By promoting the 'Smart Defense' framework, NATO returns to waters it has failed to navigate before. Sharing the burdens more equally, increasing efficiency through extended cooperation, and closing the 'Atlantic gap' these phrases have all been heard before. With the current financial crisis and the corresponding defence cuts, such problems have however become acute. In response, Secretary General Rasmussen established the principles of cooperation, specialization and prioritization as the building blocks of a strategy for dealing with times of austerity. But only by relying upon the demand and conviction of members might such a policy be more successful than in the past.
A smart strategy to seize the moment
The idea behind Smart Defense, getting more security for less money, sounds attractive, but its implementation relies heavily on further security cooperation and integration. States have always been highly suspicious of this, and such projects are therefore highly complex, politically controversial and difficult to manage. Ironically enough, the financial crisis has also created opportunities to overcome these classical obstacles.
For example, as can be observed with the agreements between the UK and France, states are more and more willing to work together in order to save money. This implies that there is room for a plan like Smart Defense. These separate arrangements however also demonstrate that states are exploring different options to do more with less. NATO should remain wary that it is not left with faits accomplis. It needs to realise that Smart Defense is only one possible way for states to seek military strength at a cheaper price.
The project must therefore rely on a 'smart strategy'. Because integration is hard to enforce, Smart Defense is constructed as a bottom up policy, and so it should remain. NATO countries must be convinced that this is the most beneficial way to downsize military spending in a relatively painless way. Key to such a smart strategy would therefore be maintaining a proactive presence at both the military and political level. The promotional role played by special representatives Stéphane Abrial and Claudio Bisogniero is indeed one step in the right direction, but more is needed.
Offering the best deal
One critical aspect of a smart strategy would be the pursuit of a ‘best deal policy’. This means actively seeking out members and partners that have plans for cooperation and offering them a custom made plan that encourages specialization and prioritization within the NATO framework. Such a policy does not force anything upon states, but only responds to the demands voiced by individual states. NATO should simply make sure that it puts the best project possible on the table. Luckily, it has a number of features it can use to support such propositions: economy of scale, expertise, and its role as a liaison.
Firstly, if states consider joint purchases, NATO should actively search for other interested members or partners to lower the costs. Through its contacts with the defence industry, NATO should be able to promote a lucrative deal that might deviate from countries’ original preferences but has the advantages of being cheaper and complemented by the assets of other NATO countries. In the process of creating such buyer-packs, the Alliance can exert influence on the capabilities those states will acquire and make sure that they fit in a NATO-lead cooperation scheme.
A second important asset that would guarantee a best deal to states is the expertise available within NATO. Military cooperation and integration are complex processes, and the Alliance has undoubtedly the most experience in exploring these issues. The second part of a best deal would therefore be to offer practical assistance to governments trying to achieve money-saving cooperation. Such a proposal would be very attractive, as this expertise would lower the actual costs of the operation by removing for example a trial and error phase.
A final part of the best deal policy would be to play the role of enabler or coupling agent. States considering cooperation might be presented with candidates they had hitherto not yet considered, or the achievement of an agreement already under way might be facilitated through NATO diplomacy. This would again lower the costs of achieving beneficial agreements for states, as they do not have maintain all contacts or figure out every detail by themselves.
Although the current financial problems might have been caused by too much faith in the logic of the market, NATO might use these ideas to support Smart Defense. A best deal policy would use three of the main advantages the Alliance has to offer, and ensure that the typical problems of enforcing military integration are avoided by responding only to requests from members themselves.
So as long as we see an increased demand for cheap but effective militaries, NATO's best shot to make Smart Defense work is simply by guaranteeing the best supply.
Bram De Ridder graduated from the KULeuven with a master in history. He currently studies international relations at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.