NATO wants European leaders to loosen their purse strings on defense, but Merkel, Hollande, and Cameron are keeping their grip tight. Is efficiency and cooperation a viable compromise?
"We live in a different world than we did less than a month ago," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a Brookings Institution forum back in March. "Russia's military aggression in Ukraine is in blatant breach of its international commitments and it is a violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is a wake up call for the Euro-Atlantic community, for NATO, and for all those committed to a Europe whole, free and at peace."
What he wanted was to see NATO's member states re-think their defense budgets - always the most politically expedient cuts when an economic downturn strikes. And there have been dark warnings that NATO is unprepared for Russian aggression.
The pressure is coming from several directions. Richard Dannatt, the former chief of staff of the British military, publicly called for the UK government to reconsider its plan to reduce its regular army to 82,000 - and even suggested keeping 3,000 troops in Germany.
But the bigger problem lies further east - NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said that NATO defense ministers would review measures against Russia when they meet in Brussels on Tuesday (03.06.2014). She said this could include "enhanced air patrols over the Baltic states, AWACS surveillance planes over Poland and Romania, more exercises, and an enhanced naval presence by NATO allies from the Baltic to the Black Sea."
Two percent of GDP
The Eastern European NATO and EU members don't need telling twice. A number of new member states have already announced they will increase defense expenditure - particularly the Baltic States, Romania, and Poland. The larger, richer countries further away from Moscow are being a lot more coy: last year, Germany, France, Italy, and Turkey failed to reach the NATO-agreed two percent of GDP on defense. Even debt-ridden Greece decided to invest 2.3 percent in defense.
Given the political stubbornness, that won't change any time soon, predicted Jonathan Eyal, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute.
"I think the approach taken by the current secretary general and the incoming secretary general [Rasmussen's term is due to end in September] would be to try not to push this matter forward," he told DW. "They will try to get a consensus at the NATO summit in early September that the defense budget will be exempt from further cuts - that at the very least there will be no further pressure to cut down." That would be some achievement, considering that France still wants to cut government expenditure.
EU or NATO?
Josef Janning, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, thinks it's high time for Europe to re-think its defense cuts: "What we see here is not just a moment of crisis, I think it will rather become a pattern - NATO-Russian interaction will be on a low for years to come," he told DW.
Janning says Russia has created a sea-change in the way NATO thinks about its own security - from defending itself beyond its borders, to defending itself within its borders. "There has been very little investment in the standard stuff of defense, which is to defend NATO's territorial integrity."
But agreeing a new defense strategy within a complex multi-national bloc is a notoriously difficult business, so Janning has a practical suggestion: "Germany and Poland should think about offering its neighbors a defense union - to actually merge territorial defense."
Even better would be if this joint defense force were put together under the European Union umbrella, rather than the NATO umbrella. "It would make a lot of sense for the Baltics to join, it would make sense for Finland to join, even for Sweden to join," he said. "It would make sense for the Czechs and Slovaks to join."
Bang for your buck
In practice, that means moving permanent troops to NATO's borders. "Germany still invests quite a lot of money in maintaining a fairly large number of military installations throughout the country - a type of territorial defense that is strategically questionable because we don't have any external borders except for the seashore."
This, he points out, would not necessarily mean reversing defense cuts, but, as he puts it, "achieve higher synergy of their defense spending. But what you pool and share is not what costs a lot of money, but rather the standard things on the ground," said Janning.
The obvious criticism of this is that it represents a return to a Cold War scenario - a permanent "Iron Curtain" of military hardware along Russia's border. "The point is not to go back to the 1970s, the point is how do you 'get more bang for your buck,' as the Americans say," countered Janning. "How do you get a defense force on the lower budget that is available today? Taken together, European armies are still overstaffed - we don't need such large armies if we were effectively pooling them."
Eyal is not convinced by this plan. "Efficiency savings sound like a good way round your problem, but the reality is efficiency savings are very difficult to establish even on a national basis," he said. "Governments are constantly on campaigns of efficiency savings, and they constantly miss their targets."
Eyal thinks that such efficiency is usually just politician-speak for making excuses. "The fundamental question is that Europe simply spends too little on its defense and relies too much on the Americans," he said. "Immediately after the Cold War, about 60 percent of NATO assets were American - today the figure is approaching 80 percent."
Nevertheless, some kind of intra-European cooperation seems to be the only possible compromise between the budget pressures on Western European leaders and the military pressure being applied by Russia. As Janning put it: "If Germany and Poland do cooperate you could hardly accuse them of preparing a military challenge to Russia - but it would be a very clear signal that security in the NATO framework is indivisible."