24 August 2021

What now for Nato?

By Kit MacLellan

The last few weeks have brought to light many unfortunate realities, one of which is the over-reliance of Nato on the US and their decision makers. Through its complete inability to act without the support of Uncle Sam, the alliance has rendered itself complicit in the failings in Afghanistan.

It didn’t have to be this way. While we sit back and watch China, Russia and Pakistan snuggle up to the Taliban, perhaps it’s time to rethink some core aspects of the alliance so that it is better equipped to face the new security challenges of the future. Because if Nato is to remain relevant it will need to step out of its comfort zone, embrace new non-European members and learn to act independently from politicians who prioritise votes over security.

It’s impossible to overstate how much the organisation relies on Uncle Sam’s benevolence. In 2018, 70% of Nato’s $1 trillion budget was provided by America and at the moment 20 of the 30 members do not even meet the 2% of GDP spending target – France, Germany and Canada are among the notable offenders.

This reluctance to fully get behind Nato has also seeped through into the burden-sharing on the ground; at the height of operations in Afghanistan, 90,000 of the 130,000 alliance troops were American. Those countries who are less inclined to support Nato expansion (Germany and France) operated their troops in lower risk areas compared to those of America, Britain, The Netherlands and, to an extent, Canada. This reliance on US troops and funding makes the survival of Nato more dependent on globalising its mission to remain relevant to American foreign policy needs, which are shifting towards the Indo-Pacific. Or as one expert put it, ‘Nato must go out of area, or out of business’. 

The problem is that the idea of a kind of universal multilateralism now looks more utopian than ever, especially when it comes to conventional security matters (as opposed to, say, climate change). Any hope the world had that Joe Biden would herald a new era of dialogue and trust in allies has been dashed by recent events. The United Nations is hamstrung by a lack of both legitimacy and effectiveness, arising from its gridlocked Security Council – where Russia and China have a veto – and from historic failures to prevent atrocities in Rwanda, Sudan and Syria.

And though Nato does often act at the request of the UN, it has consistently reaffirmed its power to act without it. And it has long outgrown its north Atlantic origins to become a de facto global organisation, as the intervention in Afghanistan made abundantly clear. As Hillary Clinton once noted, ‘reality has redefined the areas in which we [Nato] operate’. It would make sense, therefore, to expand its membership to reflect that fact, bringing in new like-minded members who can add both heft and legitimacy to the alliance. Becoming a truly global organisation also makes sense in an era of global threats, from cyber-warfare to space weapons and nuclear security.

So where should we be looking for the next generation of Nato members? An obvious starting point would be to look at Western allies in the Asia-Pacific region, such as South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India (some of whom have already contributed to Nato missions). Whether the desire to expand would be reciprocated is another matter entirely, but given China’s increasing belligerence and disregard for human rights, a security alliance bound by the Article 5 commitment to collective defence may have its attractions.

A larger membership could also solve some of Nato’s other problems. A bigger funding base and more troops to commit to missions could reduce the over-reliance on the US, and in doing so insulate the alliance somewhat from the whims of Washington policymakers. Who knows, perhaps with more non-European nations at the table, and a strategy that’s not dictated by one member state, Nato might have decided to maintain a presence in Afghanistan and not leave country to the Taliban. An added benefit of having a more diverse membership would be to undercut the tired arguments of those who claim the alliance is some kind of ‘neo-imperialist’ project.

Nato certainly has its issues. But the cornerstone of the alliance – deterrence through collective defense – has remained steadfast throughout its existence. By expanding membership, not only could it begin to solve the problems that endanger the future potency of Article 5, but it could also add to the list of nations it protects.

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Kit MacLellan is an intern at the Centre for Policy Studies.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.