The NATO Summit: Commitmentphobia

That NATO could not come up with a more fully realized Rapid Reaction Force does not speak well of the alliance, says Steve Saideman.
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September 8, 2014

Last week, I suggested what we might expect at the NATO Summit in Wales: speechifying, document-blessing, announcements about a Rapid Reaction Force, basing of some kind in the East. But the biggest questions I had went largely unanswered: “Who is in the Rapid Reaction Force? Who is not? Who will be basing their troops in eastern parts of the alliance? Who will not?”

Why? Well, the same dynamics that bedeviled NATO elsewhere matter here as well. The key to understanding NATO is this: “Force generation is begging.” NATO does not obligate anybody to do anything. So, getting anyone to contribute means persuasion, cajoling, arm-twisting. And for a force whose mission is not at all clear? Persuasion is that much harder.

Indeed, for countries that need legislative approval before deploying troops, it is not clear that it would even be constitutional to commit to a force that has no explicit mission and would require a nearly instantaneous decision process. For countries like Canada, where the prime minister can send forces to places without a vote (yes, Harper can do that, despite his own confusing stance on this), it is less problematic.

But even Canada said “wait and see” when it came to committing to this Rapid Reaction Force. This was a bit more surprising since the commitment would be small and not especially risky. Sending 4,000 troops to Poland or Estonia, which seems to be the imagined mission of this new force, would signal a commitment to Eastern Europe without any risk of casualties coming home. That NATO, including Canada, could not come up with a more fully realized Rapid Reaction Force does not speak well of the alliance.

NATO’s new commitment to spend more on defence was pretty weak too. The goal of each member spending 2 percent of their GDP on defence remains aspirational at best. Canada resisted mightily, making sure the words in the various documents focused on “aiming” to make progress, which ultimately means very little. Will we see the end of defence cuts? For some NATO countries, probably. For Canada? Not until after the 2015 election, when Harper has pledged to have the budget balanced.

The one area where NATO really made progress was on changing attitudes towards cyberattacks. In 2010, the alliance could not even agree that a significant cyberattack could be viewed as “an attack upon one.” Now, thanks to Russia’s use of cyberwarfare against Ukraine, NATO has taken the position that such an attack could be Article V worthy if there is a consensus to do so, thus making the threat of a response, either along conventional or cyber lines, more credible. But a cyberattack still does not mean an automatic agreement to invoke Article V and NATO itself does not possess the capabilities to respond, although some members do.

All of this, of course, is really hard to do in practice. Russia is very skilled at the art of salami-tactics – of engaging in small provocations that erode alliance commitments without risking full-blown conflict. Grabbing one Estonian officer from the border, as Russia did on Friday, is an example of such an effort. Does that count as an attack worthy of invoking Article V and ultimately risking nuclear war? Probably not. But a response will be required. Deploying the Rapid Reaction Force to Estonia could do the trick, but only if NATO can get such a force up and running in the first place. If it can’t, then it is up to bilateral relations to fill the gap. In other words, maybe the United States will send some troops to Estonia while the rest of NATO looks on approvingly. Of course, this would exacerbate the alliance’s burden-sharing problem. But then, we are used to that, aren’t we?