Time to pay NATO’s insurance premiums

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Appeared in the National Post

As Russian military assets continue to pick apart Ukraine, we should be thankful the transatlantic community didn’t cash in its Cold War-era insurance policy. To extend the metaphor, NATO’s political leaders have a lot of catch-up payments to make before their policy is back to full strength.

Let’s start where most insurance policies start: risk.

The risks facing NATO are increasing. Vladimir Putin’s Russia has dismembered Ukraine and Georgia, waged cyberwar against Estonia, reopened military bases to bolster outsized Arctic claims, violated the INF Treaty, conducted provocative war games on NATO’s borders, significantly increased incursions into NATO airspace, and recently announced it will deploy long-range bombers “to maintain military presence in the western Atlantic and eastern Pacific.”

Putin’s apologists say Moscow is reacting to NATO’s eastward expansion. However, NATO expands via consent and cooperation—not coercion. NATO, unlike Putin, never annexed a country.

Although Putin’s military is a shell of the Red Army, Russia has increased military spending 108 per cent since 2004, giving Putin enough muscle to hold sway in his neighborhood. With parts of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia in Moscow’s grip, it’s not unthinkable NATO members Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania could be next. If Putin’s goal is to reclaim territory and prestige Moscow lost when the USSR collapsed, it stands to reason the Baltics would be in his crosshairs. Sidelining NATO would be a means to that end. Perhaps Abkhazia, Crimea and Donetsk are low-risk testing grounds for this strategy.

Hoping to thwart that, NATO’s political leaders recently declared “continuing and unwavering commitment to defend the populations, territory, sovereignty” of the alliance; authorized deployment of military assets on a “rotational basis” in NATO’s east; revived large-scale manoeuvres; and called on members to spend two per cent of GDP on defence “within a decade.”

Putting these plans into action requires more than words. Too often, NATO’s words exceed its capabilities. In Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya, many allies were found lacking in precision munitions, mid-air refueling planes, transport, reconnaissance, and command-and-control. Only the U.S. possesses these assets in the quantity needed to conduct sustained 21st-century military operations. That’s largely because the U.S. accounts for 75 per cent of NATO military spending—up from 50 per cent during the Cold War. Despite begging from NATO headquarters, only the U.S., Britain, Greece and Estonia meet the two-per cent-of-GDP standard, with Canada, Germany and France falling short. While Russia’s military budget mushrooms, Italy’s has shrunk 26 per cent, France’s 6.4 per cent, Britain’s 2.5 per cent.

“In more peaceful times, it was right to reduce defence spending,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg observes. “But we do not live in peaceful times.”

Those who view government’s role as providing services might argue defence spending diverts resources from social programs; the more market-minded might argue government is siphoning enough from the economy. Yet no less an authority on economic behaviour than Adam Smith noted, “The first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force.”

That requires investing in the common defence, which brings us to action items for NATO.

First, NATO must devote adequate resources to deterrence. To echo Smith, NATO’s purpose is protecting its members from invasion. That’s why it was formed in 1949,why it survived after 1989, and why it’s relevant today. Yet years of underfunding have led to “alarming deficiencies in the state of NATO preparedness,” according to British officials.

If NATO’s deterrence mission is to succeed, each ally needs to lift its defence budget to the two-per cent standard—sooner rather than later. The geopolitical and military impact would be diluted by a 10-year timeframe.

Second, NATO needs to defend the principle of sovereignty. Moscow demands a “100 per cent guarantee” Ukraine will never join NATO. As a partnership of sovereign states, NATO alone has the right to determine its membership. And as a sovereign European nation, Ukraine has a right to pursue membership. It also has a right to defend its borders, and NATO members have a right to send more than nonlethal aid to help. Ottawa’s decision to provide “military training and cooperation” points the way forward. As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says, “One cannot win the war with blankets.”

Third, NATO members also should wield non-military tools against Putin. Russia’s economy was booming until energy prices cratered. Canada and the U.S. can extend this by pumping more oil and natural gas into the global supply, defending their Arctic territories from Russian poaching and helping Europe cut reliance on Russian natural gas.

Finally, NATO needs to make its words matter. “Rotational” deployments in Eastern Europe represent a half-step in the right direction. But the best way to deter Putin is to base permanent defensive assets where they are most needed: on the territories of NATO’s most-at-risk members. Well-meaning observers contend post-Cold War understandings prohibit this. But Moscow has breached several post-Cold War treaties. There can be no treaty where only one party observes its provisions.

Likewise, there can be no security without adequate insurance. For NATO’s members, it’s time to pay their insurance premiums.

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