Time for a change in NATO’s treaty

By Daniel DePetris

Earlier this month, in a barely reported development before Congress adjourned for the holiday season, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to favorably report Montenegro’s accession to NATO to the full Senate for deliberation. “The Committee on Foreign Relations,” the report stated, “believes that Montenegro has the potential to make contributions as a member of NATO….Montenegro’s membership will encourage the continued spread of peace and democracy in the region, and its willingness to contribute to ongoing NATO operations will augment NATO’s resources.” 

The question of whether the inclusion of Montenegro will add considerably to the strength, defense, and power of the world’s oldest military alliance has been well tackled by Defense Priorities senior fellow Charles Pena, who in November wrote that “with a military consisting of some two thousand active duty service members, the Montenegrin Army, Navy and Air Force…are not going to add any significant military capability to NATO.” With a roughly $4 billion GDP, pervasive levels of corruption within its government and security services, and its military receiving approximately 1.6 percent of GDP, Montenegro can’t realistically be classified as a medium-sized country.  Opening NATO’s doors to a nation in southeastern Europe, particularly one that may cause the Russians to retaliate, leads one to doubt that the benefit of Montenegrin accession is worth the trouble.

But there’s a more fundamental question at play as well, and it goes to the core of NATO as a military and political institution: Is it time for its member states to amend the North Atlantic Treaty, a document that is nearly 70 years old and was constructed at a time when the Cold War was just kicking into high gear? 

For the most dedicated Atlanticist, even suggesting NATO’s founding document may be dated and require some type of revision is akin to blasting the world’s most successful military alliance as a relic of the past. This view, however, is shortsighted and about as useful as having no peripheral vision when driving a vehicle down the interstate — it’s not only dangerous, but makes it essentially impossible to see the potholes, traffic, and bends in the road ahead.

If NATO is to survive, it needs to introduce some degree of accountability on those members in Europe that have been content for far too long in keeping their military spending down in order to save money for domestic entitlements.  

The fact of the matter is there is zero accountability at the present time; countries like Germany, France, Italy, and Spain that continue to devote less than 2 percent of their GDP’s on national defense are not only shortchanging themselves, but also doing great harm to the integrity of the entire alliance and taking Washington’s support for granted. 

The statistic bears repeating: Including the United States, only 5 of NATO’s 28 members spend the required 2 percent of GDP on defense that the alliance’s political leaders have agreed on as the benchmark. And of those other four members, only the United Kingdom can be labeled as a powerhouse on the European continent. 

The rest are either far below the benchmark (Spain doesn’t even spent 1 percent of its GDP on defense) or is straddling the line (Turkey is at 1.56 percent). More often than not, this means the United States is left holding the bag and providing the money, logistics, and enabling support to fill the void. The Obama administration’s allocation of $3.4 billion for the European Deterrence Initiative next year isn’t an accident, but partly a response to Europe’s unwillingness to expend what they themselves promised.

Ask several different European security specialists about several changes that NATO should adopt, and you’ll likely come away with several different answers.  Yet one that should be given serious consideration by the next administration — and one that members of Congress would be wise to support if they indeed are concerned about NATO’s health and sustainability — is a new clause in the North Atlantic Treaty that would set forth a suspension or expulsion mechanism for member states that are either backsliding on democratic principles or, more important, refusing to spend the necessary dollars NATO’s leadership has time and again argued is essential.

The reason NATO has been so successful in keeping Europe whole, free, and at peace is because the alliance offers a credible deterrent to countries like Russia that in ordinary times may test its western neighbors more aggressively. It’s time for NATO to ingrain its own deterrent for the benefit of its members: Make a concerted effort to meet your spending commitments or risk suspension or expulsion, and a public diplomatic embarrassment. This shouldn’t be a controversial concept — rather, it could serve as the tough love mechanism that years of begging and pleading from policymakers in Washington and Brussels haven’t.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on January 31, 2017. Read more HERE.