Assessing Transatlantic Risks: The Erosion of Allied Solidarity

Approaching its summit in Chicago in May, NATO is desperately looking for a positive message to spread. But there’s little good news to be found on all major fronts.

Intentions to paint a picture of success in Afghanistan while conducting its own withdrawal are being overrun by events on the ground.  The missile defense plans that aimed at creating a new, uniting project have increased rather than eased tensions with Russia. The revision of the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) lacks political consensus. The Secretary General’s efforts to enact much needed structural reforms of NATO’s HQ, agencies, command structures, and budgetary processes are slow and do not meet member states’ approval. And the Smart Defense Initiative heavily promoted by Ambassador Bisogniero and General Abrial lacks meat on its bones. Even the victorious celebrations after the completion of Operation Unified Protector in Libya were overshadowed by sober assessments of capability shortfalls.

In short, there are no deliverables in sight.

Some will say that lack of consensus has always been the case before summits and the Alliance will get its act together on time. However, beyond the smiling faces of the family portrait that will be taken in Chicago, something is looming on the horizon: the slow erosion of Alliance solidarity.

It is true that warning sirens of NATO’s demise are almost as old as the institution itself. And NATO is still alive—some would even argue more so than ever. After all, it is a popular club to belong to: twenty-eight member states, with numerous aspiring candidates knocking at the door. Founding members show that NATO is no unattractive bunch: France fully reintegrated, no member state has publicly considered leaving the Alliance, and no country seems to be “pulling-a-Cameron.” Even the U.S., NATO’s backbone and long-time bill payer, has shown continuous commitment. Public speeches suggesting otherwise aim to serve as a wake-up call for European partners to step up efforts for a common project rather than indications that the U.S. is leaving. Even though its strategic defense guidance shows a shifting focus toward the Asia-Pacific region, there is little indication that the U.S. plans to abandon the transatlantic idea of a defense community. Quite the contrary: The reduction of its military footprint in Europe was less drastic than many had feared. The U.S. is telling Europe to step up its own efforts and carry more burdens, rightly so. The message is: We’re in this together, let’s go.

Another proof of NATO’s vitality is operations. Yes, success is a matter of great interpretation, but the mere existence of its numerous operations gives NATO a sound argument of irreplaceability: ISAF, Ocean Shield, and KFOR. Some would argue that these missions should not have been started in the first place, but few would argue these operations could be conducted without NATO. Militarily, NATO’s balance sheet is not all that negative. Problems winding down missions are more political than military. Operation Unified Protector is seen as an overall success for NATO—despite its shortfalls, military capabilities, and the lack of broad political support.

So what’s the problem? Why are the sirens louder than ever? NATO’s problems are more fundamental than ever before, they touch the very ground of allied solidarity and, with that, NATO’s backbone.

Three developments are particularly alarming: NATO’s inability to define its core raison d’être in the twenty-first century and draw up strategic priorities beyond the lowest common denominator; NATO’s unwillingness to engage in a true lessons learned process of the out of area adventure; and member states’ lack of commitment and political will to shoulder more burden is slowly but surely maneuvering NATO toward a very real solidarity crisis.

Raison d’être

While the Alliance has agreed through its Strategic Concepts of 1999 and 2010 that it is still vital to promote peace and security, it has a hard time finding answers to the complex challenges of today’s security environment. Emerging security issues are being addressed through a newly created division in the HQ on “emerging challenges.” However, apart from the cyber domain there’s little political consensus on whether NATO should be addressing these new risks at all and, if it should, how it could possibly do so. Among an alliance of twenty-eight, there is a fundamental divergence in threat perception when it comes to “new” challenges such as cyber security, energy security, climate issues, and terrorism. Some allies have already experienced firsthand the consequences of threats hitting home, while others find the mere thought far too abstract to work with (e.g., cyber). Overall there is a deep rift among member states over what a challenge is and what the answer could look like. In the case of energy security for example, some see Russia as the problem; for others, it’s the solution. Cyber security for some means protecting own networks and infrastructures, while for others cyber space is a great new military sphere that must involve the development of offensive capabilities. These crucially diverging threat perceptions bear the tendency to pull allies further and further apart.

NATO’s outreach to new partners is another fundamental issue of concern: while NATO relies both politically and militarily on these global partners to cooperate on the ground in missions such as ISAF, Unified Protector, and the fight against piracy, it has little to offer in return. Offering a path to membership is often not an option, and there are few carrots left. There has been a slow learning process when it comes to granting these partners a seat at the table and sharing necessary information when missions are debated, but beyond talk there’s not much to offer. NATO has turned from a powerful provider into a dependent receiver.

It has become a cliché to point out that pace and unpredictability of change challenges strategic thinking on a whole new level. But that does not make the statement less true. NATO’s collective and member states’ individual ability to understand and adapt to “external shocks,” new truisms, and an über-complex international system is limited—to put it mildly. Tendencies of new isolationist thinking and the resurgence of nationalist agendas cast a shadow over the Alliance’s future as a collaborative problem solver even more.

NATO’s raison d’être is under serious scrutiny. Its member states don’t agree on what solidarity might mean under new challenges. If NATO does not engage in a continuing and open strategic dialogue on its core objectives, it will lose its strongest asset: allied solidarity.

Lessons Learned: Afghanistan

A second reason for concern is that the Alliance seems both unwilling and unable to learn lessons from its past and present missions. However, the only way to grow stronger is to learn from the changed realities of military missions. With its core aim to promote peace and stability, few actors willing to engage unilaterally, and even fewer alternative organizations that could or would step in militarily, future NATO operations are more likely than not. These can only be operationally successful and result in strengthening NATO if the organization learns from past failures.

Currently, NATO allies are busy painting a portrait of success in Afghanistan—a task becoming almost as difficult as winning the war itself. The fatigue with the war is understandable and one cannot but be utterly disappointed with the way the Afghanistan conflict has unfolded. A militarily tired and financially strained international community will leave a disillusioned and bitter Afghan public in 2014 (or in 2013 or 2015). The withdrawal is set in stone.

Beyond the question of what Afghanistan will look like once the international community has abandoned it with an imploding economy built on Western aid that has enriched a largely corrupt elite, not significantly improved the living conditions of the average Afghan, and left the young and once-hopeful disillusioned and without a vision—the question that must dominate NATO allies’ agenda for the summits and meetings to come is: What can we learn from all this? What does this mean for future missions? Where is our added-value? And where are our limitations?

Instead, ISAF is putting more efforts into messaging than into actions on the ground and shows little intention to self-reflect. The necessary talks and negotiations with the insurgents have served merely as yet another legitimation to leave rather than a true effort to pacify a war-torn place. Already, allies are talking more about the logistics of the pull-out than about where to stay and what to do with the time left. And the size of the Afghan National Security Forces is talked about purely under the umbrella of financial constraints to fund them, rather than what might be needed to secure and stabilize Afghan territory. All current efforts are dedicated toward the withdrawal or, as a high-ranking member of the international community in Afghanistan put it: Transition is like a Swiss train, it comes no matter what.

With the revised strategy and renewed efforts starting militarily with General Stanley McChrystal and politically with the Obama administration, the mission finally managed to meet goals with resources and strategy with tactics: the recognition that security is paramount and no amount of aid can stabilize the country alone; the confession that tactical gains might not matter or even be counter-productive if there is no clear strategy and no political progress; and the realistic definition of what success in Afghanistan could mean. However, developments on the home-front—such as looming elections and crunching budgets—nullified the promising strategic revision. The undeniable fact that the withdrawal was not conditions-based anymore served as a sharp needle to the balloon of hope. The dilemma of the competing messages for domestic audiences  (We’re bringing them home) and the Afghan public (We’re not leaving you alone) turns every good intention into a flawed endeavor.

But there is much to learn from and from all this; NATO must get more in return than mission fatigue.  Obama recently said in an interview: “It’s important for us to make sure that we get out in a responsible way, so that we don’t end up having to go back in.”[1] That is true. But NATO will more likely than not go in to other scenarios in the future. Therefore it’s important to engage in a serious lessons learned process to not repeat similar mistakes. Just to name a few lessons: the need for clear and realistic goals, a strategy, and credible resources; the importance of security sector reform and its complexities; the importance of governance and legitimacy and the recognition that the international community lacks solid instruments; that comprehensive approach is not just a label but a serious challenges, etc. Only if NATO faces this difficult self-reflection, establishes criteria for success, and recognizes its own limits before reaching them will it be able to execute future missions successfully.

Commitment Problem

The third and potentially biggest nut to crack is member states’ lack of commitment and political will to shoulder more burden and the coinciding defense budget cuts everywhere. Even though there are intentions to coordinate the cuts and turn the financial constraints into opportunities to grow closer together, the pace of the cuts will likely be too quick for the slow and tedious process of multilateral coordination. The result, some warn, will be twenty-eight armed forces so thinned out that cooperation will become impossible, when necessary points of interaction and linkage have been phased out before consulting others. This is no futuristic nightmare but can already be observed in its initial stages across Europe.

The financial crisis and its implications for defense policy is not an overlooked challenge, it is becoming an over-analyzed one. However, the consequences austerity could potentially have for the transatlantic alliance does not seem to be understood fully. Or its implications are so huge and complex that it leads to inaction due to utter helplessness. The consequences that transatlantic austerity will have on NATO’s core ability to provide security for its member states—if security is understood by being able to conduct out of area missions—is already dramatic.

The extent to which national capitals are undergoing ambitious structural reforms of their respective armed forces bears reason to believe that rusty systems are indeed adaptable, if they are forced to. However, structural reforms remain for now national endeavors. Cuts in defense budgets vary greatly and range from 5 to 30 percent among some member states. Defense cuts are not necessarily a negative thing. They can lead to a leaner, more effective and flexible toolbox by forcing member states into mutual procurement and long-term interoperability. The problem and the opportunities have been identified, as NATO’s Smart Defence and the EU’s Pooling and Sharing projects show. However, these well-intended projects run the risk of not meeting sufficient action by member states, just like the many well-intended cooperation projects in the past such as the Prague Capabilities Initiative (NATO) and the Helsinki Headline Goals (EU).

In an op-ed published in The New York Times on 3 February 2012, NATO analyst and security expert Hans Binnendijk wrote that “the real long-term risk to NATO is that gaps will appear in the European force structure that the U.S. won’t be able to fill, and that the alliance will be unable to react in a future crisis.”[2] There is little strategic foresight on what blind cuts today mean for the security of tomorrow. It’s not about spending more on defense. It is about an open debate on what NATO should serve as and be able to bring to the table in the future. It’s about the coordination of efforts and the pooling of resources to achieve the agreed goals. Binnendijk writes that NATO’s leaders need to achieve consensus on a “prioritization,” write up a “must-have” priority list, and adapt both capabilities and R&D investment to this new prioritization. Many other ideas are on the table how practical steps can lead to better systematic cooperation, but both institutional paralysis and national inaction hamper the process. Strong political leadership, a profound change of mindset, continuous commitment, and the willingness to act are needed—but are nowhere in sight.

Strategic Focus: How to Avoid the Erosion of Allied Solidarity

Institutions like NATO and the EU have little ability to think strategically. Decision-making bodies such as the North Atlantic Council (NAC) are too occupied with the daily operational business to engage in strategic and open-ended debates. Summits have long served as acts of political self-reassuring for the member states. This might not be enough this time.

I have outlined that while many problems are as old as the Alliance itself, this crisis is more fundamental. Beyond celebrating laurels of the past, NATO member states need to start thinking in strategic options and answer crucial questions such as what they want NATO to be able to deliver in the future and what can be compromised. Global power shifts are being accelerated by economic and financial realities and NATO leaders seem not to have understood the implications in their entirety. Only by answering questions about the costs of non-NATO and what the comparative advantage of NATO is in the twenty-first century, can honest answers be found to the fundamental challenges the Alliance is facing. Asking existential questions and embarking on a true strategic discourse always bears the risk of pulling allies even further apart. But the alternative is the slow yet certain loss of consensus and capabilities. Facing tough questions might pull NATO apart, but it bears the even greater chance to reach new common ground.

This requires leadership, which is in short supply in NATO these days. The U.S. is trying to lead from behind. Germany, meanwhile, has been pushed into a leadership role by the European debt crisis it still struggles with, and is unlikely to exert that leadership within NATO let alone in the military domain. Quite the contrary, recent decisions in German politics when it comes to military engagement seem to suggest: we take care of security monetarily, somebody else can do the military part. But leadership is no pick-and-choose game.


Ann-Kristin Otto is a military and security policy adviser to the parliamentary group Alliance 90/ The Greens in the German Bundestag. The views reflected in this essay are her own, and do not reflect the views of the parliamentary group or Alliance 90/ The Greens.

[2] Hans Binnendijk, “A leaner NATO needs a tighter focus,” The New York Times, 3 February 2012,

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.