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Today marks the 65th anniversary of NATO, signed between the United States, Canada, and ten European nations on April 4, 1949. Today, there are 28 member states, many from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with more nations waiting to join. NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in January, brings another 22 countries, many from the former Soviet Bloc, into regular exchange with the organization, including Russia itself. Many have called NATO the world’s most successful alliance, being a primary tool of the West during the Cold War. Now, with Vladimir Putin‘s annexation of Crimea and threat to Eastern Europe, NATO’s relevance is back on the front pages of newspapers worldwide.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, NATO has struggled to redefine its identity. Almost immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was forced to choose whether or not to act beyond its mandate of self-defense and play a role in larger European crises, particularly in the Balkans. Its controversial interventions in the Bosnian War and Kosovo conflict of the 1990s further opened questions about whether the organization should take military action only with U.N. approval. After 9/11, NATO not only invoked Article 5 (the self-defense clause), but also undertook military operations entirely outside the European theater, as part of the American-led invasion of Afghanistan. A decade later, in 2011, led by Great Britain and France, the alliance undertook another controversial intervention, in Libya, that helped lead to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Yet in the decade and a half since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s member states have drastically cut their military expenditures, thereby undercutting the alliance’s overall capability to carry out missions. Alliance states are supposed to spend at least two percent of gross domestic product on defense, yet in 2013, only three members other than the United States did so: Great Britain, Estonia, and Greece. Today, the U.S. accounts for more than 75 percent of military spending in NATO while European nations spend on average just 1.6 percent of GDP on their militaries.
Yet America, too, is undercutting its ability to protect Europe. Across the Atlantic, significant drawdown plans to the U.S. military budget have often focused on reducing the American military presence in Europe. At the height of the Cold War, more than 400,000 U.S. troops were stationed in Europe, as well as nuclear weapons, bombers, and submarines. Today, U.S. European Command (EUCOM) has just 67,000 troops on the continent, and recent plans called for even further reductions.
Six months ago, long before the Crimean crisis, I had breakfast with Gen. Philip Breedlove, the commander of EUCOM and also the Supreme Commander, Europe (SACEUR) for NATO. Breedlove, whom I had known while he served as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force in Washington, was eager to figure out how to make the case in Washington, D.C. and to the American public that Europe and NATO were still relevant. His command, he noted, was the one to provide air power for African operations, such as in Libya. Meanwhile, Europe was still important to ongoing operations in Afghanistan, providing logistical and support bases, hospitals, and the like. Most importantly Breedlove noted, Europe remained a primary strategic consideration for the United States, given that the European Union is America’s largest overall trading partner, and that democratic Europe plays a vital role around the world in promoting liberal values and free trade.
Yet Breedlove in late-2013 was already struggling with balancing the myriad commitments he had with budget reductions and the removal of military hardware from Europe. Well aware of the limitations to Europe’s military capabilities, he presciently was most concerned with not having the capacity necessary to respond to an unforeseen crisis. Few could have predicted the challenge that Putin has now provided, but Breedlove was already thinking about such large-scale contingencies, given that his American command stretches from Greenland to Israel and includes all of Russia, as well, out to the Pacific Ocean.
Crimea has made manifestly clear how important Europe and NATO remain to global security. It is not an issue of whether Ukraine is a treaty partner or worth putting American troops on the ground in its defense. It is that the continual weakening of the U.S. and European military posture provided an opportunity for aggressive opportunism when the chance presented itself. It is, equally, a foreshadowing of a future in which territorial sovereignty is increasingly threatened by revisionist countries willing to risk conflict to achieve their national aims.
America and its allies must ask themselves simple questions: how much aggressive or coercive change are they willing to accept in Europe and around the globe? How much instability is too much? Where, indeed, do they draw the line? If they don’t answer these questions for themselves, then they will find new lines drawn for them.
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