Last April, over NATO’s seventieth birthday, the alliance issued a statement arguing their importance with four points: first, “an attack against one ally shall be considered an attack against us all”; second, NATO is a defensive and deterrent alliance; third, balancing against Russia; and fourth, NATO constantly seeks to improve its collective defense.
It need not take an astute observer to understand that all four points focus on the “Russian threat.” While this strategy may have been effective during the Cold War, it currently minimizes the importance of the alliance and simultaneously opening it up to criticism.
This can be seen in recent statements by French president Emmanuel Macron. Macron believes NATO is “brain dead” and will not survive through the next five years. If the U.S. commitment is weak, then NATO cannot survive Russian aggression. Alternatively, if NATO countries do not increase their defense spending, then why should the United States risk entanglement against another great power?
More explicitly, a resurgent Russia places NATO between a rock and a hard place: if it is aggressive, then Russia will feel threatened; but, if it is passive, then NATO countries will question the commitment of all states to defend each other.
We argue that a better marketing approach for NATO would stress the political aspects of the alliance—promotion of shared values and broader international political cooperation—while framing the security dimension in terms of overall benefits provided. Instead of belaboring the Russia-deterrence angle, leaders could point to examples of European security maintenance and collective force projection.
NATO After the Cold War
Following the Cold War, NATO experienced a transition from a pure collective defense functionality to one which incorporates elements of collective security. Citing worries about impending social and economic instabilities in Central and Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, the alliance’s leaders sought to bring former Soviet states into the fold as partners then allies to deal with the aforementioned problems internally. At the 1991 Rome summit, NATO leaders conceived of a new set of threats, “multi-faceted in nature and multi-directional, which makes them hard to predict and assess.” Gone were the days of unambiguous, bipolar competition. The new geopolitical environment forced NATO to rethink its role.
Nonetheless, the alliance continues to speak about its mission as if it is 1984 and the main cost from this decision is that it leads to poor measurement of alliance contributions.
Viewing alliance contribution through the narrow prism of defense spending requires justification of that spending. This means the alliance needs to identify and compete with a threat. In this case, Russia.
The focus on Russia distorts the reality of NATO’s utility. The conversation fixates on defense spending as a percentage of GDP as a metric with which to judge NATO’s deterrence posture, impeding progress towards understanding the breadth of the alliance’s role in transatlantic security and allowing leaders to weaponize the 2 percent metric. This problem can be seen by examining the history of U.S. politicians criticizing NATO.
Talking to Stalin at Yalta, Franklin Roosevelt explicitly described U.S. policy as withdrawing the bulk of American troops from Europe after a period of two years, implying that the United States was not in the business of free security provision. Eisenhower’s New Look assumed that a European Defense Community could replace the United States’ force presence as the primary stakeholder in European security.
Over the next fifty years, U.S. presidents from Richard M. Nixon to George W. Bush, and defense secretaries from Schlesinger to Gates unanimously pointed to America’s shouldering of disproportionate security costs. Leaders have used the popular “fairness” rationale as well as other more creative justifications for the discontent; in 1980, Defense Secretary Harold Brown insinuated the potential for alliance fragmentation should burden allocations not be perceived as legitimate amongst partners.
And while a focus on defense spending makes sense when the alliance is balancing against a great power, focusing on it today is a convenient yet dangerous mistake. Even in a period of great power tension, the world in 2019 looks and functions differently than the Cold War.
Problems With NATO’s Current Marketing Strategy
The focus on Russia and defense spending has created two major problems. First, this type of aggressive behavior threatens Russia. Recently discovered evidence suggests informal assurances were made between Washington and Moscow for the West to limit NATO expansion. In exchange, Gorbachev consented to German reunification while believing NATO would not expand, Russia would be engaged in future European security, and the United States would leave less conventional forces in Europe.
When the United States chose to expand NATO and continued to focus on defense spending and troop deployment, while not incorporating Russia into European security agreements, Moscow became increasingly isolated and weak in its own region. The result of this means Russia—now run by a former KGB agent—can legitimately perceive NATO’s focus on defense spending as aggressive and requiring counter-balancing.
By focusing on defense spending and strict military forms of security within NATO, the organization’s strategy threatened Russia on areas from troop deployments to missile defense. As a consequence, NATO has created competition that need not exist.
The second problem with NATO’s current strategy is that it ignores areas of possible success.
For example, countries certain NATO countries meet the spending pledge, but also undermine the true benefits of the alliance. Turkey will soon meet the 2 percent rule, but the country purchases weapons from Russia, which undermines actual NATO interoperability. Moreover, Turkey hampers NATO’s zero-tolerance campaign on human trafficking, a policy that is currently being limited by Turkey. Policymakers in Ankara have not fully complied with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act and only participate to the degree they do when they receive economic and geopolitical kickbacks.
Estonia is another example of a country that, while meeting the 2 percent rule, is limiting NATO’s ability to actually do good. Women in the country are paid 25.2 percent lower than men for the same work; less than 25 percent of people with disabilities in the country can gain employment; and the country’s language requirement prevents non-citizens and migrants from white-collar jobs. When it comes to NATO’s goals of promoting equality, countries like Estonia—while spending 2 percent of their GDP on their military—limit the alliance’s capabilities.
A final example, one of NATO’s stated goals is energy security, but many of the countries that meet the 2 percent threshold make pollution worse. The United States, Estonia, Poland, Bulgaria, the Netherlands all either meet the 2 percent threshold or have recently drastically increased military spending, but each one also has more carbon dioxide emissions per capita than China—a country often rightfully blamed as a problematic polluter.
In three areas—human trafficking, women and minority rights, and energy security—NATO’s top military spenders have dodged responsibility. This is unfortunate because the alliance has seen success on issues like the Partnership for Peace, relief and aid after natural disasters, and freedom of trade. Given Russia’s actions in Georgia and Ukraine, it is safe to argue that NATO has succeeded more when it places focuses on humanitarian issues than on strict deterrence.
There is another upshot for this focus: recent research by Jordan Becker and Edmund Malesky finds that countries who embrace norms espoused by NATO and do not seek pure military balancing, tend to allocate more resources to military operations joint interoperability. Essentially, by increasing the normative stake a country holds in the alliance, their commitment to the broader mission also rises.
Towards a New Marketing Strategy
NATO’s strategy of prioritizing offensive expansion has created two main problems for the alliance: Russian counterbalancing and a lack of focus on the alliance’s humanitarian and diplomatic ventures. This lead to a false sense of equivalency between military spending and security, and as a consequence, constant unpopularity amongst U.S. elites. We argue that, by focusing less on defense spending and more on humanitarian and diplomatic ventures, NATO can increase its own security vis-a-vis Russia and illuminate reasons for the alliance’s existence.
One large potential counterargument exists to our approach: if NATO is not focused on military spending, then it makes little economic and security sense for the United States to continue participating in the alliance.
From an economic standpoint, if NATO countries simply choose to free-ride, then why should U.S. taxpayers want to sustain the alliance?
A 1989 RAND report and a more recent 2018 CSIS report explain in detailed manners why spending measurements—specifically in the context of NATO alliance politics—fail to adequately capture alliance contributions. Measuring inputs fails to capture the breadth of security contributions; considering that NATO has engaged in operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and other regions outside Europe and North America compounds this point.
Additionally, while the expediency of an immediate Russian threat helps political elites, it also detracts from more contemporary and less controversial issues. The Russian military threat is contestable. Even in the United States, wherein Russia is specifically named as a great power competitor in the 2017 National Security Strategy, only 50 percent of citizens view Russia as a major threat to the wellbeing of the United States.
Finally, on economic grounds, the 2 percent strategy and bemoaning of NATO defense spending makes little sense. The United States makes up 22.14 of NATO’s total defense budget but also carries more than 40 percent of NATO’s economic weight. Thus, as far as proportional share between Washington and NATO’s economic size, the U.S. is actually carrying less weight for multilateral operations than its European allies.
The second part of the counterargument deals with entanglement and entrapment. The idea that U.S. presence in an alliance with an extensive security commitment and an ever-increasing number of European countries and can entangle it in a conflict with Russia is persistent and not entirely incorrect.
On one hand, the academic literature suggests entrapment is far less common than perceived. Separate research by Tongfi Kim, Michael Beckley, and Alexander Lanoszka all finds that entrapment is an unlikely scenario in international politics. In fact, the work by Beckley finds that the United States has been able to avoid entanglement by using a large alliance portfolio to balance counteracting commitments.
Even if one is still concerned with the risks of entrapment, this is a major reason why NATO should adopt a strategy less focused on deterring Russia. As we noted previously, by constantly focusing on defense spending and balancing, NATO has threatened Russia. Thus, our argument actually suggests entanglement will be less likely if NATO begins to focus more on cooperative and humanitarian actions within the alliance.
By the mere fact of its continued existence, NATO has displayed a penchant for adaptation to new circumstances. To continue surviving, though, it needs to adapt once again. The focus on balancing against Russia made sense during the Cold War but has made Europe less secure while also decreasing the popularity of the alliance.
By shifting its focus to the promotion of shared values and broader international political cooperation, NATO can prove Macron incorrect, and revitalize its existence in a new era.
Jordan Cohen is a political science Ph.D. student at George Mason University and Connor Monie is a master's candidate in international security at George Mason University.