Europe is killing NATO

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Julian Lindley-French
Julian Lindley-French

Director of Europa Analytica in the Netherlands, Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. and a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

A Canadian one-time Prime Minister once said that, “NATO heads of state and of government meet only to go through the tedious motions of reading speeches, drafted by others, with the principal objective of not rocking the boat”.  Pretty much the same thing will be witnessed at this week’s NATO summit in Wales, unless Europeans have a change of mind about their meagre defence budgets in this time of crisis.

Leaders will indeed meet and certainly make big sounding noises about Readiness Action Plans, Open Doors and the like.  ‘Success’ will of course be declared in Afghanistan, Russia will be ‘warned’ (again) about its aggression in Ukraine, the Americans will, as ever, complain about a lack of military burden-sharing and someone at some point will re-tell that horribly old joke about NATO-EU co-operation.

‘Solidarity’ and ‘Strategy’ will be the two words worn down into irrelevance by the time the Summit concludes as ‘benchmarks’ will be declared and ‘watersheds’ reached.  Then the leaders will leave and return to the mini-theatre of their own immediate political realities in which NATO plays but a bit part.  Once grand affairs there is something sadly formulaic these days about grand gatherings of the Alliance; small leaders failing to leave a big footprint on a large, global stage.  Quite simply, North Americans and Europeans (and Europeans and Europeans) do not even agree about the nature of threat let alone the role and utility of military force therein.

NATO is finding it ever more difficult to work together due to differing levels of defence investment

And yet this is a big moment if for no other reason than the fact that most European leaders are in complete and utter denial about how fast the military balance of power is tipping away from NATO…and the consequences for Europe.  The facts speak for themselves. According to Global Firepower China grew its defence budget by 12.7% in 2013 the latest year-on-year double digit increase since 1989.  Russia is now spending 20% of all public investment on defence and is spending some €591bn by 2020 to modernise its armed forces, a portion of which are today being used against Ukraine.

The bad news just goes on getting ‘better’.  According to U.S. analyst Hans Binnendijk NATO is even finding it ever more difficult to work together due to differing levels of defence investment.  Indeed, whilst the U.S. invests roughly €76,000 per soldier per annum, Europeans on average invest only €18,000.  Much of Europe’s defence budget goes on personnel and pensions rather than equipment.  The U.S. invests over 40% of its defence budget on new equipment.

Brussels would be better-advised to scrap the entire Belgian military and invest the money in education and healthcare so weak is Belgium’s contribution to both NATO and EU security and defence efforts

According to the Financial Times last year the Belgian Armed Forces invested 2.7% of an already laughably small defence budget. Indeed, Brussels would be better-advised to scrap the entire Belgian military and invest the money in education and healthcare so weak is Belgium’s contribution to both NATO and EU security and defence efforts.

The best is left to last; according to IHS Janes thirteen of the world’s top twenty defence-shredders can today be found in Europe.  Since 2012 NATO Europe has cut budgets by €71bn.  This is addition to the up to 30% defence cuts that took place between 2008 and 2012.

The usual ‘guff’ will be trotted out in Wales about NATO’s demise being forever predicted but the ‘bullet’ being forever dodged.  However, NATO looks increasingly like one of those old soldiers who never die but simply fade away and fade away fast.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Wales may not mark the end of NATO nor even the end of NATO’s beginning, but unless all of NATO’s Europeans get defence-serious Wales could well mark the beginning of the end…yes really!

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