Retooling NATO in Chicago

Later this week in Chicago, NATO will unveil the Defense, Deterrence and Posture Review highlighting future threats to the alliance, and the operational requirements needed to respond to the evolving security challenges over the next decades.

The conclusions in the review will likely reopen a long-simmering debate within the alliance about burden sharing by member states.

Since the inception of NATO in 1949, the outsized contribution of the United States has been a continuing source of tension with American policymakers, particularly Congress.

In the wake of the current economic crisis and shrinking defense budgets of member countries, particularly in Europe, the question again arises about the alliance’s ability to meet its current and future obligations. 

Prior to his retirement in 2011, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned repeatedly of the rise of a two-tiered alliance divided by members that produce defense and members that consume it. Currently, only five of 28 members meet the threshold of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. The alliance continues to depend heavily on the United States to fill any shortfalls in military capabilities. As recently illustrated by the military operations in Libya, this status quo is unsustainable. The United States cannot continue providing more than 70 percent of all defense contributions to the alliance. 

In attempting to address the disparity, this year’s summit will focus on what’s being labeled the Smart Defense initiative. This initiative will recast the old burden-sharing debate by highlighting how specialization and greater pooling of resources can strengthen the alliances’ defense posture in areas such as ballistic missile defense, air-ground surveillance and cybersecurity as well as countermeasures on improvised explosive devices. 

NATO’s most recent missions illustrate how the alliance can augment shortfalls of manpower and materiel through greater cooperation with non-NATO countries. More than 22 non-NATO countries are currently contributing to the NATO International Security Assistance Force mission by providing crucial assistance in combat and logistics operations.

Some of these non-NATO partners wish to join the alliance as full members. The Republic of Georgia, which has been bullied by neighboring Russia, is one of the largest non-NATO contributors to the alliance. Its strategic importance as a crossroads of energy lifelines to Europe make it increasingly important. Israel, a democracy with significant military capabilities in a region where instability is the norm, has long-harbored an interest in becoming a member of NATO. Both nations should be permitted to initiate accession talks.

As long as nuclear weapons exist anywhere in the world, NATO must remain a nuclear alliance. Indeed, the ballistic missile defense shield that the alliance is deploying has the capability of deterring threats to the alliance from perennial adversaries and from rogue regimes such as Iran and North Korea that have nuclear ambitions. Regardless of how effective our missile defense might be, NATO must also have a viable nuclear deterrence.

Over time, the NATO mission has evolved from one primarily focused on collective defense against communist aggression to a broader engagement in operations anywhere in the world where our mutual security interests are threatened. We must not become complacent in either aspect of this mission. As we face the unknown threats of the 21st century, it is our commitment to each other and our contributions to the alliance that will enhance the security and stability of us all. 

Ros-Lehtinen chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.