Truman National Security Project

NATO’s Second Annual Report: Defense Matters!

NATO Afghanistan

On Thursday morning, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen released NATO’s Second Annual Report. His presentation was not simply an overview of the past year’s defense priorities and capabilities, but also an opportunity to candidly address the challenges facing the Alliance.

Arguably, over the past several years, NATO has conducted missions that even ardent advocates would not have predicted possible a decade ago. NATO has adapted tactically and operationally in Afghanistan and, significantly, is still on schedule to transition to a train and assist mission at the end of 2014. Likewise, NATO has demonstrated the ability to react on short-notice with airpower in Libya and addressed Alliance concerns about Syria through the deployment of Patriot missile batteries to Turkey. Admittedly, the record is not perfect, and the blemishes of a 28-nation political-military Alliance will challenge efforts from time to time.

As NATO moves forward, however, it will have to consider how to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable international environment. Not only must NATO remain engaged and capable, but must do so with increasing effectiveness and, of course, efficiency. Rasmussen, as well as Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral James Stavridis, has led the charge to shore up NATO’s competitive advantages and focus on “smart” approaches to using limited resources. The new Strategic Concept, guidance for NATO Forces 2020, and initiatives to re-energize the NATO Response Force has each helped set the stage for this evolution, but NATO must now execute.

The challenge, however, is that only a few NATO members have met the 2 percent of GDP defense spending requested by the Alliance, while the United States continues to hold the lion’s share of the financial burden. NATO members must provide the spending needed to bridge gaps and correct current and potential imbalances in Alliance capacity. NATO’s versatility, effectiveness, and credibility are at stake if this principal inequity is not corrected.

Equally important is the conceptual shift that must take place throughout the Alliance. NATO faces a range of new and emerging threats — cyber security, proliferation, terrorism, and regional instability — certainly not those envisioned by the Washington Treaty in 1949. Budget austerity, however, cannot be an excuse for failing to live up to the obligations required for collective security. As Secretary Rasmussen made clear, these threats “will not go away as we focus on fixing our economies.”

I was told years ago of a NATO Secretary General who once chided diplomats complaining about NATO having too much to handle at one time by asking them, “If you can’t handle three rings, what are you doing in the circus?” NATO must learn to handle the three rings, militarily and politically. In this case, NATO members must deal with the economic realities at home and the need to ensure that alliance capacity remains relevant. But they must also address the third ring — a ring that extends past Europe and into Africa and Asia. The NATO Alliance remains transatlantic at its core, but it must recognize that its solidarity requires a more global perspective.

Mark Jacobson is a Senior Advisor to the Truman Project.  This post originally appeared on the GMF Blog.