As the Pentagon announced the withdrawal of a significant number of the US military personnel from Europe as part of the US Defence Strategy Review and Europe earlier this year renewed concerns over the future of NATO emerged. The role of NATO has been under consideration since the collapse of the Soviet Union some 20 years ago. After all, NATO, a defensive alliance whose purpose was to protect Europe from a potential Soviet invasion has lost its main purpose. There are those, on the other hand, who argue that NATO is today as necessary as ever. The world continues being a dangerous and unstable place; international terrorism, failed states and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) represent a dangerous threat to western countries. Hence NATO, the world most important military alliance, is still the best tool to face these 21st century threats.
The US has for long complained about the lack of compromise of its European allies; only four countries, the UK, France, Greece and Albania meet the agreed 2% of GDP level in military spending. Washington is becoming frustrated and it is increasingly reluctant to use American tax payers’ money to pay for the security of wealthy Europeans. In addition to this the fact that Europe has lost much of its geostrategic importance since the end of the Cold War can only disengage Americans even further from European security matters. The centre of gravity of geopolitics in the early stages of the 21st century has moved elsewhere away from Europe. For Americans geopolitical hotspots are today in the energy-rich Middle East and in the Asia Pacific region with the rise of China. From the US perspective the 21st century NATO is not an old fashion defensive-oriented alliance but an agile and mobile military alliance with global reach ready to intervene wherever the interests of the West are threatened.
Most European allies, on the other hand, have grown used to live under the American security umbrella and feel comfortable playing a secondary military role. Europe does not face today any “existential” security threat. European military budgets have consequently been gradually reduced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Most European allies are unwilling but also increasingly unable to follow the US. The current economic crisis is only widening the US-Europe capabilities gap. In addition, European public opinion is very hostile to a “global NATO” which is seen as little more than a tool for US imperialism.
The growing divergences between America and the European allies, sometimes due to the growing capabilities gap, other times due to the Europeans’ unwillingness to get involved and most times because of both are undermining the future of NATO. Yet the absence of a common enemy threatening the survival of the “west” is the main driving force behind NATO’s uncertain future. International terrorism and the proliferation of WMD represent a serious security threat but not the kind of threat a Soviet invasion once was. NATO, simply said, lacks a clear purpose.
The emergence of a hostile, aggressive anti-western power would provide NATO with that purpose again. This, however, is a highly unlikely prospect, at least in the foreseeable future. China and Russia are the only two countries that could potentially play that role. China has not so far shown such global and anti-Western ambitions and even if so it would still take China decades before being able to challenge the US, first in the Asia Pacific region and even longer to be able to threaten Western countries’ mainland. Russia, on the other hand, still retains a powerful army and a vast nuclear arsenal but it is ages away from the power the Soviet Union had. Moreover Russia’s prosperity is closely tied to selling its gas to Europe not to invade it.
As for the problem of US-Europe growing capabilities gap, only through the creation of a sort of EU army with a central command could Europe have a real input within NATO. Yet this possibility is more than unlikely, at least in the coming years or decades. A gradual American withdrawal from Europe will probably encourage greater European cooperation in military terms yet probably to a limited extent. To complicate things further, even if the EU army were a reality, without a common powerful and aggressive enemy the relationship between a used-to-command Washington and a Brussels demanding a bigger say would not be very promising.
Both, the emergence of a Soviet-Union-kind of threat and the emergence of a united EU military powerhouse are highly unlikely prospects in the foreseeable future. An increasingly frustrated America will probably go it alone more often, picking up different allies for the different operations. The future of NATO looks like one of stagnation. Yet some stagnation does not mean collapse. It is in no-one’s interest a complete break up. After all a less relevant NATO still confers the US greater legitimacy and provides Europeans with more security. Europeans will likely have to play a greater role in operations concerning Europe’s security. The Libya war may be the best showcase for future NATO operations in Europe’s surroundings with a US playing a limited role and a group of European states leading and, above all, paying the bill.
As divergences within NATO keep growing wider, Europeans will increasingly have to focus more on the EU to fill the power vacuum left by the American gradual withdrawal while the US, on the other hand, will continue shifting more attention and resources to East Asia Pacific and the Middle East. NATO does not seem to have a very bright future ahead.