Trump Was Right: NATO Is Obsolete
To fight the wars to come, the transatlantic alliance is going to need to start spending more — but not on tanks and fighter jets.
The much-discussed requirement that NATO members spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense is a crude measure, often misunderstood or criticized. But there are clear benefits to such a benchmark. It focuses attention on the need for adequate military spending — especially important in democracies, where votes are typically to be found in tax cuts and social care, not tanks and soldiers’ pensions. It is a tool that builds unity, enhances NATO’s capacity to act, including in humanitarian operations abroad, and is a deterrent, offering no encouragement to adventurism from Moscow or anywhere else.
But all tools can get rusty or outdated, and the existing 2 percent benchmark is a perfect example. Now that “war” is as much about hacking, subversion, espionage, and fake news as it is about tanks, the West needs a minimal baseline requirement for spending on “hybrid defense”: police services, counterintelligence services, and the like.
Much of this may sound as if it shouldn’t be NATO’s business; this is a military alliance, after all, and it should be no more responsible for parachuting forensic accountants in to check whether British banks are laundering dirty Russian cash than it should be hunting spies in the Balkans. But it should matter just as much to members of the alliance when their fellow members underspend on hybrid defense measures as it does when they underspend on the military. Given that NATO now recognizes cyberattacks as possible grounds for invoking Article 5, the alliance’s mutual defense clause, weak national cyberdefenses are a potential invitation to a wider conflict. More broadly, a failure to address nonkinetic defense undermines the solidarity and common confidence building at NATO’s heart.
After all, NATO membership is a powerful but only partial guarantee. Take Montenegro for example (which spends about 1.3 percent of its GDP on defense). The latest country to join the NATO club, the tiny Balkan nation was welcomed under the alliance umbrella in early June, as part of an effort to push for further integration with the West and to secure greater NATO commitment to the Balkan region. Montenegro is now likely safe from overt Russian military action, but what about covert measures? Shortly after joining, the country came under serious cyberattack — likely as a consequence of its new membership. The attacks came a few months after 20 Montenegrins and Serbians were arrested and, along with two Russians, charged with planning a coup. Montenegro claimed Moscow was behind the operation, and Russia’s ritual denials lacked conviction.
Had the coup succeeded, it would have left NATO’s newest member in severe disarray, vulnerable to further political subversion. It would have been an ominous warning to the rest of the Balkans: Mess with Moscow, put your faith in the West, and who knows what kind of underhanded dangers you’ll face. And had Montenegro successfully been destabilized, the chaos likely would have encouraged yet more aggressive Russian adventurism and not just in the Balkans.
With the West, and Europe especially, engaged — like it or not — in a political war, we ought to pay as much attention to ensuring common minimal standards of “hybrid defense” as we do to outright military spending. My own preliminary investigation — with an assist from Jakub Maco, a research assistant at the Institute of International Relations Prague — indicates that spending on the sorts of things that constitute hybrid defense indeed varies widely across the alliance.
Graphic by C.K. Hickey. GDP figures are from Eurostat for 2016. Police figures are from Eurostat (2015) except for Albania, Spain and Turkey. Intelligence budget figures are from various sources, but comparable ones for Greece, Iceland, Italy and Luxembourg were not available. New member Montenegro was not included.
Policing, for example, contributes directly to “hybrid security.” Not only is organized crime sometimes an instrument of Russian covert activity, but a sense of public insecurity can be mobilized by malign propaganda to generate social tensions and support divisive extremist political agendas. A capable, well-trained, and resourced police force also provides the state with more scalable responses in times of crisis. Deploying soldiers against rioters, for example, is not just bad optics; it increases the risk of escalation. Yet the available data suggest that some countries take adequate funding for policing more seriously than others. While allowing for some discrepancies in the quality of this early and still partial information — police spending is often hard to compare across countries because of the variety of local and national forces — we still found significant variation. Police spending averages 0.93 percent of GDP, with ranges from Bulgaria’s and Greece’s 1.4 percent to the 0.5 percent of Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, and Spain.
Security and counterintelligence services are also a critical aspect of hybrid defense. They are necessary to help monitor and close down foreign espionage and subversion operations and the secret “black account” funding used to support destabilizing groups and activities. When comparing spending here, the quality of data is again worth noting: France’s anomalously low security service figure and Romania’s unexpectedly high one are likely artifacts of inconsistent definitions of what qualifies as a security agency. But it’s possible to draw a broad conclusion — namely that such spending varies enormously across the continent. Counterintelligence and security spending among European countries averages 0.07 percent of GDP but (absent France and Romania) ranges from the United Kingdom’s 0.15 percent down to Belgium’s 0.01 percent. These disparities risk creating vulnerabilities for everyone. It is widely acknowledged, for example, that the Czech Republic (below average on counterintelligence spending) is a hub for Russian intelligence operations across Central Europe and NATO, and the EU headquarters in Belgium (lower yet) is a playground for Moscow’s spooks. One can certainly question the details here. This was a quick-and-dirty exploratory exercise, aimed less at providing answers than investigating whether there might be grounds for future, more serious analysis. But, nonetheless, it throws up interesting evidence of European priorities and concerns. Countries such as Bulgaria and Estonia, for example, which acknowledge a serious and sustained effort by Moscow to penetrate and subvert them, have above-average counterintelligence spending to match. However, others appear to be neglecting this element of their security, focusing perhaps too much on policing, the regular military, or neither.
Simply having a common benchmark for hybrid defense will inevitably improve the quality of the data. It will also force European countries to do something new to most of them: to consider the whole gamut of nonkinetic defensive measures available, from counterintelligence to media awareness, as part of a single, unified security concept.
So it is time to have this conversation. Nonkinetic security spending, just like defense budgets, buys protection on a variety of levels. It blocks malign foreign activities, provides wider ranges of capability and response, and acts as a deterrent. In an age of hybrid war, minimum common standards of hybrid defense are a must.
Photo credit: Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration