NATO: Ready, Robust and Rebalanced?

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This article sheds light on NATO’s new security strategy “Smart Defence”, and the challenges it faces.

Since the end of the Cold War NATO’s role as a security hub has been under constant scrutiny. In recent years the alliance’s global security role has become ever more pressing, amid defence cuts within the member states, the US “pivot” to Asia, the withdrawal of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, its management of the Libyan crisis and, perhaps most alarmingly, the member states’ disagreement regarding the alliance’s future role. Consequently, NATO leaders have worked on shaping a clear strategy since last year’s NATO summit in Chicago, outlining the alliance’s global security role beyond Afghanistan, while addressing cuts in defence spending and the US shift of focus as well as coping with current and enduring security challenges.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, addressed the alliance’s future role in a speech in September at Carnegie Europe in Brussels in which he called for a “Ready, Robust and Rebalanced” NATO[i].

While reiterating NATO’s source of stability and the need to protect its values in a world in transition, the Secretary General stopped short of saying that the alliance is capable of responding to every crisis. Yet, Mr. Rasmussen stressed NATO’s unambiguous support for any ally or group of allies on which they can build their response to any crisis, while keeping in mind the need to remain ready for facing NATO’s next mission, which was outlined by three priorities:[ii]

     1) Maintain robust defence and deterrence.

     2) Reaffirm the bond between Europe and North America and rebalance their relationship.

     3) Bolster NATO’s global perspective and remain ready to work with partners and protect the alliance’s values in its region and beyond.

Considering the ever changing nature of collective defence – the threats and the means in addressing them – while simultaneously tackling numerous member states’ significant cuts in their defence spending, the Secretary General called for a widening and deepening in cooperation between the various allies and partners, through Smart Defence, which involves: “developing, acquiring and maintaining military equipment together in multilateral projects… prioritising, specialising and helping each other”.[iii]

While commending the European allies’ involvement in NATO operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, Mr. Rasmussen called for further commitment and a strong political dedication to match the contribution of their American counterparts.

Finally, the Secretary General emphasized that the US “pivot” to Asia is not at the expense of the transatlantic relationship, but rather is in the interest of Europe, as it also contributes to Europe’s security, pointing out that:

“Security today can only be cooperative security. Dialogue and cooperation with partners play an integral part in helping our understanding of world events – and in strengthening international stability and security. And we must now deepen our relationships, and widen our network.”[iv]

Despite the Secretary General’s optimistic views on NATO’s new cooperative security initiative, several issues remain unanswered, which is why prospects for a “Ready, Robust and Rebalanced NATO” seem remote.

Different partnerships

Cooperation between NATO and the EU on security-related issues seems inevitable due to their shared values, likeminded member states, and more importantly their functional reason. NATO and the EU have 22 members in common, and with a lack of unity between the two institutions, prospects for cooperation on security-related issues seem remote. Critics have, however, expressed concern regarding NATO-EU relations, as too many display restraint in some sort of zero-sum thinking to safeguard their interests, thereby marking the cooperation as incoherent, let alone incapable in facing threats and challenges in a world in transition.[v]

Consequently, club-building trends are emerging within Europe. The Visegrad Group is an alliance between Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia intended to further their economic, military and energy ties. The Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) is a defence collaboration among the Nordic countries (i.e. Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland), with the aim of strengthening defencive capabilities, within the context of national defence cuts, by pooling and sharing resources. Despite being relatively small in scope and size, NORDEFCO sheds some light on the difficulties encountered in cooperation between NATO and the EU.

Norway is a member state of NATO but not the EU, however it has signed a cooperation agreement with the European Defence Agency (EDA). Sweden, on the other hand, is not a member of NATO, but is a member of the EU and the EDA. Sweden is also a member of the LOI 6 – a collaboration between the six major defence manufacturers in Europe. Denmark is a member of NATO and the EU, but not a signatory to the EDA or LOI 6. Iceland is part of NATO and awaiting its bid to the EU, while Finland is a member of the EU and the EDA, but not NATO.

Hence, Norway, Denmark and Iceland are official parties to Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which states that an attack against one member shall be considered an attack against all signing parties, enabling the right to individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. However, Finland and Sweden’s international involvement is of a relatively small and non-binding nature, thus restraining a stronger, wider and deeper cooperation within the Nordic Countries, not to mention the EU and NATO. Aware of these challenges, former Norwegian Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs Thorvald Stoltenberg outlined several proposals to support the Nordic Defence Cooperation. Considering the need to address emerging transnational threats and challenges such as terrorism and Chinese presence in the resource rich Arctic, while coping with reduced defence spending, consolidating greater military cooperation between the Nordic Countries becomes ever more pressing.

“The Nordic governments should issue a mutual declaration of solidarity in which they commit themselves to clarifying how they would respond if a Nordic country were subject to external attack or undue pressure.”[vi]

Despite these promising steps to ensure greater military cooperation, it remains to be seen whether the Nordic Countries will adopt a Nordic Collective Defence initiative.

Pooling sovereignty 

NATO member states are quite familiar with the notion of pooling and sharing resources.

Since 1958, NATO’s Maintenance and Supply Agency (NAMSA) has been assisting member states in collaborating on spare parts and maintenance services for weapons systems. Member states benefit from this as they are able to pool orders and save money. However, it remains to be seen whether the Europeans and the Americans are willing to widen and deepen their cooperation on spending and sharing military capabilities. Even if the technical aspects of implementing Smart Defence can be handled through NATO agencies, the political issues nevertheless need to be addressed, particularly the deciding factor of managing ownership.

Various member states have vested technological and economic interests regarding their defence industries. As part of the fragmented military equipment market, European countries have been able to retain control over classified information, technology and economic opportunities from one another. As a result of this perpetual system, competition for military supplies has been limited to suppliers within national boundaries. The idea behind supporting and strengthening Smart Defence is an unambiguous ambition for an increased level of specialization and division of labour between the member states in order to cope with severe defence cuts. Therefore, instead of acquiring several defence industries, a new defence structure will imply a geographical redistribution in order to avoid producing the same products. Consequently, countries may take ownership in capability production, because surely no country is interested in the closure of an industry with substantial profit.

As these issues will reduce and increase the barriers for suppliers to cooperate with one another, governments’ desire to maintain complete autonomy over military and security issues will not cease. Consequently, national governments would protect their respective spheres of individual sovereignty, even if severely weakened, and would prefer to have incapable, independent militaries, rather than integrated and capable ones.[vii]

Conflicting interests 

The tensions between member states on national versus collective interests is certainly not a new phenomenon, but NATO’s interests in out-of-area missions such as Afghanistan have increased tensions within the alliance. Despite internal tensions during the Cold War, the alliance remained firm at its most critical moments because of a shared and fundamental assessment of an existential Soviet threat. However, since the end of the Cold War, NATO has transformed from a collective defencive alliance to a collective security alliance, thereby engaging in operations to tackle security challenges – something that member states did not anticipate when joining NATO. Consequently, individual members are displaying varying degrees of enthusiasm and participation in out-of-area missions, particularly the rigorous and difficult operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, revealed the complex challenges facing the alliance.

Finally, despite efforts from the Secretary General to promote NATO’s new security strategy, it remains to be seen whether the US pivot to Asia is really in the interest of Europe, and if the member states are ready for a wider and deeper NATO.

Photo credit: Carnegie Europe


[i] The Carnegie Endowment, NATO: Ready, Robust and Rebalanced, September 19, 2013, p. 2-3, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/2013-09-19_NATO.pdf

[ii] Ibid, p. 2-3

[iii] Ibid., p. 3

[iv] Ibid., p. 4

[v] The World Security Network, The European Union and NATO: Partnership or Rivalry? October 13, 2013, http://www.worldsecuritynetwork.com/Other/Varwick-Prof.-Dr.-Johannes/The-European-Union-and-NATO-Partnership-or-Rivalry

[vi] Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Iceland, Nordic Cooperation on Foreign and Security Policy, February 2009, p. 34, http://www.mfa.is/media/Frettatilkynning/Nordic_report.pdf

[vii] Centre for Military Studies, Get it Together: Smart Defence Solutions to NATO’s Compound Challenge of Multinational Procurement, February 2013, p. 15-16, http://cms.polsci.ku.dk/cms/getittogether/Get_it_Together.pdf/

About Author

Obaid Ul-Hassan

Obaid Ul-Hassan is a contributor at the International Security Observer (ISO). Obaid holds a Bachelors degree in Arabic & Business Communication, comprising a one year exchange at the University of Damascus, Higher Institute of Languages. He is pursuing an M.Sc. in International Security and Law at the University of Southern Denmark, also completing a one semester exchange at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs. Obaid is a former Junior Researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies, and a former project coordinator at the Danish Atlantic Treaty Association. Obaid is Danish native speaker and he is fluent in English and Urdu, and proficient in Arabic and German.

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