Why Does NATO Matter Today?

“The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country…yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the US, once more, to make up the difference” (Spiegel, 2011).

US Defence secretary Robert Gates stated this in June 2011 with regard to the ongoing NATO campaign in Libya. Mr. Gates has not been shy about his disdain for the European nations who either have taken no part in the conflict or have been seriously underprepared for even minimal combat missions. In addition to Bob Gates others have also voiced these concerns: “…in recent days, leading figures – including Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, the heads of the British and French navies and a top general at Nato headquarters – have all raised doubts about whether Nato has the means to complete…a…modest mission” (Blitz & Fifield, 2011).

The question has been, why would European allies neglect their own defence? If these were poor nations, they could perhaps be forgiven. But as national incomes have risen, defence spending in Europe has fallen. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary-General of NATO puts it this way in the latest (July/August 2011) Foreign Affairs: “As European countries have become richer, they have spent less on defense. Since the end of the Cold War, defense spending by the European NATO countries has fallen by almost 20 percent. Over the same period, their combined GDP grew by around 55 percent” (Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3).

Rasmussen was quick to point out that “NATO allies do not lack military capabilities. Any shortfalls have been primarily due to political, rather than military, constraints” (Rasmussen, 2011, p. 2). Part of the reason for the political constraints has been the lack of any large, looming enemy to fight. This could change, however. Emerging nations are not skimping on defence as their economies improve. “According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, between 2000 and 2009, India’s defense spending grew by 59 percent, and China’s tripled” (Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3). While neither of these nations is likely to mount a traditional military campaign against Europe, the threat of non-traditional warfare is increasing.

According to the NATO Secretary-General, serious threats that are likely to be faced by the European members of the alliance in the 21st century include “conflicts in its own neighborhood, such as in Libya; terrorism from failed states further away; and emerging threats such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyberwarfare” (Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3). Comparing international policing action to local criminal deterrence, Rasmussen continues: “Just as the presence of a police officer may deter a burglar, the projection of military power can help prevent and, in extreme cases, diminish threats, as well as ultimately open the way for political solutions” (Rasmussen, 2011, p. 4).

Political solutions, of course, are ideal from both a foreign policy and economic standpoint. Europe may have become over-reliant upon political solutions in recent years, due to the ability to rely on the United States to provide the hard power to secure the international peace. This reliance will not only hamper European efforts to defend themselves, it will put them in a weaker bargaining position among emerging and existing powers in nearly every international discussion of importance, and may generate calls for them to relinquish their treasured United Nations Security Council seats, which could change the entire international order.

Truly, the likely worst case scenario for NATO and global security is for the Europeans to continue to stall for time with regard to military spending. “…[I]f European defense spending cuts continue, Europe’s ability to be a stabilizing force even in its neighborhood will rapidly disappear. This, in turn, risks turning the United States away from Europe” (Rasmussen, 2011, p. 4). If the US decides that it has had enough of European dallying, Mr. Gates has stated that “there will be dwindling appetite…[for the US] to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to…be serious and capable partners in their own defence” (Spiegel, 2011).

Mr. Rasmussen hoped for better than that. His vision for NATO was initially, for all partners to spend the required minimum on defence (at least 2% of each nation’s GDP) and then to gradually expand the alliance to work with emerging nations in order to share the global responsibility for securing the peace. Suggesting public perceptions of nations such as China and Brazil are that they have different ideas about world peace, he continued: “[t]hose countries have little interest in overthrowing the global system on which their prosperity was built. Instead, Europe should welcome what these nations can offer to international security in terms of military capabilities” (Rasmussen, 2011, p. 4).

The hindrance to a growing system of shared responsibility for international peacemaking is largely political and defence spending inertia. Despite new emerging threats, most European nations are not even meeting the required NATO defense spending of two percent of GDP. “Indeed, after the United States, Europe still holds the world’s most advanced military capabilities. The question, however, is whether Europe will be able to maintain this edge in five or ten years” (Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3). Due to internal politics, and perhaps a Europe that is still tired of war after World War I, II and then the threat of the Cold War, Europe is still unlikely to change its defence spending without an external source of motivation. This motivation will be forthcoming one way or the other, be it the blunt withdrawal of US support for the region or a new, credible threat of ongoing, serious attacks on some front, whether traditional or otherwise.

For the past six decades, we have enjoyed the longest period without a major war in modern history. Peace has existed long enough for even small economies to become successful and that peace has been guaranteed by NATO defence, led by the United States. Like Europe, many in the US are also tiring of war, and some are even decrying the “policing of the world”. The US has overextended itself unnecessarily in taking on two major land wars at the same time which both over-stretched the military and eroded popular support for military action. If the US and Europe decline to provide this protection, however, the risks to the global economic order and the global economy will increase dramatically.

Below are some statistics from the Financial Times comparing NATO operations in Kosovo in 1999 with the operations in Libya today. Both data sets are shown after 78 days.

Total number of NATO sorties flown

Kosovo: 38,004

Libya: 11,107


Total NATO strike sorties flown

Kosovo: 10,484

Libya: 4,212


Total number of aircraft operating by end of campaign

Kosovo: 1,100

Libya: 250


Targets hit in Libya

Military Facilities/Bases: 370

Tanks and Armored Vehicles: 420

Ammunition Facilities: 740



Blitz, J., & Fifield, A. (2011, June 16). Nato’s internal strains worsen over Libya. Financial Times , p. 4.

Rasmussen, A. F. (2011, July/August). NATO After Libya. Foreign Affairs , 90 (04), pp. 2-6.

Spiegel, P. (2011, June 11-12). Gates warns Europe over Nato burden. Financial Times , p. 1.

About Barry Saturday

The editor is based in Lexington, Kentucky and has spent a over a decade each in the fields of both finance and education. In addition to his financial and education licenses, Barry‘s education consists of a B.A. in Foreign Languages and International Economics, an M.A. in Diplomacy with a concentration in Global Commerce, and a M.A. in Education, with certification in High School Social Studies. In 2012, he taught a two-month stint student teaching Economics to AP students in Xi'an, China, and has experience running for office, and ran for City Council in Lexington, KY. Barry feels that the vast majority of today's news outlets profit most from incendiary, surface-level appeals to emotion, which damages our political discourse nationwide. Barry created this site in order to learn more about our world and share that knowledge with others in a way that actually creates understanding of the issues in a succinct fashion. Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying in a letter that he would have kept it short if he had the time. Barry will try to do just that with his articles, giving you just what you need to learn the content, along with the important context. As with most news outlets, this site incorporates both objective news coverage, in-depth analysis, and opinion. All opinion articles will be labeled as such. Barry hopes this site, aimed at an educated audience, will provide objective information for those seeking greater clarity and understanding than is often available in the current news environment. If you like what you see, feel free to comment and share with your network.

3 Responses to “Why Does NATO Matter Today?”

  1. Great article. your analysis of the situation and subsequent comparison of Libya to Kosovo does raise questions. Valid ones that should be looked into. Also, Some of what you are talking about has me thinking back to a couple of ideas from John Mearshiemer’s the tragedy of great power politics. Mearshiemer said that one of the reasons that the United States had bases in Europe, despite the obvious one concerning the Cold War, was that it was a matter of off shore balancing. That by positioning the armed forces in military bases in Japan, Germany, Iraq, Pakistan, etc. that it was an exercise in power projection. Given that you indicate that the United States may be tired of this position, what do you think is the root cause of this?

    Also if the United States were to cut back on power projection in Europe how would you see the arms build up in Europe play out? If anything NATO has made it so that the arms build ups (like the ones prior to WW1 and WW2) didn’t occur.

    • Thanks for the comment, Jake. Your first question asks why the US public is becoming tired of global military bases, if I understand you correctly. My response would be that this is not the default position. However, after 10 years of war and serious concerns regarding the national debt (see link below), voters are very interested in anything that will bring the troops out of war and the US back to fiscal health. When America is having trouble paying its bills, military bases overseas seem to be excess. If we were to end the wars and restore fiscal health, I think the overseas bases would, at that point, cease to be a subject of concern.

      As to your second question, I don’t believe that you would see arms build-ups like we saw in the past, and certainly not in the euro-area. Since 1945, Russia has been the traditional military concern in the region, but they have neither the money nor the need to acquire new territory at present. There are no other likely candidates to attack that area, so unless the euro-area debt crisis really gets out of hand, I would expect less defense spending in the region, rather than more. Finally, nuclear weapons have made any conventional attack on a major developed nation unlikely. A future post will examine the different regional nuclear postures and how they deter conventional conflict. What may be unclear, though, is the evolution of conflict and how that could alter the defense dynamic. As economic sabotage becomes more prevalent, Europe could be facing a serious threat to its status from the lack of investment in cyber-defence and counter-terrorism.



  1. Are the Transformers Policing the World? | TheSaturdaySyndicate.com - 2011.07.13

    […] to protect themselves, let alone protect others. Many do not meet the minimum military spending of two percent of GDP that NATO rules stipulate. This causes several problems; other nations are envious of the military capability the superpower […]

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