One can argue many aspects of President Macron’s interview in which he warned about the “brain death of NATO.” One cannot argue that the U.S. focus on “burden sharing” has been an awkward combination of bluster and bullying focused almost solely on getting Europe to spend more in terms of fixed spending goals that are not tied to any aspect of strategy, force planning, or specific efforts to improve deterrence and defense.
There is nothing practical about some of his suggestions and comments, including his focus on a European Defense Initiative. In his interview in the Economist he states that,
…the European Intervention Initiative that I announced at the Sorbonne and which is now a reality: on Bastille Day this year, we had the nine other member states in Paris. Since then, Italy has joined us, and Greece would also like to join this initiative. This shows that there is growing awareness of the defence question. Countries like Finland and Estonia have joined this initiative, countries which up until now were, for one, deeply suspicious of NATO, and, for the other, distrustful of Russia, so in a mindset of: “I surrender completely to NATO”. The instability of our American partner and rising tensions have meant that the idea of European defence is gradually taking hold. It’s the aggiornamento for a powerful and strategic Europe. I would add that we will at some stage have to take stock of NATO. To my mind, what we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO. We have to be lucid.
The U.S. political emphasis on burdensharing has done serious damage to the alliance, as it has to America’s strategic partnerships through the world. The fact remains, however, that any analysis of comparative military capabilities, and defense resources shows that NATO is still the keystone to Western security. It provides the best possible real–world option for the West in every major aspect of collective security: dealing with Russia, countering extremism and terrorism, and finding functional approaches to out–of–area cooperation.
NATO is making real progress in spite of the differences between its members, their different interests and security policies, and the many challenges they face. The efforts to improve deterrence in the forward area, rapid deployment capabilities, and training for joint operations had made real improvements at the professional level thanks to NATO planners and commanders, in spite of the pointless bickering over burden sharing at the head of state and ministerial levels. As the Secretary General’s Annual Report for 2018 makes clear, NATO has many productive initiatives underway that do focus on its real security needs, and that will help deter Russia and deal with the key issues in its military readiness and force planning. In fact, some 90% of the Secretary General’s report focuses on such issues.
At the same time, it is all to true that NATO is now caught up at the ministerial level in meaningless burden sharing exercises that do not serve its security interests, and that are mathematically and functionally ridiculous. Its ministers focus far too much on abstract spending goals, rather than needed force improvement and mission capabilities.
Macron’s focus on brain death is all too accurate when he says that,
You have partners together in the same part of the world, and you have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision–making between the United States and its NATO allies. None. You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake. There has been no NATO planning, nor any coordination. There hasn’t even been any NATO deconfliction. A meeting is coming up in December. This situation, in my opinion, doesn’t call into question the interoperability of NATO which is efficient between our armies, it works well in commanding operations. But strategically and politically, we need to recognize that we have a problem.
NATO’s current burden sharing goals totally ignore military needs and effectiveness, and merely call for spending 2% of GDP on total defense spending levels, and at least 20% of annual defense expenditure on major new equipment. Such goals may seem simple, and it may seem hard to argue that more spending does not have benefits. This only begins to make sense, however, if one ignores any concern with what the added money buys. There are no serious aspects of life, however, where spending more is a substitute for spending wisely.
The Burke Chair at CSIS has prepared a new report: NATO’s “Brain Death” Burdensharing Blunders, and it is available on the CSIS web site at