NATO is Not a Real Military Actor

July 2, 2015

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Without the United States, NATO is hollow — capability-wise and in strategic purpose.

Recently published NATO defense statistics reveal the poor state of European defense capabilities and spending. Only four out of 26 European NATO member-states spend the minimum level needed to train and equip a credible fighting force — namely 2 percent of annual GDP. Faced with the Russian revival and the ongoing crisis over Ukraine, NATO’s European member-states are spending too little on defense to even start rebuilding the military capability lost over the last 20 years, during which NATO has focused on military operations of choice out-of-area. Particularly the European member-states of NATO lack the capability to deter a large-scale military attack against one or more member-states. And should such an attack take place, “European NATO” lacks the capability to counter such an attack.

While most (read: European) NATO states have enjoyed cashing in on the post-Cold War “peace dividend” since the early 1990s by divesting of force structure and slashing defense spending, Russia and China have been allocating significant resources to their militaries for more than a decade. And these days, Russian and Chinese investments seem to be bearing fruit: Both states have changed their demeanor in international politics towards more assertive — or aggressive — policies. This is most obvious in the Ukrainian crisis and in the East and South China Seas. In short, while most European states have been disarming themselves in order to focus on multinational military crisis management with mostly symbolic troop contributions, Russia and China have focused on their great-power projects, which have been based on creating real military capability for deterrence, traditional war-fighting and military coercion. Naturally, the Russian great-power project is the one that NATO as an organization and its member-states individually are most fixated on — and influenced by.

Since the signing of the Washington Treaty by 12 countries in April 1949, NATO as an organization has developed into a heterogeneous 28-member-state bureaucratic monster, with hundreds of working groups and committees. And during the last 20 years, NATO has been more or less drifting without a clear strategic purpose or direction. The dissolution of the Soviet threat and the adoption of the policies of engagement, enlargement, and going out-of-area since the end of the Cold War have resulted in a loss of strategic and geographic focus. It has also led to the devaluation of the commitment to collective defense, once enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which commits member-states to “assist the Party or Parties so attacked … if such an armed attack occurs. …”

The often-cited Article 5 stipulates that after a member-state of NATO has been attacked, other member-states assist the attacked ally with the means they — individually or collectively — deem necessary. The essence of this assistance can be anything from issuing a political declaration to deploying military forces. The problem for the European NATO states is that there is not so much to deploy — at least not quickly or in a concerted manner.

It is difficult to see how intra-alliance confidence in the collective defense clause can remain strong, even with NATO adopting an expeditionary mindset dealing with the so-called new threats of the globalizing world order. Particularly the new member-states of the Alliance have for years argued for more concrete and credible arrangements to bolster their very limited military capabilities vis-à-vis an increasingly assertive and militarily more capable Russia.

Indeed, polls give cause for concern about the credibility of Article 5 assurances. As a recent Pew Research Center poll showed, “Roughly half or fewer in six of the eight countries surveyed say their country should use military force if Russia attacks a neighboring country that is a NATO ally.” The same poll revealed that almost 70 percent of respondents in the eight countries surveyed believed that the United States would use its military to defend an ally in an Article 5 situation. Capability — with the superpower tradition of actively using military force around the world — begets credibility. In addition, the Pew Research Center poll shows that receiving help is appreciated, whereas helping others militarily in times of crisis is not so valued — at least in Europe.

Before Russia’s capture of Crimea in early 2014, these demands stimulated no real change. NATO did not even start contingency planning for the Baltic States and Poland after they joined the Alliance. In addition, European NATO member-states have, year after year, cut their military capabilities as they have “gone professional” — moving from conscription-based militaries to all-volunteer professional forces — and “going techno” by further cutting military manpower despite not committing defense spending to new high-technology military equipment in any significant quantities. As an example, most European NATO member-states spend between 50 and 80 percent of their military expenditure on personnel and only 10–20 percent on equipment. Thus, many — if not most — European states have an unhealthy military spending ratio between personnel, operations, and procurement. And after several years, this means lower capabilities and too few major military systems.

In addition, there are no separate strategic interests of NATO that could be fulfilled apart from the interests and actions of its member-states. The truth is that the Secretary General and the Chairman of the Military Committee — and a bunch of other NATO officials and actors — can persuade, plead and ask, but they cannot make any significant or binding decisions related to the use of military force within the territory of the Alliance, or elsewhere. It is the task of the member-states of NATO to bolster their own defenses and capabilities. This is the only way for NATO to retain the significance it once had in the arrangements of international security.

It is true that NATO has “woken up” during the last year and a half — after Vladimir Putin marched his troops into Crimea. The United States — the dominant member-state of the Alliance — has moved and increased its level of rotational forces to Eastern Europe. And NATO has developed a “spearhead force,” deciding to bolster the NATO Response Force (NRF). Given these changes, some may say that NATO’s real problem is spending defense money wastefully and in an uncoordinated fashion, or that duplication of military capabilities in Europe is the problem, blaming these things for Europe’s inability to deliver any significant military capability.

But the recent “NATO awakening” on account of Russian aggression does not compensate for NATO’s hollow essence. NATO as an organization is neither a monolith nor a strategic actor with singular “North Atlantic” strategic interests. NATO is a forum of planning, consultation, and political debate between highly variegated states with very different security priorities and domestic political traditions and conditions. As such, NATO is not a real military actor. Similarly, Europe is not an actor that could define clear “European strategic interests.” As I have argued, military-wise, there is no Europe.


Lt. Col. (GS), Dr.Pol.Sc. Jyri Raitasalo is a Docent of Strategy and Security Policy at the Finnish National Defence University. Previously he has served as research officer, lecturer and head lecturer at the Department of Strategic and Defence Studies at the Finnish National Defence University.


Photo credit: U.S. Army Europe

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4 thoughts on “NATO is Not a Real Military Actor

  1. The author’s analysis understandably focuses on Russia, against which the alliance has traditionally been a foil. What the author omits is the pathetic state of Russian forces, particularly conventional forces but also its nuclear forces to some degree. Russia’s occupation of South Ossetia in 2008, which is smaller than Rhode Island (if you include Abkhazia, still smaller than Connecticut) only succeeded by use of overwhelming force, and left a long string of broken down military vehicles on the single road from Russia. The annexation of Crimea was similarly accomplished using largely irregular warfare methodology, as have operations in Eastern Ukraine, because Russian conventional forces simply do not have the strength to stage a sustained conventional invasion. The Kremlin has done an admirable job of masking those facts and playing up the public perception of their resurgence, but I question the wisdom of fearing a Russian incursion into NATO-allied territory. That leaves Russia’s nuclear arsenal as its only equalizer, and even if we take the politics of renewed Tu-95 flights seriously, the American, British, and French nuclear deterrents still undermine Russia’s credibility. China’s a slightly different animal, less smoke and mirrors, but more overestimation of capabilities. There’s also the question of economic leverage derived from Russia’s energy exports to Europe (which played a big role in keeping Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO in the first place).

    I don’t think there’s any reasonable argument that the European NATO members shouldn’t be maintaining at least a minimal degree of readiness, though convincing insular European electorates of that is another matter entirely. There used to be a case for America providing the bulk of Europe’s defense in exchange for European economic support, but as schizophrenic as Europe’s economic performance has been in recent years, the continued rationality of that model is increasingly questionable. Aside from a Russian incursion/invasion into NATO territory, which seems unlikely, I question whether anything will give NATO enough of a unified purpose to awaken the European partners from their collective “peace dividend” euphoria – which, if we’re being quite honest, preceded 1991 by a number of years.

    1. “What the author omits is the pathetic state of Russian forces, particularly conventional forces but also its nuclear forces to some degree.” -Pathetic is an understatement! The Russian Federation is a spent force… a paper tiger as Asians would say. It’s capable of undertaking only a single comprehensive operation at a time. Because of this there has been some speculation among emigres that the Donbass Operation would become completely untenable if an internal conflict broke out between the Chekists of the FSB and the forces of the Chechen Viceroy Ramzan Kadyrov. And/or an alternate scenario where just such a sudden internal conflict would/could be used as an excuse to rapidly withdraw from the Donbass, rally the people’s patriotism against an internal threat, and allow the Kremlin to save face all at once.

      As for the pathetic state of the nuclear forces some weeks ago in a comment I posted this link to a posting by the eminent scholar Paul Goble:

      One has to remember that in the USSR engineers of all kinds served a sort of formal apprenticeship under more senior engineers after finishing their initial degree. The last generation of such fully trained Russian engineers to go through the system before it was completely gutted in the 1990’s is now 50+ keeping in mind that the average Russian male doesn’t live much past 60.

      And because they are now at increasing risk of not being able to keep up routine maintenance of their nuclear forces (let alone replace them with something new) leaves us in a dangerous situation where they will increasingly threaten to use them. Use them before they loose them.

  2. For another alternate viewpoint of the Russian situation vis-à-vis NATO (again by way of Paul Goble):
    The internal link to the original Russian language article from the Ukrainian Gordon news agency is broken. Here is the correct link roughly translated by Google:

    Beyond the Russian situation any discussion of NATO must also mention Turkey (they are the second largest fighting force in the alliance if judged by brute numbers of men under arms). And any discussion of Turkey within NATO currently has to broach such uncomfortable topics as whether or not Erdoğan is becoming a tyrant himself as some in the opposition there speak of the Erdoğan government undergoing a ‘Putinization’ along with a lessening of the secularism that Turkey had been known for since the 1920’s that must have Mustapha Kemal rolling over in his grave.

    Lastly for any current discussion of NATO and it’s purpose today is the Libya situation. Will it drag on and get bad enough that NATO warplanes will have to act in concert with Egyptian and Algerian ground forces to pacify and occupy that currently ungovernable zone on Europe’s doorstep. If for nothing else then to curtail the unsustainable flow of refugees in little boats and to lessen the likelihood of transnational criminal and/or terrorist groups like ISIS establishing major launch pads a hop, skip, and a stone’s throw from Italy and Greece.

  3. Oops! My Russian reading skills have grown quite rusty so I’m used to automatically using machine translation to help sift through these kinds of articles; I failed to notice the little English icon on the far right revealing a full English translation of the GordonUA article I linked to in the second comment above: