Over the last few months, disagreements among NATO member states have been magnified by struggles in Afghanistan and reports on the intervention in Libya. The United States is growing tired of European militaries free-riding on American resources, and Europe is unwilling to spend the money required to fill in the gaps of its defense capabilities. This May, NATO leaders will convene in Chicago for the 2012 NATO Summit to address these disagreements that currently haunt the world's largest defense alliance. These public statements, when combined with an inability to reach a consensus on the core mission of NATO, could snarl discussions at the summit next month.
In order to address these sentiments, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen introduced Smart Defense as a new concept for NATO members. Smart Defense is the Secretary General's latest attempt to reinvigorate the political will of member states towards pooling and sharing of defense capabilities. The idea of pooling and sharing is by no means a new concept; it has been mentioned for the last 20 years within the walls of NATO's headquarters in Brussels. Now, the Secretary General asks NATO members to draw upon their specialized capabilities to mitigate the effects defense cuts are having on NATO's goal of collective security.
Smart Defense is an insightful strategy, and if properly implemented could greatly decrease capability gaps and minimize spending. However, the problem with pooling and sharing is that it competes with concerns of state sovereignty - giving up the monopoly of the use of force. In the security field, nations tend to be protective about when and where their capabilities are deployed. NATO states are not going to sign "assurance of availability" contracts when they disagree on how, when, and where forces will be deployed. The debate between Germany,which prefers soft power and diplomacy, and the United States or the United Kingdom is a strong example of this disagreement within NATO. In order for Smart Defense to work, members need to agree on when shared NATO capabilities should be deployed. This boils down to reaching a consensus on NATO's new purpose, or mission, now that its original purpose, collective defense against the Soviet Union as an existential threat to Europe, has been diffused.
So, how do you get an alliance, set up on the basis of collective defense against an existential threat, to agree on a core mission, when such an imminent threat no longer exists? The answer lies in identifying core new security threats. These threats, such as protecting transatlantic trade routes, cyber defense, and terrorism, may not directly affect the territory of European member states. Yet, they do affect the core interests of European member states. Next month, the leaders of NATO member states should make it a top priority to draft a list of achievable and realistic security concerns. In doing so, NATO needs to limit its scope of missions to regional security priorities of its member states.
In times of financial austerity, it is important to focus on where the alliance has been successful. Securing Mediterranean trade routes, the Atlantic Ocean, and air patrols over the Black Sea are all examples of regional concerns that have been addressed successfully by cooperative missions. However, NATO missions that have reached beyond the territorial grasp of the alliance have not achieved preferable results - Afghanistan being the latest crucible of this trend.
Drawing down the list of potential deployments of shared capabilities will allow NATO to draft a narrower, more purposeful mission for the future of the alliance. In turn, this will help facilitate understanding and agreement between member states on when pooled capabilities would be deployed in the future, and reduce concerns of national sovereignty. Unless NATO membership is confident enough in the alliance to concede monopoly of use of force, the Secretary General's concept of Smart Defense will continue being a catch phrase.
The key for NATO, in securing a future for itself, is encouraging nations to pool their defense capabilities towards regional security priorities. However, NATO members will never get on the "boat" if they cannot agree on when to use the "boat." Member states must agree on when shared resources will be deployed. Ultimately, the existential threat to NATO is an alliance that attempts to reach beyond its own grasp.
Zachary Toal is currently an Intern at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's (SIPRI) newest North America office in Washington, D.C. Despite relocating to Washington, he remains a senior undergraduate at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying Contemporary European Studies and Peace, War and Defense.
Zachary Toal, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) North America. The views expressed in this Op-ed are the author's and do not represent SIPRI North America.