Will it soon be springtime for NATO? After four years of a suddenly mercurial American partner, European foreign and defense ministers seem relieved, if not giddy, at the prospect of president-elect Joe Biden’s promised foreign policy restoration. Yet the seventy-one-year-old alliance’s “brain death,” to quote French President Emmanuel Macron, needs stronger medicine than a mere return to the status quo. A new study, commissioned by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, calls for both renewal and reform, highlighted by a new focus on the challenge of China.
With 138 specific recommendations in less than 70 pages, the independent Reflection Group’s report, “NATO 2030: United for a New Era,” is light on detailed planning for implementation. Its China prescriptions range from countering disinformation to strengthening ties with Asian partners.
Some of these recommendations are no-brainers and some are predictably vague. But NATO members should resist any attempt to substantially reorient the alliance on countering China. NATO lacks the military tools, the societal will, and the strategic imperative to cast its gaze east of Suez.
NATO’s navies are not up to the task. True, Britain has spent (some would argue misspent) an enormous chunk of its defense budget on a pair of catapult-less conventional aircraft carriers and the F-35Bs to go with them. Germany’s Deutsche Marine may be in scandalous shape, but many other NATO navies have high standards, reputations for excellent seamanship, and capable, cost-effective ships.
Unfortunately, while the skill is there, the capacity is not. The Royal Navy boasts just 23 surface combatants – and is unable to fully man even this small fleet. In the critical (and eponymous) North Atlantic, NATO can sortie just six attack submarines. Though the situation has improved slightly since then, in 2018 the alliance could count on just a single constant maritime patrol aircraft over the North Atlantic. This is inadequate to contain the declining Russian Navy, never mind the PLAN.