NATO in the 21st Century: a More Cautious, Defensive, and Conservative Alliance

August 2, 2013

Written by Mark Adomanis, Russia Hand for Forbes. You can read his work at Forbes.com and follow him on Twitter @MarkAdomanis.

Given the demographic and economic decline of its newest members in Eastern Europe, NATO is going to become a lot less aggressive and a lot more focused on territorial defense.

It seems like a lifetime has passed, but it was barely a decade ago that, in the build-up to the Iraq war, conservative activists in the United States first coined the term “New Europe.” According to this concept, New Europe, unlike the cynical and cowardly Old part of the continent, was aware that the defense of freedom often required aggressive military action. New Europe treated NATO not as a political talking shop or as a way to teach consolidating democracies about the virtues of civilian control, but as a serious military alliance that demanded serious military commitments from its members. Rather than shrinking away from conflict, New Europe would enthusiastically embrace its role as an American ally and would pick up the slack from the Germans, French, Dutch, Danes, and any other country whose martial spirit had withered away.

There was, of course, a fair amount of political grandstanding and wishful thinking wrapped up in the concept of New Europe. Hawkish “Atlanticist” intellectuals and pundits let themselves get a little carried away with the possibilities afforded by the new NATO members who were, so to speak, more willing to pull the trigger. And yet, when all was said and done, the newer members of the alliance really were more willing to support American armed interventions and really were less patient with the niceties of international diplomacy: in Iraq and Afghanistan, formerly communist countries did more than their fair share and were decidedly more generous in their contributions than longer-standing American allies. The new NATO countries were also very vocal in demanding that the threat from a supposedly resurgent Russia be taken seriously. Couple that concern with the fact that post-communist Europe seemed to be rapidly economically converging with its wealthier and more developed Western neighbors, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that NATO was going to become a noticeably more aggressive alliance.

But along the way to a more assertive NATO, several inconvenient things happened: the world financial crisis, a recession, and a round of brutal government budget cuts. After almost a decade of runaway economic growth, many countries in New Europe suddenly found themselves dealing with shrinking economies, endless austerity, and increasingly serious emigration-driven population crises. Consider the following graphs, which show what’s happened to the purchasing power parity (PPP) and inflation-adjusted gross domestic products (GDPs) of the new NATO members, their level of military spending, and their overall populations. For clarity’s sake, by “new NATO members” I mean the following: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovak Republic, and Slovenia. For various reasons, Poland has actually performed quite well over the past several years, so in all three graphs I’ve included two series: one which looks at all of the new NATO members and one which looks at all of the new members except Poland.

Data from the World Bank shows that outside of Poland, which has weathered the recession better than any other part of Europe, the new NATO members have had stunted post-crisis economic performances and are still substantially below their pre-crisis peaks.

On the military spending front things are even worse. When you consult the SIPRI database, you find that, including Poland, the new NATO members spent about 7% more on their militaries in 2012 than they did in 1999. But when you exclude Poland, which increased spending by more than 50% in the relevant timeframe, there has been a shocking collapse: cumulative spending in all of the other new NATO members is 16% below the 1999 level. That is to say, other than Poland, the new NATO members are now spending less on defense than they did before they joined the alliance.

On the population front, Eurostat data shows that things are not much better. It is true that Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have essentially been stable over the past 14 years, which by the region’s standards is exceptionally good performance. Other countries in the region, however, particularly Bulgaria and the Baltics and, to a lesser extent, Romania, are swiftly emptying out. Since 1999 Bulgaria has lost more than 10% of its population, and the Baltics have shrunk by more than 20% in the two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. This decline is only likely to accelerate as any lingering migration restrictions to other EU countries are lifted and labor becomes increasingly mobile.

Far from being invigorated and energized by its new members, a NATO that has to protect a swiftly depopulating and economically stagnant swathe of Eastern Europe is likely to become even more conservative and cautious and even less willing to engage in foreign commitments. Many of the new members are, to use a Russian phrase, “security consumers” who contribute little value to the alliance, but who nonetheless receive all of the (substantial) benefits of membership.

During the height of the pre-2008 boom it seemed as if many East European countries were on the road to becoming genuine security providers, bolstered as they were by rapid growth and healthy government balance sheets. Already modest defense budgets have been slashed to the bone. Cuts of that magnitude have permanent consequences for combat readiness and effectiveness, and while the combat power of, say, the Estonian air force, the Lithuanian army, or the Croatian navy was never overawing to begin with, if their budgets are cut any further many East European militaries aren’t going to be fit to leave the barracks, much less offer any meaningful assistance to a NATO intervention.

NATO will continue to exist, but given the demographic, economic, and military trends of its newest members it seems as if it will be increasingly focused on its original goal of territorial defense. Whether that is good or bad depends largely on your views of NATO’s proper role (interventionists and neoconservatives will likely be disappointed, while realists will be delighted) but the economic, demographic, and military weakness of Eastern Europe will only continue to grow.

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