Interview series Future of NATO

“The EU is now motivated to take real action”

Interview with Julianne Smith, Center for a New American Security
“The EU is now motivated to take real action” Julianne Smith Photo: CNAS

Part XI of our series: Julie Smith supports the plans of a strong European Defense Union. The Senior Fellow and Head of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security underlines that NATO would benefit if these efforts among European militaries succeeded. In conversation with Atlantik-Brücke in Washington, D.C. Smith also states the British contribution to European security policy after the Brexit can’t be evaluated yet.

Ms. Smith, there is an ongoing discussion whether the planned European Defense Union will compete with or complement the NATO alliance. How do you assess the developments in increased sovereignty in European security policy?

Personally, it is something that I support. America has had a very schizophrenic attitude towards European defense as it has been developing inside the European Union. When the idea first came forward in the late 1990s during the Clinton administration, the response from Washington was fairly negative because Americans were generally worried about two things: That it would succeed and serve as a counter to the NATO alliance and to US interests; or it would fail and ultimately weaken Europe’s position in the area of defense and military affairs, causing us to have a weaker partner consumed with process and institutions without building capacity.

Since that time and since the chocolate summit, over the last 20 years Americans through the Bush administration, Obama administration and now Trump administration are coming to terms with the fact that this may at long last build real capacity on the other side of the Atlantic. If efforts inside the European Union succeed, among European militaries in particular, then that benefits the NATO alliance.

Can you find people in this town who don’t want to see the EU do this?

Yes, you can. But they are fewer in number. And you can even find people in uniform who understand that for some countries it is politically easier to pursue defense initiatives inside an EU framework versus a NATO framework. The EU is now motivated to take real action and that could lead to a European Union that is doing more in the world in the area of foreign and defense policy. The path on this side of the Atlantic has been positive in terms of us appreciating what the EU is trying to do and understanding that these initiatives may ultimately benefit the transatlantic alliance.

Are the EU member states acting in a smart way as they build up the Defense Union and decrease independence on the US, for example through PESCO, rather than fully concentrating on NATO’s European pillar?

We are talking about one set of forces. Take any country in Europe and think about its military and the work that needs to be done to ensure that those militaries are capable, equipped, well trained, and exercising with US allies. Anything that can help strengthen the capacity of these military forces is a good thing. You will find some people who are skeptical that this is going to lead to anything significant based on the history of the last 20 years. But the majority of folks here in Washington is willing to sit back and see what actually transpires. What we see right now is that real resources are being poured into these initiatives and European capabilities.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, stated that the European Defense Union should be fully established by 2025. Is this realistic?

No. Based on what we have witnessed in the past regarding European attempts to strengthen their defense capabilities and strategy, I find that to be a very ambitious target. I hope I am wrong. I would love to see changes take place in less than ten years but in my experience in observing developments inside Brussels, it is going to take longer than that. But again, ultimately this is a good thing, and something that Europe should pursue. I hope it will make our partnership stronger, not weaker.

For the officials in the Trump administration, they may have some wrinkled brows trying to understand what is happening here and what the motivation is. But if Europe can make the case that this will make us stronger as partners and help Europe take on more of the burden of managing the global security environment, certainly that is something that the Trump administration would applaud.

There is remarkable cooperation between NATO and the EU in progress: for example, the European Center of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats. Are the two organizations on a successful path in rising to this complex challenge?

The EU-NATO relationship is something that many of us have been watching for a long time. All of us have been collectively frustrated by the lack of progress in enhancing it. But what has transpired now is really interesting and shows progress for the first time in a long time, though we should not overstate that. Right now, there is a lot of sharing in an unclassified environment. I would like to see more of it in a classified setting. That appears to be a bridge too far at the moment. But it is an important first step.

Regarding military spending efficiency, EU states are performing poorly in both NATO and the EU. How would you improve the situation?

Americans tend to get fixated on the goal that European militaries should spend two per cent of their GDP on defense. That is the line that you have heard coming from Washington for the better part of three or four decades through past administrations. What we talk less about is the way in which countries allocate that spending across several different priority areas. It is not enough for a country to spend two or three per cent. We have allies who are doing that. For example, the Greeks and the Turks spend a lot of money on defense.

It is not enough for a country to spend two to three percent of its GDP on defense. Julianne Smith

But you have to look at how they are actually allocating and spending those resources. If you look at the numbers closely you don’t see the allocation required to make those countries be the most effective contributors to NATO security. We have countries that spend an enormous amount of money on defense, maybe a little under two per cent. But they spend about 70 per cent of those resources on personnel costs. That is not what you want to see. I understand this is due to pensions. But over time you want to see countries spending a much larger percentage on research and development and acquisition. NATO has set some modest targets in that regard. But it needs to do more particularly now that countries are going to start spending more. The needle is moving. What the Trump administration has been able to get passed is the message that you need to spend more. The next question is how should we spend these resources collectively and individually. We need an overarching strategy on where we want to prioritize, particularly R&D and acquisition.

Can you give an example?

Denmark has been told over the last 20 years that the focus is on expeditionary forces. You need to get your air and ground forces to far away places. That was true when we were deep in the Afghanistan mission and looking at expeditionary operations as the future of the alliance. But now that we are also tracking Russian activities in places like the Baltic sea or the North Atlantic or even the Black Sea, a country like Denmark is asking itself: ‘Should we now allocate more resources towards ASW (Anti-Submarine Warfare), should we be doing mine clearance in the waters off of Denmark, should we develop another expeditionary brigade?’ Where are they expected to get guidance like that? Should they turn to NATO defense planners? Should they ask the European Union? I am sure the Danes would say no to that. Should they look for a signal from Washington where the priorities are? These are the questions we face now.

We don’t have a broader strategy about the priorities for this alliance. Julianne Smith

What do you suggest?

It is not just enough to spend more. It is about spending wisely, contributing to a broader strategy. We don’t have a broader strategy about the priorities for this alliance. We seem to be signaling that every NATO member should do everything. So, we say
‘28 for 28’ or ‘360 NATO’. Those are nice slogans, but the reality is we might need more of a regional strategy. For a country like Denmark maybe its priority really is just the North Alliance at this point and less expeditionary forces.

The Framework Nation Concept implements European clusters of capabilities into NATO’s processes of planning, procurement and operations. Should NATO focus more on this concept in the future?

Yes, this is exactly what the alliance needs at this point. The Framework Nation Concept is a good model. It is not applicable in all cases but it allows groups of countries to advance a regional set of priorities together, to lift each other up in their neighborhood and to work more closely together. It forces them to talk about their strategic goals and threat receptions. Then they pool resources, train and exercise together. It is a very pragmatic approach to today’s security environment. Clearly, a country like Portugal can’t do it all. Putting Portugal inside the Framework Nation Concept works nicely for a small country that has a set pool of assets and needs to talk to its neighbors about how to best apply those assets. It is wise and has already proven to be effective and could help us more in the future.

What will be Great Britain’s contribution to European security policy after Brexit?

This is the 64,000 dollar question. We are all asking ourselves this. Many people on this side of the Atlantic are curious about where our bilateral relationship with the United Kingdom will go. We are also very curious about the role the UK will play inside the EU on security and defense. Our friends from London come over regularly and talk to us about enhancing the UK-US relationship, playing a stronger role inside the NATO alliance and continuing to be a contributor to European security.

One could imagine a situation where a Brexit leads to a real financial strain on London. The first place to look for savings is often in the area of defense.Julianne Smith

What are your concerns?

Those announcements and speeches are met with some skepticism on this side of the Atlantic. One could imagine a situation where a Brexit leads to a real financial strain on London. The first place to look for savings is often in the area of defense. And while all of the decisions being taken right now, the policies that are being pursued, the new initiatives that are being launched seem very wise and are welcome here in Washington, we are just wondering if this will be the same picture that we will be seeing in three to five years. We really won’t have the answer to some of the questions until we push through Brexit and understand what the UK’s relationship with the EU is going to look like. There are still so many ongoing debates in London about a hard exit versus a soft exit. There are people inside Theresa May’s administration who have different views on the future of their country’s relationship with the European Union.

What role will NATO play in transatlantic security policy a decade from now?

I hope it will continue to play the same role it has played for seventy plus years. NATO has been first and foremost an important political forum where the top leaders from Europe, the United States and Canada come together to talk about today’s security environment. It is an important symbolic alliance in practice. It is a very effective military alliance. It has not had to invoke article 5 more than once in its history. It has shown the ability to reform itself. We have been through several iterations of NATO’s lifespan with the Cold War mission, the Balkans mission, the post 9/11 mission and now returning to the core mission of collective security in the face of Russian aggression. I don’t know what future chapters will hold for the alliance but if nothing else, NATO has shown the ability to innovate, reform, change, make new investments and carry on irrespective of any challenges it might face including public skepticism and a US administration that at best has mixed views about the alliance.

Julianne (“Julie”) Smith is Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
»Link to Julianne Smith’s full biography at CNAS

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