Back to the Future: Refocusing on Collective Defense is the Way Forward for NATO

This week’s NATO summit in Wales marks a critical moment in the history of the organization that has served as the bedrock of transatlantic security for 65 years. Absent a menacing Soviet Union, what was founded as a collective security alliance has, in recent decades, increasingly involved itself with out-of-area operations.

It’s time for NATO to get back to basics. Only by returning to its raison d’être can the alliance secure the future for its member states. 

The North Atlantic region is full of challenges: a vast and resource-rich Arctic region up for grabs, growing cyber threats, heightened concern about terrorism, energy insecurity… to say nothing of Russia’s resumption of military aggression.

With the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO sought to foster a new relationship with Russia based on mutual cooperation and respect. Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed that Vladimir Putin’s Russia had no intention of forgoing aggression.

Although many did not want to believe that revanchism was back in Moscow, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this March and its continued machinations against Kiev have removed all possible doubt.  Revanchism is back, and with a vengeance.

Moreover, in gobbling up Crimea and its most recent assaults on Ukraine, Moscow has shown itself adept in waging a new brand of warfare—one characterized by misdirection and use of unmarked troops. Russia has employed every tool in its arsenal, from hard power and subterfuge, to propaganda and economic, energy, and cyber warfare, to wage war in Ukraine.  NATO needs to be prepared; Putin may be tempted to set his sights further west.

At NATO’s inception, Harry Truman described it as “like a group of householders, living in the same locality, who decide to express their community of interests by entering into a formal association for their mutual self-protection.” What was true in 1949 remains every bit as true today. The alliance is a collective security pact to safeguard the peace and freedom of democratic peoples who have banded together for mutual protection. It is only as strong as its weakest link.

Lately, many householders have allowed their homesteads to fall into disrepair. The economies of many European NATO members are stagnant under the weight of expansive entitlements and onerous regulation. With few notable exceptions, defense spending for European NATO members is paltry. More problematic, much of the continent’s defense budgets are consumed by personnel and administrative costs. The amount of money being spent on security at the upcoming summit in Wales is more than eight times the amount of money Slovenia spends on new equipment every year, and half of what Belgium spends every year on new kit.

With U.S. defense budgets shrinking and Russia proving insatiable, Europe’s general abdication of its responsibility to maintain an adequate defensive capacity has left NATO members collectively behind the eight ball. Some countries are indeed ramping up defense spending, but it will take years for nations to once again reach the 2% of GDP investment level they should never have fallen below.

Given the diverse and intensifying security challenges facing NATO members, the summit in Wales must lead the alliance back to its original mission and purpose: assuring the collective security of its member states. How to do that?  First, NATO must invest in itself—i.e., in real military capabilities. And they must exercise together, frequently and in force; for this there is no substitute. Finally, a once-open door to new members—now seemingly closed—needs to be reopened: Macedonia is a good place start. 

The last time a NATO summit was held in the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union was disintegrating. Some may have wondered then what the purpose of the alliance would be moving forward. Today, after decades engaged in out-of-area operations, NATO should return to what it has always been: a collective security alliance.

In 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “a sure defense is the foundation for everything else.” She was correct. For the future of transatlantic security, let us hope those words do not fall on deaf ears in Wales.    

 - Daniel Kochis is a researcher in The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

About the Author

Daniel Kochis Policy Analyst in European Affairs
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Originally published by Breitbart