NATO: Going from the 2% Non-Solution to Meaningful Planning
(Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies; issued June 26, 2019)
By Anthony H. Cordesman
As the Secretary General’s Annual Report for 2018 makes clear, NATO has many productive initiatives underway that 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, NATO does not issue any net assessments of the balance between NATO and Russia and its capability to deter and fight. It does not openly address any of the many national problems and issues in current force structure nation-by-nation strength and readiness, and it has no coherent force and modernization plans for the future.

Setting the Wrong Goals and Claiming Pointless Progress

Instead, far too much of NATO’s public profile is focused on goals that are not only meaningless, but actively counterproductive. These goals set percentage of GDP and total defense spending levels that focus on arbitrary levels of spending with no ties to military needs or effectiveness. As the Secretary General’s report notes (p. 34),

At the 2014 Summit in Wales, NATO leaders endorsed a Defense Investment Pledge. The pledge called for all Allies that did not already meet the NATO-agreed guideline of spending 2% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense to stop cuts to defense budgets, gradually increase spending, and aim to move towards spending 2% of GDP on defense within a decade. Allies also agreed, in that same time-frame, to move towards spending at least 20% of annual defense expenditure on major new equipment, including related research and development.

What passes for progress reporting is progress in meeting the percentage objectives regardless of whether this is the right priority for a given country or if it will strengthen the Alliance. The Secretary General’s annual report summarizes such progress as follows:

--At the Brussels Summit in July, NATO leaders agreed there is a new sense of urgency to invest 2% of GDP on defense and to have credible national plans on how to meet this goal. NATO Allies will continue to invest in developing, acquiring and maintaining the capabilities the Alliance needs to defend its nearly one billion citizens. The Alliance attaches great importance to ongoing efforts to ensure fair burden-sharing in all three elements of the Defense Investment Pledge: defense expenditure; investments in capabilities; and contributions to NATO’s operations, missions and activities.

--In 2018, the United States accounted for half of the Allies' combined GDP and almost 70% of combined defense expenditures.

At the same time, European Allies and Canada are continuing to spend more on defense. In 2018, seven Allies reached the 2% defense spending guideline, up from three in 2014. In real terms, defense spending among European Allies and Canada increased by almost 4% from 2017 to 2018. Furthermore, in the period from 2016 to 2018, they have contributed an additional cumulative spending of over USD 41 billion. Allies also made progress on the commitment to invest 20% or more of defense expenditure in major new capabilities. In 2018, 25 Allies spent more in real terms on major equipment than they did in 2017. The number of Allies meeting the NATO agreed 20% guideline rose to 16 in 2018.

These goals focus the alliance on the wrong objectives in ways that encourage pointless burdening sharing debates over the wrong objectives, and divide it in ways that serve no functional purpose.

Ignoring the Threat and Russia’s Level of Spending

The NATO percentage goals also ignore a key underlying reality in the relative level of effort by NATO and Russia: Its one major potential threat. This is to some extent the natural result of the lack of any public or transparent effort to tie NATO military efforts to some net assessment of the extent to which Russia is a threat, show NATO’s relative capability by key sub-region and mission, and assesses how well each member is doing in reinforcing NATO’s deterrent and defense capabilities.


Click here for the full report ( PDF pages) on the CSIS website.

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