Nato, and a thinking gap

If the west's military alliance is adrift, it's not because of Putin or Trump.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
14 July 2018

Donald Trump leaves after second day of the NATO Summit in Brussels, Belgium, on July 12, 2018. Ye Pingfan/Press Association. All rights reserved.

A summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) is not usually an occasion for drama. That became different when Donald Trump became United States president. At the gathering in Brussels on 11-12 July, his presence was bound to overshadow all else, an expectation confirmed when he openly lambasted European partners (especially Germany) over their supposed freeriding on the US, dependency on Russian gas, and general unreliability.

But to understand the real challenges facing Nato, it is best to put most of Trump's impact to one side on the grounds that it has more to do with his narcissistic need to be always the centre of attention than anything else. 

It's also the case that many of the headlines he generated will prove to be passing frenzies, for example on Germany's links with Russia and the fantasy goal of members spending 4% of GDP on defence. Moreover, an assessment of the summit will be on hold until Trump's one-to-one confab with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki is over. That too is certain to produce headlines, though a likely prognosis is that the great dealmaker will be steamrollered as much as he was by North Korea's Kim Jong-un in Singapore. 

The result of the latter encounter confirmed Trump's belief that he deserves a Nobel peace prize. In a curious way this is good news. Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, is now engaged in the convoluted task of wresting enough progress (or its appearance) from North Korea to present the Singapore summit as a real start to containing the regime's nuclear ambitions.

At present, it looks highly likely that when Trump seeks re-election in 2020 the regime will still possess the warheads and missiles it needs. That would ordinarily mean a renewed crisis – but in these extraordinary times, Trump would then be required to do a personal volte-face and admit that he had been deceived, if not outplayed. This would be extremely hard for him, which serves as one more reason why Kim Jong-un will be so content with the way things are going.

The Russia matrix

Nato is little more than a worried bystander with regard to the US-DPRK process, and now to a Helsinki meeting whose outcome is near impossible to predict. On its own account the alliance faces three tough problems: Russia, Afghanistan, and the changing context of global security.

First, current tensions between Nato and Russia are often seen in the light of Moscow's new military spending programmes, its retention of substantial nuclear forces, and its attempts to develop a range of innovative technologies. The strategic advances made in Syria and Crimea also show that Vladimir Putin is managing his resources with great skill (and can almost certainly get the better of Trump in strategic gaming).

Yet it's also true that the new "Russian threat", a welcome narrative for the military-industrial complex that underpins Nato, is greatly overplayed. Russia's economy is about the size of Italy’s and much smaller than the United Kingdom’s, and while it spends a larger proportion of its GDP on the military its budget is only marginally bigger than the UK's and only a tenth of Nato's as a whole. In most fields the US is ahead and China frequently on a par: while Russia's elite special forces are competent, most conventional forces are underfunded, undertrained and underequipped, and some parts (such as the Pacific fleet) are a shadow of their former power. In addition there are cost pressures in many areas, in the context of public opposition to tax increases.

None of this will stop Nato and western politicians using the “Russian threat” to demand greater military spending and a more abrasive stance towards Moscow. A few thoughtful studies of Russia’s actual military power, such as Bettina Renz’s Russia’s Military Revival,  present a much more nuanced analysis of the challenge, but they are in a minority. What many miss is that a hawkish line within Nato enables Putin to promote an equivalent “threat from the west” to help shore up his domestic position.

The great evasion

The second problem for Nato is Afghanistan, although again there is an element of evasion or self-deception about it. Nato's inner circles hardly talk about the alliance's continuing failure in the country, and display a great reluctance to do anything but order yet another review. By one of those well (or cynically) timed political announcements, Britain's prime minister Theresa May announced just ahead of the Brussels summit that her government would deploy another 440 troops (almost half the current number) to Nato’s forces in Afghanistan. This comes at a time when both the Taliban and ISIS are expanding their own activities. The Taliban is now active in around 70% of the country and even dominates some regions, including much of Helmand province and its lucrative opium-production industry.

In short, Nato continues to drift in Afghanistan, and its hostility to Russia effectively strengthens Putin’s position. This leads to the third problem, global security – and here the alliance is particularly sclerotic.

Nato, as an essentially defensive alliance, focuses primarily on the traditional approach of enhancing military systems, with very little attention paid to the greatest challenges of the age, in particular the overriding one of climate disruption. The prevailing culture inside Nato scarcely ever sees conflict-prevention as a core part of its role. As a result, barely understands, and devotes few resources to solving, the key 21st-century security problems. If Nato grasped the gravity of the climate crisis, it would embrace an unremitting commitment to rapid transition towards zero-carbon economies. That would make an agenda-setting difference (see "A world in trouble: drought, war, food, flight", 6 July 2017).

If some in Nato evolved in this direction, it would put them in direct opposition to Trump.  But that only underlines the need for those in Nato who do see the scale of the challenge to highlight it, using every means available. This single issue should have been the principal item on the agenda for the Brussels summit. Until Nato has the imagination to face "the threat of climate disruption", it will remain – Trump or no Trump – stuck in the past.

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