“Ultimately, NATO will have to increase its spending, it doesn’t have to do so to keep pace with its competitors for it is already ahead, at the minute. However, it is unsustainable that the United States and a minority of European countries drag other superpowers, namely Germany, along with it.”
While the United States maintains dominance of the geopolitical, military and strategic landscape at the minute – no doubt aided by its mindbogglingly large defence budget.
It is generally widely accepted that this state of affairs won’t last forever. In an earlier piece written by myself, I articulated that one of the biggest threats to American power was the combined strength of its competitors, namely Russia and China. Emboldened by their growing defence budgets, these two powers have tested America’s patience and geopolitical mettle in Ukraine, Syria, Africa and the South China Sea.
China namely has made great inroads in various developing African nations, such as Zimbabwe and Egypt – not to mention its ever-growing and ever-testing construction agenda in the South China Sea. As for Russia, well its annexation of Crimea and the entrenchment and presence in Syria are but to name a couple of examples of geopolitical flexing. Its hard to dispute, America, and NATO’s, principle adversaries are making their moves.
Adversaries are beginning to spend more
So, what does this mean for NATO? It means the United States cannot continue bankrolling it, at least not alone. President Trump made significant headlines when he told NATO to cough up. But all he did was, albeit in his own special way, was demand from NATO what both Bush and Obama also did. And with good reason. Total expenditure for NATO in fiscal year 2017 was US$946bn. And although the defence budget of China stands at around a relatively small $175bn, it has increased by 1450% in the past 18 years – a trend that shows no sign of slowing.
This presents a headache for NATO as American public opinion has slowly been trending away from increasing spending on the military, a trend that shows no sign of rearing its head within China and Russia, in fact quite the opposite is the case in these countries.
This means that, ultimately, NATO will have to increase its spending, it doesn’t have to do so to keep pace with its competitors for it is already ahead, at the minute. However, it is unsustainable that the United States and a minority of European countries drag other superpowers, namely Germany, along with it. Any increase in NATO spending is unlikely to come from the United States, such increases are beginning to be unpopular with the public and would likely not sit well with the electorate. This being said, the Trump administration has hiked defence spending massively in recent continuing resolutions.
However, long-term, it is my belief – and the belief of many commentators and analysts – that this trend will stagnate or even reverse. This is because President Trump has laid down the gauntlet to European nations – pay more, or we won’t keep paying for you. In essence, he is being rather sincere in his expectation that European nations move closer towards the 2% of GDP goal.
Now it may seem that this article intends to paint the picture that European nations, as a collective, pay very little into the NATO pot and are failing to do anything to rectify it. To redress this imbalance, I would point out that the 2% goal has a deadline, 2024, so there’s time for Germany yet. Not only this, but European nations who historically lagged behind in terms of defence spending are actually beginning to pick up the pace and are trending towards the coveted 2%. This is good news as the threats to NATO are, as I’ve mentioned earlier, ever-increasing.
The United States won’t be the world’s only dominant superpower for very long
But as I also touched on earlier, America’s status as the sole, unchallenged domineer of the geopolitical stage is waning. The emergence of African development creates a new challenge: newly developed nations that the United States has little to no sway over. In the time period spanning the 50s to the 90s the United States exerted its power of nations in Latin America such as Nicaragua, Panama, Columbia, Paraguay, Chile and so on through force and coercion. China, for the most part, has beaten America to the post in Africa – or at least dampened the States’ chances for complete geopolitical supremacy in the region. China’s economic sway and lust for resources gives them significant bargaining power with developing and resource-rich nations. Uncle Sam’s crusades in the second half of the 20th Century made them known as the ultimate neo-colonists, nowadays it is China that holds that title.
To bring this back to NATO, this creates problems because the whole backbone of NATO, what gives it its strength, is the huge reserves of soft power and sway the United States holds – due to its lonesome status as the world’s only true superpower. If we look at history, previously to contemporary times, an international organisation that lacked the United States as a member – or a member of similar size to the United States – failed totally in its goals. (The League of Nations is the principle example of this.) However, this isn’t necessarily the case anymore. ASEAN does not count China, Russia, nor the US as a member state but yet their goals, albeit small, are being achieved.
The fact that the US is trending towards not holding the complete monopoly on dominance is further proof that the USA is slowly but surely becoming just one big fish in a sea of big fish, rather than the only big fish. This may cause problems in the future as NATO, as an alliance, may find itself outweighed and outmatched by other alliances such as the BRICS nations, should they decide to switch their alliance’s focus from economic to geopolitical or militaristic.
It is strategic necessity to more evenly spread the cost of NATO across more countries
The logical and strategic conclusion from all this is that it cannot be left to one superpower to give greater contributions to the organisation than some others, if it is to remain competitive against emerging future superpowers. NATO counts among its members several European countries that will unquestionably find themselves at least close to superpower status in terms of their economic size and potential diplomatic clout. At the moment they aren’t exercising enough if their potential into maintaining a strong NATO geopolitical stance.
The surrender of Syria to Russia shows just how fragile NATO’s ability to maintain its strong presence is. If it is to remain strong enough to effectively counter the rising tide of emerging competitors, other superpowers will have to wade in to lift the organisation from the future mud sty it may find itself in the future – where it might be much more difficult to maintain stability in dominance in current affairs.