The problem with NATO, both at present and for the foreseeable future, is that its member states have contrasting and competing ideas of what threats are, how these threats effect respective countries' national interests and capabilities, and whether or not there is an Allied approach to ensuring that threats are dealt with in ways that compliment these national interests and capabilities.
In a post-Cold War era there is no clear or prominent common adversary that countries can justify allocating resources to combatting through NATO. We can speak in abstract terms of grand strategies and battle spaces, about duty, commonality, responsibility to our partners and Allies and common goals - but the reality on the ground is that questions are asked by citizens of their political leaders that throw a substantial curve ball into the equation: "Why should we pay taxes for operations that don't give us enough in return?", "Why should our hard work be used for other countries' gains?", "What tangible benefits do we get in return for reduced independence?". Essentially, there needs to be an understanding within NATO that each State has a set of internal political, social and cultural dynamics that mean the specific costs and benefits of investing in a common defense mechanism have to be presented in both economic and political terms. Put simply, respective State leaders need to pursue policies that won't lose them votes or make them vulnerable domestically and NATO needs to pursue policies that allow this.
The problem is therefore clear: There hasn't been enough agreement between Allies on key strategic areas because there isn't enough team-work and consultation between all nations concerning these key strategic areas. This is not a great surprise, as the Allies main strength is perhaps currently what is proving to be its Achilles heal - the vast array of cultures, geographical positions, ideologies, strong national identities and character that it encompasses. Tense relations that have transpired between Allies and partner States on a bi-lateral level, such as the deterioration in relations between France and Turkey, Turkey and Israel and NATO and Pakistan, together with changing global dynamics due to the Arab Spring and shifting economic growth and strength, mean that member States are increasingly driven by a pragmatism that is not at present collectively shared. NATO needs to collectively formulate clear objectives based on a clear vision of the current global geopolitical dynamics, what its preferred geopolitical dynamics are, and how NATO operations can influence the implementation of those preferences together with defining exactly what strengths each individual nation brings to the Alliance and shaping strategies to incorporate this.
For States to fully commit to collective defense through NATO therefore there needs to be a re-appraisal of who the adversaries are that are facing NATO Allies over the coming decades, making a distinction between the threats faced by individual countries and threats faced collectively based on consultation between States. NATO operations need to be planned taking into account the internal differences between Allied States and Partners that effect their foreign policy choices as well as using differences as assets in ways that genuinely strengthen the place of the Alliance in global affairs. This requires the ability to make use of military assets in combination with a diplomacy that ensures these assets generate the greatest long-term impact and draw out other facets of NATO missions such as peacekeeping.
There is a difference between genuine investment in Smart Defense however and lip service to a strategy - for the former to be achieved States need to be involved in the foundations of the strategies Smart Defense looks to pursue and there needs to be a frank appraisal as to how much each State can realistically give relative to what they will realistically receive. States can find reassurance by finding, defining, and building joint values and interests that allow for strategies that encompass these joint values and interests. Every member of the Alliance justifies why it is indeed a member through the integrity and resolve they show in standing firm to ensure that aspects of their sovereignty that citizens hold dear are not compromised. It is simultaneously in this commitment and responsibility to national prosperity where the key to bringing nations into Smart Defense lies - to realize that differences between States can be used to achieve and maintain genuine influence by engaging in NATO operations that then enable the building of economic, cultural, ideological, and political ties that mean collectively less expenditure in the long-term for all Allies.
Bottom line: For nations to believe it is a smart choice to pursue Smart Defense, States need to define genuine common goals that each State can fully get behind rather than pay lip service to - this requires appreciating the differences and similarities of each.
Tabish Shah is a PhD Candidate at the University of Warwick in the Department of Politics & International Studies. Her work is funded by the Economic & Social Research Council, the UK's leading training and research agency for social scientists. She has also been a consultant within the UK Government's counter-terrorism strategy PREVENT, and has previously held secondments as a Specialist at the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee and its International Development Committee.