NATO in the Modern Day

Originally Published: March 19th, 2017

There is a remarkably necessary inquiry to be made into the modern-day necessity for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization– a post-Cold War era military alliance designed to “safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.”[1] NATO’s primary concern during the latter half of the 20th century, for clear reasons, was the USSR. NATO was designed to collectivize military resources across Europe and the North Atlantic region to fortify the liberal democratic capitalist states of the union from the growing prospect of a Russian attack.

The natural line of thinking, then, would lead one to wonder: why would an alliance dedicated to securing nations from the now-defunct USSR still be relevant?

The recent actions of the Russian state provide a clear answer to this reasonable inquiry. Russian intervention has been focused at its Eastern European neighbors, as Russian spokesperson Dmitry Peskov put it, “Russia is doing all that is necessary to protect itself against the backdrop of NATO’s expansion toward its borders.”[1] However, Russia has repeatedly launched frozen conflicts into Eastern European NATO states[2], tip-toeing around the ever-present holes in Article 5 of the NATO Charter[3] that omit such malicious attacks from invoking collective defense. These, despite Peskov’s words, were offensive military actions.

Alongside frozen conflicts, Russia has additionally funneled its efforts into cyber-attacks on NATO-aligned states. “In spring 2007, Moscow was infuriated by the removal of a Soviet monument from central Tallinn, the capital of Estonia,”[4] BBC states. “Soon afterwards, Estonian government, banking and media websites came under sustained attack. A pro-Kremlin youth activist claimed responsibility for what he described as a private act of ‘civil disobedience’ carried out in protest at the alleged violation of the rights of Estonia’s ethnic Russians”[4] who were reportedly being discriminated against due to linguistic barriers on citizenship tests. The Estonian government was accused by the Kremlin of violating the identity of Russian speakers through “Estonia’s insistence that the large Russian minority in the east of the country should be able to speak Estonian.”[5]

While it is important for all nations to accept the sovereign national identities of its immigrated citizens, Estonia is a social state pursuing long-term growth in this post-USSR climate.[5] Every bit of its interests should be aligned with high workforce participation, and understanding of the native language of a country is a major component of being competitive in the labor market. Anyhow, even if Estonia’s policies were overstepping, there is a clear issue of proportion with the retaliation of Russian nationalists. The issue of treatment of ethnic minorities was already brought up in UN deliberations before the attack,[4] and the ideological issue truly did not permit physical aggression.

Claims of Russian cyber attacks extend to the United States as well, as “Russian hackers have been accused by the United States of carrying out a series of attacks against political organisations in order ‘to interfere with the US election’.”[4] However, for the sake of equity, most of the claims remain hypotheticals and uncertainties at the present time, though the evidence is interesting.

Clearly, Russia has an agenda that stems beyond protecting itself from NATO expansion (though, regardless, NATO is an organization devoted to protection. It has no interest in pursuing active offensive action against Russia). NATO as a body, at least for now, does have some use, and thus there is no real justification for disbanding it while Russian expansion is even a prospect.

This is not to say that NATO has a perfect structure or history. Intervention in Kosovo was clearly misguided, though NATO couldn’t have foreseen the atrocities to be committed by the KLA.[7] This comes to a division of thought between the author and the organization of NATO. Inequality plagues its command, and though all decisions are made by consensus,[8] all nation states are required to consider which states have the most resources and how those states prioritize their interests. This has led to the United States and other Western states exerting their own power through the NATO council, and as many have postulated, led to the issues faced with intervention in Kosovo.

What sits at the helm of resource allocation? Money. Spending is a major buzzword related to NATO’s composition; expenditure is an issue mainly due to the failure of all but five member-states to reach NATO’s defense spending guideline of 2% of GDP.[9] Estonia, Greece, Poland the United Kingdom, and the United States all break NATO’s 2% of GDP threshold (Figure 1).[9]


(Figure 1)[9]

Spending lays out as a warped bell curve where the average defense expenditure sits around the 1.35% of GDP (not adjusted for outliers).[9] Most nations situate themselves within 0.95% and 1.5% of GDP.[9] While this massive inequality seems to be indicative of NATO reliance upon the United States, and may make it seem like NATO is essentially owned by the United States, it does not per se reflect the reality of the material composition of this spending.

Seven out of the ten nations reaching NATO’s auxiliary guideline of 20% of defense expenditure dedicated to equipment don’t reach the 2% of GDP defense expenditure threshold (Figure 2).[9] This reveals an underlying issue with the 2% guideline itself; arbitrary spending does not take into account three key things:

  • How that spending benefits the NATO collective (vs. its benefit to individual states and bilateral conflicts)
  • The social, economic, and military development level of the member-state(s) in question and
  • How specialized the member-state(s) in question are in the specific sectors of military expenditure.


(Figure 2)[9]

The current 2%-of-GDP system weights spending by quantity without giving heed to quality, necessity, and viability.[9] Luxembourg, who spends only 0.47% of its GDP on defense (Figure 1), boasts a decently private military in regards to funding. Luxembourg also proves to be a solid case study as, in the past, it has proven most effective at offering humanitarian aid in foreign conflicts and dedicates a sizable portion of its income to these efforts.[10] But, due to the limited nature of NATO’s definition of defense spending and lack of account for the specializations of individual member-states, Luxembourg cannot account for humanitarian aid as defense spending, as NATO defines defense expenditure as “payments made by a national government specifically to meet the needs of its armed forces or those of Allies.”[9] Humanitarian aid does not benefit the armed forces of Luxembourg nor its allies, but it still holds the prospects of serving NATO’s interests and staying cost effective for Luxembourg’s skills breakdown.

NATO can fix the spending issue pretty simply once the logistics are worked out. The solution includes three essential parts and aims to make spending more suitable to the economic development of individual member-states, more economically efficient, and make NATO more democratic and sustainable in the long run.

First, NATO should begin research into the development of a Military-Effectiveness-Index in order to judge the militaries of individual nation-states on what actions they can take most efficiently. Some nations, like Luxembourg, should focus on humanitarian aid, while some, like the United States, are most valuable when supplying troops and training resources. When a nation does not specialize in a military sector, actions in that sector become both less meaningful and more expensive (a man or woman who makes doors for cars should not make pizza, as pizza-makers can make better pizza for less labor power, and vice versa). Member-states should be ranked in a plethora of categories related to NATO’s on-hand topics, with the rankings taking into account the past actions of the nation, the cost-effectiveness of the sector to the nation, and even the geographical interests of the nation. Now, of course, NATO is a body with much greater funding and manpower than the author, and would likely be able to develop a workable system based more on empirical data. In fact, the groundwork for the judgment of national military power was laid out by Ashley Tellis et al in Chapter Seven of her report Measuring National Power in the Post-Industrial Age.[11]

The second step NATO should take in dealing with the spending gap is establishing a way to judge the economic and social development of member-states relative to one another. A key issue with the 2% of GDP threshold is that it doesn’t take the needs of individual states into account (obviously developing nations like Slovenia shouldn’t be held to the same arbitrary standard as the United States). Economic development indexes already exist, and the World Bank produces a list of economic factors that indicate a nation’s development in key sectors of their economy.[12] If NATO can dedicate efforts to developing a comprehensive index regarding socioeconomic development then they could use those figures to judge each nation’s real spending abilities.

Third and finally, NATO should apply their Development Index to their Military-Effectiveness Index by urging member states to dedicate a percentage of their GDP calculated with their ranking on the Development Index in mind to at least two of their top four ranking categories on the Military-Effectiveness Index. That way spending is manageable for all members, and spending is more effective for the collective due to taking national specialization into account.

NATO’s arbitrary 2% of GDP expenditure limit could prove fatal for the organization if it is not addressed as insufficient and fixed. With authoritarian populism on the rise, foreign aid and global institutions have been big issues of debate, and NATO has already received criticisms from President Trump and other American statesmen. “‘The blunt reality,’ [former United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates] said in the 2011 speech in Brussels, “is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,’”[13] said Robert Gates in an interview in 2011. He was not wrong, spending needs to be equalized, but not in the manner that everyone seems to think. 2% of GDP is unfeasible for many, unnecessary for some, and ineffective for all. NATO needs to adjust the threshold and make the council more sustainable in the long run, for otherwise it may fall prey to increasing isolationist sentiments tagging along the backs of authoritarian populist movements around the world.



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