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John Glen is the Member of Parliament for Salisbury and a member of the Defence Select Committee. Follow John on Twitter. Davis Lewin is the Political Director of the Henry Jackson Society and a Special Adviser to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security. Follow Davis on Twitter.

The NATO summit set to open in Chicago today will mark a crucial moment for Britain and the future of the transatlantic alliance. In practical terms, the summit is about Afghanistan and the need to ensure a successful transition, as well as reaching a deal on the cost of supporting the country when the ISAF mission comes to an end.

However, over the horizon of Afghanistan looms a number of challenges that together could combine into a crucial reckoning for NATO if we do not start to examine the future of the globe’s preeminent military alliance – and with it the fundamentals of our own security. NATO must remain a core form-giving part of the global security architecture of the 21st Century, a credible guarantor of hard security for those under its umbrella, and a permanent coalition governed by treaty in this age of the “coalition of the willing”.  

Yet, in addition to the impact of end of the Cold War and more recently the impact of austerity on defence budgets, the US has made abundantly clear its focus is shifting East, and put Europe on notice that it may no longer be willing to subsidise our security to the extent we have grown accustomed to.  This imbalance has long been recognised by many on our side of the Atlantic, but few have asserted a need to do something about it.

American leadership is indispensable to NATO, but where leadership means bearing burden, it must not be a one-way street. It is untenable that so many of the European NATO members fail to meet even the loosely defined two percent of GDP defence spending the treaty calls for. Whilst the British Government has committed to that figure only through to the end of this Parliament, it must resist the temptation to pocket the substantial budget allocation for the campaign in Afghanistan post-2014 as a “saving”. Having successfully re-established the fiscal credibility of the Ministry of Defence, we should earmark this money for investment to build and renew our military capacity for the 21st Century.


In an unpredictable and tense world, the capabilities required to secure the realm may require more than the current minimum of two per cent, and we must now face up to the true costs of sustaining our role in global governance. That said, austere times underscore the need for efficient investment. Encouragingly, NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen has invested a huge amount of personal capital in the concept of ‘smart defence’ – a term used to describe coordinated acquisition and pooled resources within the alliance.

Valid concerns are raised that this concept can mask the structural deficiencies in alliance capability and ignores the overriding problem of a lack of political will and cohesion among NATO members in Europe. Indeed, though entirely sensible on paper, pooled resources have, at times, proven unworkable in practice, as illustrated by the difficulties affecting the availability of AWACS aircraft used to monitor airspace and provide command and control capability following Germany’s troubling refusal to play its part in Libya.

The deeper question remains as to whether defence ever truly lends itself to the pooling of resources. Effective pan-European pooling would require national governments to accept potentially significant deficiencies in their capabilities by design, a concept that is in fundamental tension with natural national defence aspirations. When coupled with wider political differences in a time of great uncertainty in Europe, this dynamic gives rise to another set of anxieties: NATO can neither become a pick and mix alliance serving as an uneasy hybrid between coalitions of the willing and standing capabilities, nor can it afford a split between members who provide hard security and those that deliver humanitarian and nation building capacity.

After Afghanistan, a considered dialogue between member states will be required to agree more clearly on the basic aims and strategy for NATO in the 21st Century, be they the out of area operations required to assure the security of South East Asia, or meeting new emergent threats at home such as cyber security collectively. The NATO framework serves as a major plank – alongside our nuclear deterrent, UN Security Council seat and participation in EU structures – in our role in shaping global governance. As such, it is in Britain’s vital interest to play a leading part in shaping the alliance for our era.  

We have fought valiantly for a just cause against the Taliban where we, along with our NATO allies, must remain nimble in strategy. It will be very important to hear NATO re-emphasise the conditions-based element of the transition plan at the summit: something we would do well to gently remind our American partners of at this juncture.

We should, however, now also firmly set our sights beyond Afghanistan and play our proper role in building a NATO fit for the 21st Century. Decisions on force structure, pooled resources and effective cooperation can only flow from the sober assessment of global security, which must start with a renewed effort to define Britain’s security needs, assess European capabilities and the building of a renewed, shared platform with our indispensable ally, America.

If we do not agree what the alliance is for, we will not be able to be smart in acquisition, effective in deterrence or united should an imminent threat against a NATO member state emerge.

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