NATO chief ignores fact that Europe isn't paying fair share
© Getty Images

Recently, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wrote an op-ed in The Guardian addressing some points of friction about the Atlantic alliance, and completely ignoring others.

Although I agree that NATO continues to be the bedrock of security in the free world, Stoltenberg needs to acknowledge the alliance's failures and deficiencies in detail before he claims to fix them.

I will take his arguments to task.

NATO's Article 5 activation

Yes, NATO's only invocation of the mutual defense clause (Article 5) was by the United States after 9/11 and NATO member states responded in Afghanistan, but how equitable was that response?

ADVERTISEMENT

NATO countries were not spending enough on defense before 9/11 and did not appropriately expand their militaries afterward when NATO assumed command of Afghanistan in 2003; Stoltenberg fails to address this.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), of NATO's 28 member nations, 16 lowered their defense spending between 2001 and 2004 by at least 0.1 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP).

Lowering defense spending at the beginning of a war does not bode well for the alliance members in the fight.

Another point taken from the SIPRI numbers is that of those 16 offending nations, 12 were under the yet-to-be-established goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense and lowered their expenditure. As of 2015, 22 member states are spending less on defense now than they did in 2001.

Serious priorities get serious budgets and this is not the case with European defense.

Moreover, when Stoltenberg was prime minister of Norway from 2005 until 2013, Norway's defense spending dropped from 1.4 percent of GDP to 1.2 percent.

How is the rest of the organization supposed to follow his leadership when he did not lead by example?

Norway is also the recipient of enough American military equipment, stored in secret cave complexes, to support 15,000 American Marines if they need to defend Oslo.

This is not the only effort of its kind around Europe. As I was drafting this piece, the British Navy admitted that its warships will be without their primary armament of anti-ship missiles, forcing them to rely on 4.5-inch guns — setting their naval firepower back somewhere before 1960.

Turkish military officers serving in NATO positions are asking their alliance hosts for asylum from their recently coup-proof government. Cutting defense spending during war (Mr. Stoltenberg, I am surprised and disappointed in you), accepting division-size elements of American military equipment, drastically reducing naval firepower and member-state officers seeking asylum in other members are not symptoms of an alliance of equals ready to deter aggression.

Spending aside, deployments in support of NATO's operations in Afghanistan are another point of friction.

Some member countries that contributed troops — not all did — to Afghanistan placed caveats on their operations, such as "refusal to conduct night-time combat, refusal to transport Afghan personnel via helicopter, and refusal to fight after snowfall," as the Institute for the Study of War noted.

These caveats are crippling, amateurish and not becoming of professional militaries subordinate to such orders.

NATO (read: American) military leadership has little choice but to shunt these troops into tertiary roles, away from the fight.

Afghanistan is not an example of the United States, Britain and Canada splitting up beaches in Normandy; it is an example of an alliance with a fighting force and those who are lesser than. NATO members beyond the aforementioned three do not have as many troops per capita, and those troops were not deployed at the same rate as American service members.

Nowhere else was the year-on/year-off deployment cycle attempted, let alone sustained, as it was in the United States at the peak of the conflict. To say that NATO went to war after the American invocation of Article 5 is a falsehood; NATO did not budget, grow or deploy equally and this dichotomy shows through in the maturity of member state militaries today.

The preponderance of NATO merely participated in an American war.

North Africa/terrorism

Stoltenberg also refers to NATO responding to events in North Africa and the Middle East together.

I believe he was referring to the tumultuous transfer of command in Libya from the United States to NATO. I will leave the details of who walked out of what meetings, grounded what combat aircraft and chose not to participate to The Guardian and other more resourced reporting. After initial command disputes, the United States had to resupply NATO with precision munitions during the campaign because stockpiles were not deep enough to sustain a fight.

Similarly, 75 percent of reconnaissance and mid-air refueling aircraft was provided by the United States.

The current fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is meeting with parallel problems as Afghanistan and Libya; few countries are making significant sustained contributions besides the United States and Britain.

Canada has also notably withdrawn its fighter aircraft contribution, leaving Stoltenberg with little of substance to stand on.

Precision munitions stockpiles, mid-air refueling and reconnaissance aircraft are all bread-and-butter modern military capabilities that NATO should be able to accomplish without reliance on the United States.

What if the enemy had not been relatively low-tech?

Where is the credible conventional threat that NATO is supposed to provide to deter Russia?

Deterioration of Russian relations

I agree with Stoltenberg that Russian relations have deteriorated and show no signs of improving.

The continued occupations of Georgian and Ukrainian territory as well as numerous other activities designed to contest NATO show no sign of stopping. This newfound Russian aggression could be founded on the failure of the European defense establishment during its first combat test since the World War II. The rot of undersized, underbudgeted, under-equipped, under-trained and under-deployed NATO member militaries is self-evident.

We should not be surprised that our opponents seek to capitalize on our failures.

2014 Wales summit

The 2014 NATO summit in Wales is perhaps the most salient proof of the alliance's troubles.

Stoltenberg spoke of the alliance's stalwart support of the United States in its Article 5 invocation for Afghanistan and in the same breath proudly proclaimed NATO's commitment to, for the first time in its history, setting a formalized defense-spending goal of 2 percent of GDP — a goal that is both insufficient and not enforceable by any practical means.

As an Afghanistan War veteran, I struggle to find why he places pride in setting a spending goal the year the NATO war ended in Afghanistan.

Why was NATO not spending more on defense during the war?

Why did NATO decide to spend more in 2014 and not 2001, at the beginning of this lauded and bonding Article 5 activation?

I can only infer that with the deterioration of Russian relations and the increased terrorist threat to Europe, changes were made out of self-interest.

Stoltenberg must address this contrast explicitly in order to strengthen his argument. To not do so is blindly arrogant both as a leader of NATO and a former leader of a member state.

Conclusion

This piece is not to lessen the sacrifices of those European soldiers with whom I share a bond forged in blood by our grandfathers; their honor and valor is without question.

I am just questioning the will of their political leadership to resource and commit them appropriately.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates feared that NATO would become a two-tiered organization "between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don't want to share the risks and the costs." Stoltenberg's leadership of Norway and now NATO seem to ratify this fear, not repudiate it.

Unfortunately, Europe's defensive inaction has given President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSanders apologizes to Biden for supporter's op-ed Jayapal: 'We will end up with another Trump' if the US doesn't elect progressive Democrats: McConnell impeachment trial rules a 'cover up,' 'national disgrace' MORE a valid argument about the future of NATO. Although I believe there are more effective means of compelling European spending rather than threatening to throw core principles of mutual defense by the wayside, the underlying theme of unbalance remains strong and more subtle American efforts have netted little change.

If Stoltenberg has empirical numbers to refute this thesis, he is doing a poor job of communicating them.

Each member must contribute its share equally proportional to its economic output and recent burden sharing has been anything but balanced. I agree that transatlantic relations are at a critical juncture not seen in a generation, but the nebulous political benefits of a "stronger, safer and more prosperous" alliance, as Stoltenberg writes, are becoming increasingly difficult to weigh against the empirical facts of an unbalanced relationship headed in the wrong direction.

If Stoltenberg does not take sincere action first, Trump might.

I doubt it would be agreeable to the alliance.

My worst fear is not that the United States will not hold up its commitment to NATO; if pushed, I believe we will. It is that Europe will not have the capability to defend itself even with the United States. Stoltenberg must either accept the views of President-Elect Trump, or get NATO to give a damn (and budget) for its own defense.

Best of luck, Secretary-General Stoltenberg; I'm pulling for you.

Christopher Carey is a graduate of American University's School of International Service. He served as an artillery captain with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Afghanistan and is currently a master's candidate at the University of Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @careyactual.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.