The highly anticipated twenty-fifth North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit began May 20 in Chicago; most of the NATO member states are facing defense budget cuts, their publics have grown tired of the war in Afghanistan, and some are worrying about NATO inevitably becoming militarily irrelevant. In an election year, the Obama Administration wants to look strong on defense while leading the alliance to a reasonable exit from Afghanistan. Despite the Administration’s policy ‘turn’ to the Asia-Pacific, NATO remains a formidable alliance structure unlike any other. While not all 28 members may pull their weight (only two states follow the mandate that defense budgets be 2% of GDP), the collective defense alliance remains a pertinent force that states in East Asia and the Pacific were never able to replicate. Smart Defense and the institution of missile defense capability have been achievements outside of the ISAF operation in Afghanistan.
In Lisbon in 2010 NATO leaders agreed to develop a missile defense capability, and that concept has now come to fruition. In Chicago, leaders announced that they have achieved an interim missile defense capability. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated “Our system will link together missile defense assets from different Allies – satellites, ships, radars and interceptors – under NATO command and control. It will allow us to defend against threats from outside the Euro-Atlantic area.” The controversial capability has added tension to the Russia-NATO relationship, but NATO has not left any room to back down.
Planning for the next decade, NATO leaders seek to “embrace a new culture of cooperation”. ‘Smart Defense’ is the buzz word for the Obama Administration and NATO member states. More than 20 multinational projects gained approval ‘at an affordable price’- a sign that members still want to continue to develop and protect the alliance. As would be expected, leaders agreed to boost military exercises, training and education. According to the NATO Secretary General,
“Our goal is NATO Forces 2020 – an Alliance that deals with today’s economic challenges, and is prepared for the security challenges of the future. These decisions show that despite the economic challenges, Allies are committed to acquire, develop and maintain the capabilities and the skills we need to ensure that our Alliance remains fit for purpose and fit for the future.”
The forward-looking nature of discussions illustrates that member states see the benefit of maintaining a strong and cohesive structure and scope. While NATO assists with anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, intervened in Libya and participated in a training mission in Iraq, it is important that NATO does not get overstretched or over-utilized in conflicts around the globe (that are not related to Article 5 of the Treaty). The collective defense treaty should not get confused with international peacekeeping or policing forces; given that NATO member states do not explicitly seek expansion of activities much outside of their realm, regional powers in Asia have no cause for concern regarding the missile defense or smart defense initiatives. Furthermore, NATO member states will be relieved that they are not being coerced into the Obama Administration’s overt Pacific turn.