Commitment to NATO constitutes the cornerstone of the Alliance (Binnendijk and Priebe 2019). Though not identical in spirit, commitment and burden sharing seem to have become synonymous in essence in the NATO discourse. Issues of NATO burden-sharing are becoming increasingly relevant, particularly since the election of US President Trump, whose disconcerting speeches have created ambiguity as to the level of US commitment to the Alliance (Kupchan 2019; Diamond 2017; Lunn and Williams 2017). To a great degree, President Trump attempted and succeeded in setting the frame of the Ally commitment debate around the 2% target and brought burden-sharing to the forefront of the NATO discourse (Hicks et al. 2018; Techau 2015).
The so-called ‘2% goal’ requires NATO Allies to increase defence spending to a minimum of 2% of their national GDP by 2024. The goal was agreed on by the members of the Alliance in 2014 at the Wales Summit, in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. It is non-binding, but was perceived to be a meaningful commitment (Techau, 2015).
The 2014 Summit debates however, went beyond defence spending commitments. Emphasis was placed on tackling hybrid warfare and addressing energy security issues. Notably, the priorities of the agreed on Defence Planning Package included “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” as well as cyber warfare (Deni, 2014). Some of the above clearly fall outside the scope of the 2% goal, while the state of others remains ambiguous, since the definition of ‘defence expenditure’ is left to each member-state’s discretion. The Wales Summit Declaration also includes some much-less-known usability goals: 50% of each Ally’s land force strength ought to be deployable and 10% should be either engaged in or earmarked for sustained operations.
The almost exclusive emphasis on the 2% goal is a distortion of the spirit of the Wales Summit and, as many have argued, is in fact a distraction from what is needed to truly strengthen the Alliance (Simon and Williams 2017; Techau 2015). What is more, focusing on the 2% goal has proven to be more divisive than uniting, as it encourages misleading and over-simplistic perceptions of Ally dynamics (Hennigan, 2018).
The purpose of this essay is to discuss commitment to NATO and conceptualise it in a way that will allow the development of an effective mechanism to encourage and measure it. In 2019, that unavoidably entails discussing the 2% goal, as it has received unparalleled attention in the burden-sharing discourse (Hennigan, 2018). It would not be exaggerated to say that in the minds of many, it has become synonymous to burden-sharing in NATO. Therefore, this essay critically evaluates the effectiveness of the 2% goal as a mechanism to encourage and measure commitment and makes suggestions as to how the Alliance can achieve greater effectiveness in the promotion and measurement of burden-sharing.
Before attempting a critical approach to NATO’s commitment mechanisms, it is worth reviewing existing literature on alliance commitment. With regard to commitment in international relations, Weinstein (1969) distinguishes between a “situational” and a “nonsituational” approach. In the first case, formal commitments are only respected to the extent that they are compatible to the short-term national interest in the specific situation. According to the nonsituational approach, commitments are honoured even if they seem contradictory to short-term, case-specific interest. That is due to the fact that the state taking the nonsituational approach is more interested in the long-term gains stemming from the reinforcement of a commitment attitude. With regard to a defence Alliance, such long-term benefits could be building an image of solidarity and strength for the Alliance, which would increase its deterrence capacity (Kahn 1965; Schelling 1966). It is important to highlight that the primary objective of both approaches is to serve the national interest. The difference lies in the perception of national interest. That is a very salient point to be taken into consideration when trying to enhance Alliance commitment.
The NATO commitment debate inevitably revolves around burden-sharing and has done so since the childhood years of the Alliance (Hennigan, 2018). Oma (2012) categorised the factors encouraging burden-sharing behaviour in NATO according to whether they reflect system-level forces or domestic-level forces. The concept of Olson’s “collective action” seems to be a popular system-level explanation in the literature examining military burden-sharing in NATO during the Cold War. According to this theory, bigger powers bear a disproportional burden because it is to their interest to ensure the realisation of a “public good”, giving the opportunity to small states to free ride. Trump’s criticism of NATO Allies’ lack of burden sharing would be highly relevant to the collective action theory. However, according to Oma (2012), this explanation is less relevant in the post-Cold War era, as there is less exploitation of the big by the small. The concept of an indisputable “public good” is also challenged in the post-Cold War era. What is more, the theory of collective action fails to explain lack of freeriding by small states and solely takes into account size and economic efficiency.
Another system-level explanation is the “balance-of-threat”, which is based on the hypothesis that “the higher the perceived threat, the greater a state’s propensity to contribute” (Oma, 2012, p. 564). This explanation introduces geographic and political considerations -threat perceptions and intentions of potential enemies- into the burden-sharing equation.
The third and last system-level explanation mentioned by Oma (2012) is the level of dependence on the Alliance, meaning that the more dependent a state is on the Alliance for its security, the more willing it will be to present itself as a good ally. According to Oma (2012), this explanation is particularly relevant to smaller states.
System-level explanations serve to illuminate the disposition of the national government to burden sharing, while domestic-level factors mediate the will of the governments and the actual contribution, thus determining the way in which the contribution will be carried out as well as how extensive it will be. The level of governmental autonomy and the public opinion, bureaucratic politics -pressure from interest groups- and strategic culture are the mediating domestic factors that have been proved to influence burden-sharing quantitatively and qualitatively. The duality of the nature of the variables that influence burden-sharing -systemic and domestic- requires a dual approach on behalf of NATO as well.
The above are largely echoed by Binnendijk and Priebe (2019), who identified the factors that influenced allies’ propensity to contribute to a military response to the Crimean crisis. They divided those factors in three categories: (1) domestic politics -including public opinion and degree of electoral security of the governing coalition, reflecting the domestic-level explanations identified by Oma (2012), (2) perceptions of Russia -corresponding to the balance-of-threat explanation- and (3) alliance politics, which includes participation of major Allies in the operation -especially the U.S.A.-, cohesion, perceived value of NATO’s continuity and more.
A critical assessment of the 2% goal as a mechanism to inspire and measure commitment
The obsession with the enforcement of the 2% target has drawn criticism with regard to the goal’s effectiveness as a mechanism to ensure commitment, as well as a mechanism to measure commitment. The two functions are so closely knit together, that one cannot be addressed separately from the other; in fact, most of the criticism presented below simultaneously relates to both.
Simplistic and state-centred as it is, the 2% goal is very lacking in terms of ensuring effectiveness and efficiency in the Alliance. It does nothing to encourage or ensure coordination among Allies and interoperability, and there is no guarantee that the national expenditure will result in capabilities useful and available to the Alliance (Deni, 2014). It fails to account for willingness and readiness (Lunn and Williams 2017). It measures inputs, rather than outputs, which can be counterproductive (Techau 2015; Hicks et al. 2018); according to NATO Secretary General Gates, some states have “managed to punch well above their weight because of the way they use the resources they have” (Hicks et al. 2018). Other criticisms focus on the technical economic aspect, arguing that the 2% goal is arbitrary and encourages creative accountancy, since there is no uniform definition of defence expenditure2 (Techau, 2015). It has limited descriptive potential, as it fails to take into account the fluctuations of the economic cycle and can thus result in distorted conclusions (Lunn and Williams 2017). The effectiveness of the goal is further compromised by the 10-year horizon, which allows governments to ignore it and let future governments deal with it (Techau 2015).
Furthermore, the 2% goal is a very one-sided metric, as it does not account for risk-baring, participation in operations, casualties, information sharing, refugee intake or any security investments that do not fall within the scope of defence expenditure, such as development aid and crisis prevention. Germany, for example, is often on the receiving end of blaming and shaming from the US for bad performance in the 2% metric (Nasr, 2019). However, Germany is one of the leading contributors in comprehensive security initiatives, second in absolute spending and first in spending as a percentage of the GDP (Hicks et al. 2018; Deni 2014).
The cases of Greece and Denmark are often used to illustrate how unfair the 2% goal can be as a measure of commitment. By the goal’s standards, Greece is an exemplary NATO Ally, consistently maintaining defence expenditure above 2%, when Denmark would appear disloyal, with its defence expenditure at only 1.35% of its GDP (NATO, 2019). However, Greece has contributed little in NATO operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Kosovo and its readiness, mobility and capacity to deploy and sustain armed forces are believed to be lacking (Deni, 2014). Denmark on the other hand, seems to be contributing in very significant ways, bearing many casualties in Afghanistan, participating in risky allied-operations and maintaining highly capable and deployable forces (Deni, 2014). It has also suffered economic losses due to trade restrictions with Russia (Hicks 2018).
Lunn and Williams (2017) point to another loophole of the 2% metric, by arguing that increased military expenditure may be completely unrelated to the Alliance and aim to serve national ambitions, as in the cases of U.S.A. and France.
From a political perspective, focusing on the 2% goal could harm the international esteem of the Alliance. Several Allies have announced that they will not be meeting the 2% goal by 2024 (Lunn and Williams 2017; Techau 2015). This could be perceived as a sign of disparity and disintegration, having a negative impact on the credibility of the alliance (Techau, 2015). Obsession with the 2% goal is also harmful to the internal cohesion of the Alliance, causing resentment to the American public who are led to believe that the Europeans owe them money, and irritation to Europeans who feel pressured to act in a set way with no sensitivity to national strategic culture. That is largely due to inaccurate and near-propagandistic claims by U.S. President Trump (Hennigan, 2018).
Moving past the 2% goal
Dysfunctional as it may be, the 2% goal is established as an important measure of commitment to NATO. That is not due to lack of alternatives. The NATO Defence Planning Process could be a much more effective and descriptive mechanism to direct the efforts of the Allies. Measuring progress on the “Capability Targets”, which are set as part of this process, would be more fair and accurate in determining commitment, than the 2% goal. Several academics have identified other possible metrics (Techau 2015; Hicks et al. 2018; Lunn and Williams 2017; Bakken et al. 2011; Deni 2014). The 2% goal has managed to dominate them all. According to Techau (2015), it is a triumph of “simplicity over complexity”. He argues that “those advocating its use have been successful through insistence and repetition, in turning it into a totemic issue, one that has higher political significance than it would deserve on its technical merits alone” (Techau, 2015, p. 11). In other words, the advocates of the use of the 2% goal, having their own interests to serve, were more successful in their communication than those whose primary concern is the strengthening of the Alliance.
It appears that the 2% goal predicament is to a great extent a matter of strategic communication. If NATO is to overcome the ineffectiveness, confusion and friction caused by the 2% goal, it needs to persuade not only the governments, but also the public, that the 2% goal is no gospel, and focusing exclusively on it, overshadows the issues that should be in the heart of the debate.
Unfortunately, the fact that much of the information on states’ progress in other metrics is not publicly available, out of fear of blaming and shaming and of the resulting tensions in the Alliance, further complicates the situation (Deni 2014, Bakken et al. 2011). In order to overcome this, blaming and shaming will need to be replaced with efforts to persuade the Allies of NATO’s importance and of the importance of their contributions. As Weinstein has stressed, a commitment will be honoured only if it is to the state’s interest to honour it, whether for immediate and short-term or general and long-term benefits. For NATO, that translates as a necessity to ensure that the Allies see it as their national interest to strengthen the Alliance by strengthening themselves and/or to make the survival and empowerment of NATO synonymous to the Allies’ national security.
The Allies may have increased military expenditure (Hennigan 2018), however the view that this is due to pressures to meet the 2% goal is questionable. The much more plausible explanation -in accordance with the literature reviewed in the previous section- is that increased defence spending came as a result of the imminence of threat, following the Russian invasion in Ukraine. It is up to NATO to portray emerging threats as a common concern to the Allies and present itself as the solution, rather than a problem -which seems to be the case put forward through the 2% obsession-.
Of course, all this extends beyond the scope of strategic communication. Nonetheless, effective communication can command attention to the real issues, systematically expose the weaknesses of the 2% goal and change the perception that NATO is a ‘burden’ to be shared in the hearts and the minds of the people.
Ino Terzi is a Graduate with Distinction from the Department of International and European Studies of the University of Macedonia, having studied under the MSc in Communication Science of the University of Twente as an Erasmus+ student. She has also worked in London as an intern for the Embassy of Greece and in Taiwan, where she was an AIESEC cultural ambassador for Europe and Greece. She has worked as a researcher at the Institute of International, Defence and European Analyses and the Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence of the University of Macedonia.
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