Can the New ‘Magi’ Save NATO?
“Some are born wise, some achieve wisdom, and some, I fear, have wisdom thrust upon them; we three seem to be in the last and most dangerous category,” observed Canadian Foreign Minister Lester Pearson, commenting on the committee of three foreign ministers — Pearson, Norway’s Halvard Lange and Italy’s Gaetano Martino — formed in 1956 to advise the North Atlantic Council on how to develop greater cooperation and unity among the allies.
Three weeks ago, 10 wise women and men set out to resuscitate NATO from what French President Emmanuel Macron called its political and strategic brain death. This is not going to be an easy task, as the 70-year-old alliance has been recently suffering from a double crisis of democracy and leadership — not to mention its old burden-sharing problem, “the foundation of everything NATO does,” which has seriously challenged NATO’s cohesion to an unprecedented level. The current narrative that frames burden-sharing as a budgetary issue will eventually become unsustainable, because the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will certainly not spare NATO burden-sharing. Shrunk national budgets and the new post-crisis social, economic, and political realities will undermine the idea that burden-sharing is about financial sharing. NATO allies need to abandon the obsession with defense accounting — the idea that all members should spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense — and instead boost the cooperative development of interoperable capabilities and force readiness.
As both the European and North American continents have been hard-hit by COVID-19, the governments will be busy restoring their national economies and improving public health systems, which will negatively affect their ability to increase national defense spending to 2 percent in the next four years — as NATO members agreed to do in 2014. This inability to meet the 2014 Wales defense investment pledge may further endanger already shaky trans-Atlantic solidarity. Rethinking NATO burden-sharing along the lines of Article III of the North Atlantic Treaty can emphasize the mutual-aid and sharing dimension of burden-sharing, moving it away from quantitative defense accounting.
Burden-Sharing Is More than Budget Sharing
On March 31, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg appointed the group of 10 experts — the new wise men and women — to reflect on NATO’s political dimension. This group is expected to come up with “recommendations to reinforce Alliance unity, increase political consultation and coordination between allies, and strengthen NATO’s political role,” as agreed at the NATO leaders’ meeting in London last December. Chaired by an American and a German, the expert group is gender balanced, though from a geographical perspective only Poland represents the former Eastern bloc that joined the alliance after 1989. The secretary-general will present the group’s recommendations during the next NATO summit in 2021.
The expert group resembles a 21st-century version of the “Three Wise Men,” a committee of three “biblical Magi” from Canada, Italy, and Norway, which was convened in 1956 to improve cooperation among the allies and develop greater internal solidarity within the Atlantic community. Back in the mid-1950s, NATO was primarily a military alliance focused on building its integrated command structure and drafting ambitious defense plans, in reaction to the outbreak of the Korean War. The 1956 report resulted in the adoption of political consultation among the alliance members, which eventually transformed NATO into the political and military collective defense alliance we know today.
Political and Strategic Dissonance in NATO
Setting up a reflection process that seeks expert advice on NATO’s future is a welcome development. NATO needs to improve its cohesion, which has been eroded by the dissonance among the allies over both the political and strategic priorities of NATO. The alliance should also resolve the clash between liberal internationalists (represented for instance by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada, Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, or Macron in France) and illiberal nationalists (Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, or Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński’s populist Law and Justice party in Poland), which poses a challenge to the alliance’s identity, as democracy is one of NATO’s core values, along with individual liberty and the rule of law.
What directly prompted the creation of the expert group was a controversial interview in the Economist last November, in which Macron declared that NATO was brain-dead. Although he received backlash for this blunt comment — which arrived after uncoordinated unilateral actions by the United States and Turkey in Syria — NATO was already suffering from a strategic schism between Eastern and Southern member countries. This divide concerns the different perceptions of the security environment among the allies, which creates a dilemma over how to allocate resources to address the diverging threat priorities of the alliance: improving the traditional deterrence and defense posture on NATO’s Eastern flank on the one hand, and addressing Southern challenges of instability and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa on the other. The “360-degree approach” put in place to address these diverging concerns has not managed to fully mitigate this strategic split.
This lack of coherent geopolitical thinking has been compounded by a major dispute over fair burden-sharing at NATO. Burden-sharing, usually understood as the distribution of costs, risks, and responsibilities among the alliance members, has been NATO’s recurrent problem. Yet since the adoption of the defense investment pledge at the NATO summit in Wales in 2014 — projecting an increase in national defense spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024, including 20 percent of annual defense expenditure on equipment — the debates have fallen out of balance, focusing almost exclusively on financial sharing.
The Politics of NATO Burden-Sharing
The new Secretary General’s Annual Report shows that in 2019 only nine countries (one-third of NATO members) have reached the 2 percent guideline so far and 16 have invested 20 percent into equipment, procurement, and modernization. While the sharpest percentage increases are observed in Central European countries, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom represent together more than half of the non-U.S. defense spending (which accounts for 30 percent of alliance-wide national defense expenditures).
However, despite the increase in defense spending, this pledge has turned out to be a public relations disaster for NATO. Burden-sharing has become not only a politicized but also a very polarizing issue. Even though the plotline of this old debate has been the same for 70 years — “European allies ‘free ride’ on the United States” — it seriously escalated with the arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016. Although the president has stopped calling NATO obsolete, he has been regularly and loudly criticizing the low level of defense spending of NATO European allies, up to the point of questioning Washington’s commitment to Article V, the core principle upon which the alliance is founded: that an attack on one is an attack on all. Even though NATO has been through several crises in the past, like the Suez Canal crisis in 1956 or the Iraq War in 2003, the United States was always interested in keeping the alliance united. The current NATO burden-sharing crisis is quite different in this respect, as it is Washington causing internal divisions.
In order to appease the United States, which is by far the greatest military spender in the world, the allies have agreed to adjust their direct contributions to NATO common budgets to reach fairer burden-sharing. NATO common funding has its own contribution mechanism based on the individual countries’ gross national income. Under the new cost-share formula for 2021-2024, America’s contribution will be reduced from around 22 percent to 16 percent, thus increasing the cost shares of European allies and Canada. However, NATO common funding fell short of 2.5 billion euros ($2.7 billion) last year and thus represents only a minor portion of the expenditures of NATO members, which together spent around $1 trillion on defense.
What Is Wrong with the 2 Percent Target?
Much ink has been spilled about the irrationality and ineffectiveness of the 2 percent defense spending measure. Even though it is a politically salient issue and all the allies have committed to it, the 2 percent pledge made in Wales is but a first step toward an honest discussion about how burden-sharing arrangements should play out in practice.
Imposing a one-dimensional quantitative measure of national defense spending is a rather technical depiction of burden-sharing that does not reflect the background process of political deliberations, nor qualitative differences among countries. National leaders in NATO countries have to navigate between national security interests and needs and their wider commitments to trans-Atlantic security. Rather than applying a one-number-fits-all approach, looking at the question through the prism of a normative dilemma of distributive justice, purchasing power parity estimates, and a progressive proportional scheme would provide a fairer burden-sharing measure (at least in statistical terms). Importantly, although the level of defense spending is a powerful predictor of future military capabilities and capacity, the translation of more resources into better capabilities is not straightforward.
The disconnection between alliance needs and the excessive focus on formal sharing of defense costs has created a strategic vacuum that damages the cohesion and reputation of the alliance. NATO is now caught up in meaningless burden-sharing exercises that do not serve its security interests, and that are “mathematically and functionally ridiculous.” Burden-sharing processes need to address explicitly the urgent need for substantial collective force planning. And they need to follow the interoperability imperative (do forces, units, and systems speak the common NATO language?) in pursuing the integration and modernization of European military capabilities. Measuring the level of national defense spending is a lazy shortcut for domestic political gains.
The expert group — the new wise men and women — should therefore reexamine the alliance’s philosophy of burden-sharing. For instance, they should rethink burden-sharing conceptually along the lines of Article III of the Washington Treaty. This article stipulates that the allies “will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack” by “means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid.” Yet it does not specify the ratio between self-help and mutual help: that is, how much a member country must spend on its own defense before allies pitch in.
Reintroducing the mutual-aid dimension into the debate can emphasise the cooperative and sharing aspects of burden-sharing. This could point to what member countries have in common and what they can do together, such as stepping up integrated air and missile defense or sharing military expertise, rather than what divides them, and reflect the increasing number of high-visibility multinational capability cooperation projects at NATO. This approach would go beyond quantitative output and defense accounting and instead pay attention to the quality and effectiveness of burden-sharing.
You Can’t Buy Interoperability
In contrast to statistical engineering that aims to adjust numbers to fit the desired “fair share,” true burden-sharing would put emphasis on defense capabilities and operational readiness. Shifting the emphasis away from abstract macroeconomic numbers to practical cooperation based on strategic needs should inform the content (which capabilities to buy), not only the form (defense spending levels), of burden-sharing debates. This highlights the problem that allies cannot just buy interoperability, as it requires enhanced cooperation and coordination. Although interoperability is considered the alliance’s core business, it has not been systematically treated in the burden-sharing debate. In addition, burden-sharing that includes the mutual-aid dimension would further refine the cash, capabilities, contributions — or “three C’s” — framework regularly mentioned by the current NATO secretary-general.
The current defense spending narrative is thus a symptom of empty formalism in NATO that reflects a lack of clarity about the alliance’s purpose, and favors statistical deceptions over effectively implementing the mutual commitment to defend each other. A February 2020 poll by the Pew Research Center revealed a worrying trend: While NATO is generally seen in a positive light across publics within the alliance (a median of 53 percent view NATO positively, though with double-digit percentage point declines in Germany and France over the past 10 years), many in 16 surveyed NATO countries seem reluctant to fulfill Article V collective defense obligations. A median of 50 percent across 16 NATO member countries is against their country defending an ally, while only 38 percent express willingness to come to help a fellow ally.
Future Defense Spending in Peril
NATO needs to get its burden-sharing right, especially in the context of the short- and long-term consequences of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the scope of the economic impact is still unclear, it is likely to reshuffle financial priorities in NATO countries. Defense ministries will find it more difficult to reach the 2 percent spending level by 2024 or even to maintain the current defense expenditures programs. Moreover, with economies put to halt and eventual drops in national GDP, even if countries fulfill the 2 percent pledge, they could end up spending less in real terms. If NATO members continue to frame fairness in terms of the 2 percent defense spending target, it will further aggravate the burden-sharing problem, seriously test NATO solidarity, and ultimately endanger the alliance’s ability to adapt to the increasingly unpredictable security environment and the changing nature of security threats.
Improving NATO’s cohesion and its political role will not happen overnight or through high-level political declarations. If there are any lessons to be learned from the Three Wise Men’s effort back in 1956, it is that perseverance, personal relationships and reputation, pragmatism, and humility matter a great deal.
Dr. Dominika Kunertova is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for War Studies in Denmark. With a Ph.D. in Political Science from Université de Montréal, she researches trans-Atlantic security and defense cooperation, NATO-EU relations, and military technology. Her previous work experience includes strategic foresight analysis at NATO Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, and capability development and armaments cooperation at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. She has published her research in the Journal of Transatlantic Studies, European Security, Military Review, and Ethics Forum.