With the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) culminating in the London summit in early December, it has rightly triggered debate and reflection about the organisation’s future. The promise of collective security for all, in the face of Russian and, increasingly, Chinese belligerence, is as central to allied national security policies today as it was in 1949.
More than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the international rules-based system, underpinned by the United States (US), the United Kingdom (UK), and the rest of NATO, is being challenged by the rise of authoritarian states seeking to circumnavigate the very security which NATO has successfully guaranteed for the last 70 years.
To the east of Europe, and increasingly in the ‘Wider North’, an active and aggressive Russia is engaged in an anti-systemic offensive as a means to challenge more militarily powerful states, in addition to weaker ones who lack defences in critical infrastructure such as cyber space.
In the Middle East, the vacuum of an American withdrawal in favour of the Indo-Pacific has left Iran with more freedom to manoeuvre. Despite the reinstatement of sanctions, culminating in the illegal seizure of a British-flagged ship and the shipping crisis witnessed this summer across the Gulf, Iran has persisted to disturb the price of crude oil, international shipping and global trade more broadly.
To the far east, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is attempting to reassert itself as not only a regional power, but a global one too. From the ‘nine-dash line’ and the first and second island chains, to the ‘string of pearls’ it has created across the Indo-Pacific, Beijing’s military, particularly the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), is becoming more ambitious in its global reach, and more audacious in its strategy.
In order to meet these growing threats to Euro-Atlantic security interests, NATO needs to be more visible and active than at any time during the last 30 years. Fortunately, the alliance is presently in a robust place. Despite media reports of rifts between allies, there are multiple positive ‘sustain and develop’ points worth highlighting.
Much has been made of various allies’ low defence spending, and rightly so. Whilst some members spend considerably less than 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), there has been a significant rise in overall expenditure since the Wales Summit in 2014. At that point only two states spent over 2%: the UK and the US. Now, that figure has risen to seven, whilst 16 of the 19 remaining European allies have at least increased the percentage spent on defence – NATO Europe as a whole increasing defence spending by 18.5%.
This rise has been spearheaded by smaller European states on Europe’s flanks – the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia – in addition to Poland and Romania. It is these countries that face the greatest threat from Russian aggression and interference, and so have acted accordingly. Here lies a key development which the alliance as a whole must now embrace.
Individual allies urgently need to conduct a thorough and realistic appraisal of their own geostrategic position, correctly identifying those threats with the highest likelihood of becoming reality. Allies should then rebalance their own defence capabilities to meet such threats and challenges head-on, coordinated through a NATO-led strategy.
Fundamentally, NATO requires a reappraisal of its own long-term strategies, to correlate with the changing geostrategic realities that it cannot control.
Currently, this is an area that the UK and western Europe as a whole are failing in more than they are achieving. The UK’s decision to launch a new foreign, security and defence review in 2020, beginning with a thorough ‘net assessment’ of capabilities relative to its competitors, should be replicated across the alliance.
The spending increases and upskilling in capability are best exemplified by Lithuania, which has witnessed an astonishing 161% rise in real time defence spending over the last five years. Much more advanced economies including Germany, Italy and Spain, between them short-changing NATO by approximately $280 billion since 2014, are capable of a strategic rebalance in order to replicate the achievements made by smaller NATO members. This would strengthen the alliance as a whole, and lead to a tremendous uplift in capability.
In turn, the UK should encourage NATO to counter the emerging strategic challenges across three vectors during 2020:
- Sustain the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) across the Baltic states and Poland. Germany has announced a €110 million investment into its defence infrastructure in Lithuania, principally in barracks accommodation and training areas. Supporting the Baltic nations and Poland with the EFP is a NATO priority.
- Increase NATO capability in the ‘Wider North’, to counter growing Russian interest in what will soon become a vital geostrategic region dominated by energy interests. NATO has highly capable military units specially designed for Arctic warfare, including the UK’s 3 Commando Brigade. These units should be developed, with increased training opportunities for NATO’s northern allies, including the UK, Norway and Denmark.
- Where possible, NATO should plug any gaps in the International Maritime Security Construct operating out of Bahrain. That the UK and the US have taken the lead in this multinational effort against Iranian aggression towards international shipping lanes, is a testimony to their conviction of the rights to free and safe passage for commercial shipping. Despite all seven of the contingents’ navies operating vessels out of Bahrain, Commander Ben Keith, Head of Operations at IMSC, stated that ‘We can’t be in all places at all times’. NATO allies should be prepared to offer assistance to this mission, which is safeguarding international trade and commerce from further attacks and aggression. This is a task which Canada, Italy and Spain, with their capable navies and low-end existing NATO commitments, could facilitate should the will exist.
Fundamentally, NATO requires a reappraisal of its own long-term strategies, to correlate with the changing geostrategic realities that it cannot control. The threats and challenges to NATO, witnessed recently across eastern Europe with the invasion of Ukraine, in the Gulf with threats to international shipping, and in the Indo-Pacific with Chinese revisionism, should all be addressed.
As the UK seeks to hold a comprehensive strategic review in 2020, it too should look to raise its own defence spending and meet the growing demands of a highly unpredictable and competitive global system.
Already spending 2.13% of GDP on defence, the UK is often found at the fore of NATO operations, including leading the Enhanced Forward Presence, protecting allies such as Estonia, Poland and Romania.
Whilst much has been achieved since 2014, notably the rise in overall spending in European defence and the forward deployment of troops to NATO’s flanks, more needs to be done to ensure the stability and security of the Euro-Atlantic region. This must start with all members meeting the 2% of GDP spending target for their own defence.