WASHINGTON -- Leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nations meet in Chicago this weekend to address two major challenges -- how to dial down their involvement in Afghanistan and, perhaps more vexing, how to maintain military readiness in the face of sharp budget restrictions.
The heads of state and government from the 28 NATO nations want to make sure the alliance continues to develop and maintain military capabilities needed to fulfill all possible future missions. To make that happen, the NATO leaders will be looking Sunday and Monday at their member nations’ military infrastructure, the level of their firepower, logistical support, intelligence and reconnaissance operations.
Charles Kupchan, a military expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, says NATO leaders also will focus on how to make sure the European powers carry their fair share of NATO’s military burden. He says the issue of burden-sharing takes on a new importance for several reasons.
“One is that the United States is pivoting out of Europe, putting more emphasis on the Middle East and East Asia,” Kupchan says. “Our footprint in Europe is going down to about 30,000 troops."
A second factor, he says, is that Washington is now operating under tight budget restrictions that are likely to get even tighter, including reduced defense spending.
“And that makes the U.S. more sensitive to what its partners in the NATO alliance are doing,” Kupchan says. “And then you have the financial crisis in Europe, which is sapping the strength of the European Union and means that most resources will be going to try to climb out of debt -- not buying new military capability.”
Kupchan and other military experts say this is why burden-sharing among NATO members is so important. A good example of how to share military burdens, he says, is last year’s conflict in Libya, where the Europeans took the lead military role helping the rebels who eventually toppled Muammar Gaddafi.
“But it was also quite clear that the United States needed to stand behind the Europeans on a whole set of important issues, including refueling, intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance,” Kupchan says, noting that the Libyan conflict also disclosed a point of weakness among the European militaries.
“The Europeans started running out of ordinance and the United States needed to resupply them,” he says. “And in that sense, a mission that was relatively brief in duration and not one of high intensity exposed the degree to which the Europeans don’t have a lot of assets in their storehouses.”
To avoid such difficulties, NATO leaders meeting in Chicago are expected to look at ways to pool military resources more efficiently and to integrate multi-national defense structures -- a concept known as “smart defense.”
The alliance’s senior officials will also discuss the notion of partnership with non-NATO countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Korea, Ireland, Sweden and Finland.
But looming behind all these deliberations, says Sean Kay, a NATO expert at Ohio Wesleyan University, is the question of finance -- how to pay for necessary levels of military readiness.
“Because, at the end of the day, when you think [about] what is the biggest challenge or threat to the NATO members today, it’s clearly not military -- there is no conventional military threat to these countries,” says Kay. “But the thing that really matters is the economy.”
And given the economic crisis now hammering the euro currency zone, he adds, it is essential that U.S. and European leaders pay close attention to defense spending and “the dynamics of the relationship between NATO and the European Union.”
“The Europeans should not be spending more on defense, neither should we,” Kay says. “So the question is, how are we going to use this relationship between NATO and the European Union to better recognize these new realities in terms of budgets, priorities and operations?"
Kay says NATO leaders also should consider how the European Union can play a role in helping the Europeans take the lead in their own region “if they have future problems like they did in Libya, or maybe in the Balkans or something like that.
“So the NATO-EU partnership becomes crucial,” he says.
As for the Balkans, regional countries such as Macedonia, Montenegro and Bosnia aspire to become NATO members. But alliance experts say the NATO summit in Chicago will not deal with enlargement and will not invite new countries to become members.