NATO, Military Spending, and Grand Strategy

In Memory of Vitaly Churkin

“…the cold war is still not over”
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov


In the art of war, financial payment for military readiness is a cornerstone of preparation.  As any serious military historian knows, it is that state-payments among allies for the expenditures of war are not always calculated in terms of gold, silver and dollars, but in the hidden costs that are not understood at the time in the preparation for war.  There is a commentary by a research think tank on such issues after the Persian Gulf War, in which the author wrote in 1991:

In addition to the direct costs of the Gulf conflict, there are other factors that have to be taken into account in figuring the total cost of the war. Again, accurate figures are hard to come by, either because the total will depend on political decisions yet to be made, or because the economic impacts are difficult to quantify. But in the long run, the financial impact of these decisions could be much greater than the expenses involved in fighting the war 

In the current North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, there is always the issue of who has been more disciplined in paying their fair share of military expenditures and who, for numerous hidden political and economic reasons, fall short in their economic responsibilities in a military alliance like that of NATO. What should be remembered is that the United States, in insisting that its nominal allies pay for the major expenditures of the Persian Gulf War had not been seen on the world’s stage since Ancient Athens demanded tribute payments from its allies during its own endless wars.  Thus, what is taking place among NATO allies regarding military payments and the United States demanding an exact military expenditure is not anything new in history.

In mid-February in Brussels, the American Secretary of Defense, General Jim Mattis (USMC-ret.) brought forth what might be seen as a harsh signal about how the United States would henceforth come or not come to the aid of its allies within the military alliance of NATO, should said allies not be more disciplined in their economic obligations in paying their fair share of military expenditures.  In essence, the current United States regime is not pleased in the way it feels that it upholds more than its share of the economic base of NATO, while its allies shrink from their economic responsibilities.  “Americans cannot care more for your children’s future security than you do,"  Mr. Mattis said in his first speech to NATO allies since becoming defense secretary.  "I owe it to you to give you clarity on the political reality in the United States and to state the fair demand from my country’s people in concrete terms.”[2]  He said that “America will meet its responsibilities.”  But he made clear that American support had its limits.

In his speech to NATO defense ministers, Mr. Mattis repeated a call made by previous American secretaries of defense, for European allies to spend more on their militaries. His comments on Wednesday give teeth to President Trump’s expressed skepticism about the alliance”[3].   As when the Warsaw Pact dissolved after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so eventually will the NATO alliance succumb to the earthquake fault lines of history, for no country is immune from the dialectical forces of history that can tear nation-states asunder, as peoples from previous political and military alliances seek out self-determination and self-autonomy.     

In any alliance there always needs to be a fair share of a quota of military expenditures by all nation-states involved. However, in order for such a grand strategy of cooperation to take place in terms of preparing for war or defending a group of nation-states, such an alliance must be creative and practical, as it must be a community alliance that is not just based on money or through forced, political coercion. If a political and military alliance is to endure over a long period of time within the dictate of the current social forces, in order to create such alliance of nation-states there must be among the leadership a collusion of genuine culture and social interaction, as well as underlying respect of national identity. If these subtle obligations are not met, then eventually a political and military alliance between the communities of nation-states will fall into the trap of bickering, suspicion and eventual open hostility. The grand strategy must include the voice of people, and not just the political and class elite, for without the proletariat, a military alliance is doomed to failure and self-destruction.

Regarding specific monetary obligations of the nation-states within the NATO alliance, The New York Times reported that:

The United States spends more of its gross domestic product on the military than any other NATO member — 3.61 percent, or $664 billion in 2016. NATO countries have committed to spending 2 percent of their G.D.P. on the military, but the only other countries that meet that criteria are Britain, Poland, Estonia and Greece. During his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Mattis called for the adoption of a plan with fixed dates to make progress toward getting to 2 percent. For decades, the United States has exhorted its allies to put more money into their military budgets, arguing that if the alliance is called on to defend a member country, the United States would have to shoulder too much of the load. But European governments have different priorities when it comes to military spending than the United States. Iceland, for instance, has no military. And Germany, which since the end of World War II has rejected military force outside self-defense, spends only 1.2 percent of its G.D.P. on the military.[4]

Dispute among the various NATO allies regarding expenditures for military spending is not unusual within the historical context of alliances and war, which goes as far back as the ancient Persian and Athenian empires, who sought to exploit their nominal allies as they attempted to spread their own form of hegemony which in some ways is no different than that of the desire of the United States to expand its empire as it, ironically, implodes from within. 

The Delian League, formed by the Athenians to ward-off or prepare for its military struggle against Persia, is an example of what can happen in such an alliance such as NATO when it falls within the hands of one member nation-state. As the classical scholar, Tim Harding wrote:  "Thucydides then describes how Athens formed a new anti-Persian alliance (known as the ‘Delian League’ in modern descriptions):

The Athenians having thus succeeded to the supremacy by the voluntary act of the allies through their hatred of Pausanias, determined which cities were to contribute money against the barbarian, and which ships;…Now was the time that the office of ‘Treasurers for Hellas’ was first instituted by the Athenians. These officers received the tribute, as the money contributed was called. The tribute was first fixed at four hundred and sixty talents. The common treasury was at Delos, and the congresses were held in the temple.

The member states of the Delian League were predominantly those most exposed to Persian attack, located in northern Greece, Ionia and the islands of the Aegean Sea (Martin 2000, 106; Hammond 1967, 256; Bury 1963, 328; Waterfield 2004, 89).  They swore a solemn oath never to desert the alliance (Martin 2000, 106); and to have the same friends and enemies (Aristotle 23, 4-5).  However, League policy was executed by an Athenian high command that also controlled the Treasury, thus concentrating power in Athenian hands from the outset (Pomeroy et al 1999, 205).[5]

Although the military leadership of NATO seemingly is one of a democratic cooperation, in fact the Supreme Allied Commander Europe – or SACEUR – which is one of NATO’s two strategic commanders, is traditionally a US commander, who  also serves as the Commander of the US European Command. One might say that the United States military has a juggernaut or vice around the nation-states of NATO, who have no choice but to do the bidding of the NATO commander, as once those ancient city states in the Peloponnese did the bidding of the Athenian military high command.  The Organisation du Traité de l'Atlantique Nord (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was ratified on April 4th, 1949 for the purpose of the nation-states within the alliance to defend themselves against an external enemy, that enemy or force being left unsaid, but in reality, that ‘enemy’ state is presumably the Soviet Union during that historical period.  

The irony regarding the perceived enemy was that there was no actual military NATO engagement during the Cold War, and it was only in 1991 during the Kuwait invasion by Iraq that NATO provided some military support, when Airborne Early Warning aircraft were sent to provide defense coverage for South Eastern Turkey, and then later a quick reaction force was deployed to that same area of conflict.[6]  In recent modern times, NATO military forces have been involved in conflicts in such places as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, the Afghanistan War and the debacle in Libya.  If one were to study the involvement of NATO closely, within the sphere of its military interventions, one may ask how much of an actual say the peoples of Europe have regarding the issues of war or peace.   We must conclude that it is the NATO hierarchy which makes the final decisions for the waging of war or the holding of peace, and that thus far in modern European history there have been no mandates nor referendums by the peoples of Europe to take into their own hands as to whether they wish to continue their participation in the military NATO alliance.    

It would not be overly ambitious to state that many members of the NATO alliance do not have confidence in American leadership to lead them into a war confrontation.  The elite or “the great”, as Machiavelli deemed the economic elite of any fatherland, are not prone to follow a populist leader, just as the people who in a manner of speaking can endure an authoritarian figure, but not a dictator, for long. There is, with the mercurial rise of the Trump regime, a fear among both the elite and the workers of Europe about who is to lead them now should war break out in Europe.  NATO members are in essence without a leadership that can draw parity with the Russians, whom they accuse of harboring a desire to invade Europe proper, since Russia has annexed Crimea and taken a bold position for giving political and military aid to the peoples of Eastern Ukraine who are seeking to create their own independence and self-autonomy from fascist rule located in Kiev.  However, more than just the fear of Russian expansionism in Europe and the Baltic States, is the bellicose behavior of the American president, and how his personal hubris has managed to inflict political wounds within his own presidential regime. Valery Garbuzov,  Director of the Institute for US and Canada Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, commenting on the resignation of President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn wrote:

Trump makes huge political blunders. If the image of the administration making ill-considered decisions, and without consent of the Congress at that, is created in the future, that will make things worse for Trump himself. He could become an enemy for himself. It will be easy to accuse him of authoritarian ambitions, attempts to solve all problems behind the scenes, without taking into account the opinion of Congress and the American people.[7]

The domestic, political blunders that President Trump creates has a political ripple effect within the NATO Council that promotes a fear and loathing not seen since diplomats met in diplomatic chambers during the Seven Years War, or during the early days of the First World War. 

A deep political irony is that staunch NATO supporter United Kingdom is now being accused of not paying its two percent level defense spending as agreed upon by NATO members.  The International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded that Britain had only paid 1.99 percent of GDP on defense last year regarding its military tribute to NATO:

Michael Fallon, the UK’s defence secretary, told MPs last month that Britain “comfortably” exceeded the Nato baseline, which he said was a “minimum”, not a target… Last year, MPs on the House of Commons defence committee questioned the lack of transparency in how the military budget was calculated. The government said it complied with NATO standards. [8]

The military journal The Military Balance | IISS was accused of miscalculation by the British Ministry of Defense (MoD) in that “calculations were “skewed by the sterling’s fall against the pound since the EU referendum” but that “The think-tank said the ratio between GDP and spending would not be affected by exchange rate fluctuation”.[9]  We see that NATO membership is wedded in the end to the corruption of capitalism at the highest level of political intrigues.

At the beginning of this essay I mentioned the Delian League prior to the Peloponnesian War and the fact that  corruption  can ensue from what seems like the best of intentions within military alliances such as the NATO alliance. To quote a classical scholar on the beginning of self-destruction on Delian League:  "The conservative aristocratic politician Thucydides, son of Melesias (not Thucydides the historian) censured the transfer of the allied treasury to Athens and the use of the money to extravagantly adorn the city of Athens (Hammond 1967, 312).  According to Plutarch, the people in the assemblies cried out:

The people has lost its fair fame and is in ill repute because it has removed the public moneys of the Hellenes from Delos into its own keeping, … And surely Hellas is insulted with a dire insult and manifestly subjected to tyranny when she sees that, with her own enforced contributions the war, we are gilding and bedizening our city, which, for all the world like a wanton woman, adds to her wardrobe precious stones and costly statues and temples worth their millions.

Although the tribute money was used for public rather than private purposes, such trenchant criticism can be interpreted as implying a form of corruption, in the sense of misuse of the money for purposes other than originally intended.  So according to the standards of the time, it was debatable whether Athenian use of allied tribute funds constituted corruption.  There were arguments for and against, as illustrated by those of Thucydides, son of Melesias, and Perikles.  But in modern times, if for example Belgium started using NATO contributions for public buildings in Brussels that would almost certainly be viewed as corruption.[10] One can look back to past history, but to learn from past history is disputable.  To not pay one’s share of defense spending as a NATO member can also be seen as a form of corruption, but then it would not be unusual in terms of modern nation-state corruption, as the pillars of American and European imperialism crack and fall apart at the base.  

At the Munich Conference in late February, the Vice President of the United States spoke about how the Trump regime would fully support the NATO alliance, while at the same time saying that  “Some of our largest allies do not have a credible path” towards paying their share of Nato’s financial burden. Although he did not name individual countries, his targets included Germany, France and Italy. “The time has come to do more," he said.[11].  It was if the American Vice President, Mike Pence, thought he was playing a shrewd hand of poker, while not know that his Russian counterpart was playing a deadly game of chess.

In essence, the American regime is thinking that the Russian Government is naïve enough to believe that there is collusion between them, and that a political wink and a nod will suffice the assurance that Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, needs to take back to Moscow.  But as Lavrov said so succinctly (and with a subtle warning), "Judging by certain statements at the Munich Conference, the cold war is still not over." He further stated: “NATO is still not ready to resume military cooperation with Russia, and this is regretful" adding that "Military cooperation should be resumed, (however) NATO's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg surrounded by his deputies yesterday could not say NATO is ready for it.  This is regretful.”[12]

We can say that it is more than regretful, for all wars lead to regret.