affording modernization and equipment to the members with smaller armed forces.[3]

NATO is an alliance for alliances; it rarely engages in operations solely with its own members.[4]  As of May 2012, NATO supports five operations: leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan (Operation ENDURING FREEDOM), NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR), detecting and deterring terrorist activity in the Mediterranean Sea (Operation ACTIVE ENDEAVOR), counter-piracy in the Horn of Africa (Operation OCEAN SHIELD), and supporting the African Union on the African continent, mostly focused in Somalia.[5]  Additionally, last year NATO completed its training mission in Iraq and, in October, concluded a successful four-month operation in Libya, Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, which provided a no-fly zone over the country.  In all of those operations, past and current, NATO was just one alliance within a wider coalition force.

By continuously working in partnership with other nation states, NATO achieves a number of additional objectives and promotes core values aside from its military operations.  NATO requires its member states to maintain a democratic political system, operate a market economy, respect persons belonging to national minorities, resolve neighbor disputes, commit to peaceful dispute settlements, have the ability and willingness to make military contributions to alliances, and achieve interoperability with its member forces.[6]  All of these values are within the member states’ interest to promote, both within the alliance and abroad, because of the beneficial peaceful and economic partnerships they build.  For example, liberal peace theory hypothesizes that established democracies do not conduct war with one another.[7]  By requiring democratic governance to those wanting to join and maintain membership, NATO sends a clear message that its primary ways of conflict resolution is through peaceful means.  With regards to NATO’s desired economic ends, market economies tend to attract foreign investment and cause an increase in production and rapid development, which is likely to grow the global markets of those members with weaker economies.  Through its neighbor disputes clause, NATO ensures that its members maintain diplomatic channels of communication.  Therefore, there should always be a dialogue among the partnered nations regarding national security and strategic matters.  Maintaining open channels of communication is especially beneficial to those members who do not maintain strong diplomatic relations within the Organization, such as Turkey and Greece.

While NATO promotes peace and economic expansion, there are aspects that need to be strengthened.  After Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR, a number of deficiencies were brought to light, despite NATO’s long history, lessons learned, and best practices.  In his departing speech from NATO as Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates concluded NATO’s “military capabilities simply aren’t there.”[8]  His reasons for such a failure included a lack of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities; the inability of some nations to utilize their fighter aircraft effectively; insufficient targeting professionals; NATO’s failure to launch air sorties at over a 50% capacity; and a general shortage of munitions by member nations.[9]  To remedy these issues, the US military had to provide more ISR assets and targeting professionals than originally planned and had to front additional costs to replace the munitions stockpile.

In this speech, Gates stressed another weakness in NATO – an uneven distribution of responsibility.  In addition to pointing at some failures, Gates highlighted a few countries in the same speech, including Norway and Denmark, as members who were contributing more than their allies.  He remarked, “[those two countries] provided 12 percent of allied strike aircraft yet [had] struck about one third of the targets.”[10]  His overall message was clear: “[in NATO, there are] those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership – be they security guarantees or headquarters billets – but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.”[11]  When Secretary Gates left his position in the Department of Defense, he expressed his frustrations with the members of NATO, saying some countries primarily reap its benefits, while others contribute more than their fair share.  Along with a wide range of commentators, Gates pointed at the failures of the alliance and, more importantly, highlighted that those failures will not enable NATO to be successful in the future, should a larger conflict than Libya arise, unless improvements are made.

NATO must reaffirm its mission and improve its interoperability to overcome its shortcomings.  The upcoming Chicago summit is a venue where issues such as NATO’s overall lack of assets, training, certified personnel, and insufficient financial contributions should be addressed.  The core values of NATO and the positive impact on both its members and nonmembers are too important to abandon because of recoverable shortages.  The core values of democracy, market economy, and mutual respect promote peace and economic growth with its partners.  With NATO continuing its five operational missions – most notably in Afghanistan – in accord with other nations, promoting these values and demonstrating its successes are invaluable as a continuing model alliance for the international community.  With today’s economic and security challenges, nations subscribing to the values and benefits of NATO cannot place their obligations to their partner states as a last priority.  The hardships that states are facing will pass in time, but the treaty organization will persevere well into the future, and NATO members must make their commitment a top national priority.


[1] “The North Atlantic Treaty.” NATO. http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/official_ texts_17120.htm (accessed April 1, 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Chapter Four: Europe.” The Military Balance 112, no. 1 (07 Mar 2012): 71-76.

[4] ISAF maintains a force of over 130,000 troops from 50 countries, including 27 NATO countries, in Afghanistan.  KFOR is comprised of 29 countries, 22 NATO countries and seven supplemental state contributors.   Since 2004, Israel, Morocco, Russia, Ukraine, Finland, Sweden, and Georgia have augmented NATO’s Operation ACTIVE ENDEAVOR, through informal partnerships, liaison, or ship deployments or other physical assets.   12 Countries augment NATO in their other maritime operation, OCEAN SHIELD.   The African Union (AU) does not have a legal framework for their partnership with NATO, but the organization has been augmenting AU missions, mostly in Somalia, since 2005.

[5] “NATO operations and missions.” NATO. http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/ topics_52060.htm (accessed April 6, 2012).

[6] John Finney and Ivo Šlaus, Assessing the Threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Role of Independent Scientists (Northwestern University: IOS Press BV, 2010), 30.

[7] Doyle, Michael. Ways of War and Peace: Realism, Liberalism, and Socialism. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997.

[8] Robert, Gates. “The Security and Defense Agenda (future of Nato).” Speeches. http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1581 (accessed April 1, 2012).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Robert, Gates. “The Security and Defense Agenda (future of Nato).” Speeches. http://www.defense.gov/speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1581 (accessed April 1, 2012).

[11] Ibid.

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