Many in Europe fear for their security because of a perceived turning away by the U.S. from Europe (most notably President Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia). As global security priorities change from so called “traditional” to “non-traditional,” and specifically as European security issues present new and unprecedented challenges, “Smart Defense” may be the prime opportunity for NATO to adapt to the new era and revitalize its pertinence in global and Trans-Atlantic security.
Throughout human history, military power has generally been equated with troop numbers and the related ability to project force en masse. Yet even in ancient times this was not always the case: at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., an alliance of Greek city-states fielded an army against Persian King Xerxes, whose army was eight times the size of the Hellenic alliance. While the issue of who the real victor of the battle was is often a matter of historical, even cultural, perspective, at the end of the day a Greek army was able to hold its own against a vast military power by which it was outmanned eightfold.
Most Americans generally associate U.S. military projection abroad with deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, which are of course winding down. The U.S. military is, however, actually deployed in virtually every part of the world, with highly trained, élite units such as the Special Forces (the “silent professionals”) serving in a training and advisory capacity to local indigenous forces, imparting expertise in the fields of counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, jungle warfare, etc. While U.S. troops may not be doing much or even most of the actual fighting, their work is nonetheless a critically important facet in U.S. military projection and security.
The premise of the Atlantic Alliance’s “Smart Defense” initiative is that “each euro, dollar [or] pound sterling counts.” Or, as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rassmusen has stated: “In an age of austerity, we cannot spend more. But neither should we spend less. So the answer is to spend better.” The top priorities for European security now include financial security, energy security and conflict prevention/resolution. As such, many of the new threats that NATO faces and will continue to face in the 21st century will not require large troop numbers, but rather will emphasize having a highly skilled, educated and agile core of personnel. As Doug Brooks and Fiona Mangan point out, there is no sense in having warriors with special skills and abilities “peel potatoes."
Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation predicted that the U.S. budget sequester will have negative geopolitical implications for U.S. national security and the country’s ability to project power abroad. Yet sequestration was already preceded by NATO’s Smart Defense Initiative, and may simply compliment the Smart Defense plan. One should hope that the budget sequestration will not last forever, or even for a terribly long time, but the need to maximize spending power of every penny should incentivize the West, rather than work to its defense and security detriment.
It is no secret that of all 28 NATO member states, the U.S. is by far the largest guarantor of security. Many, in fact, assert that U.S. military power vis-à-vis Europe’s relative lack thereof has created a culture of dependence in Europe. Of late, however, many NATO states have shown a greater willingness to take initiative in military operations abroad. For instance, Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made participation in peacekeeping operations a cornerstone of its defense policy, and France has taken the lead in combating Islamic militants in Mali. If the U.S. government makes spending cuts in the defense sphere, it may induce U.S. allies in Europe to strengthen their own militaries and take more responsibility for their own defense.
As alliance members begin to take more responsibility for their role in the organization, it’s possible that member states may even specialize in certain areas. With cyber security as a new and emerging issue, Estonia, one of the most wired countries in the world, may take the lead in developing the cyber defense capabilities of the alliance (they would no doubt be in a position to do so, having been the victim of massive cyber attacks from Russia). Likewise, France may become the spearhead for force projection in West Africa, as France has long regarded its post-colonial African territories as constituting a sort of “near abroad”. The same applies to the field of intelligence: the secret services of a small nation like Lithuania are often called upon to fill the intelligence gap for the intelligence services of larger, more powerful countries vis-à-vis the Baltic States.
Despite the apparent shift in economic, political, and security priorities to the Asia-Pacific region, the United States still conducts the overwhelming majority of its trade with fellow NATO allies, and the infrastructure for defense cooperation and interoperability is already firmly established, to the tune of nearly seventy years. Those who argue that NATO is simply a relic of the bipolar, Cold War world should understand that with a new, multi-polar world with multiple threats and potential challengers, the U.S. and its allies can even less afford to lose such valuable partners. Smart Defense should be taken as an opportunity to fortify the organization and increase its relevance on the global stage.
The biggest challenge for this new program, at the risk of sounding cliché, is to implement Smart Defense in a smart manner. Each NATO member should focus on strengthening its military capabilities within its national defense budget constraints, and should focus on what it, as an individual country, brings to the alliance as a whole, whether in terms of technical specialty, soft power projection or even geographical leverage.