In his valedictory speech last year, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued that the partnership between the North American and European sides of the NATO alliance needed a new impulse.
At the Chicago summit meeting on Sunday and Monday, leaders of the 28 NATO members will tackle that precise challenge and set the alliance on a new course to acquire the capabilities it will need to deal with an increasingly complex security environment.
It will do so by endorsing a defense package that sets forth a vision for the future NATO forces and identifies the means to achieve this objective in a time of austerity: the Smart Defense and the Connected Forces initiatives.
As NATO’s strategic commander responsible for transformation, I am confident that the decisions taken at Chicago will enable the alliance to acquire and maintain the capabilities needed to confront an uncertain future.
My command is entrusted with learning from past operations to provide effective solutions for the future. How do we prepare for the unexpected? How can we protect ourselves from increasingly complex threats?
The tumultuous events that unfolded last year in the Arab world demonstrated just how unpredictable the global environment remains. Operation Unified Protector in Libya also reaffirmed that American and European interests remain convergent and that military action by NATO in response to a crisis, backed up by a United Nations mandate and regional support, is not only possible but effective.
Although NATO’s action in Libya was a success, it highlighted a number of structural issues. Chief among these was the disproportionate reliance on the United States to provide the enablers — for example, air-to-air refueling and persistent surveillance — critical for a swift conclusion of the operation.
The Libya engagement once again raised concerns that the Europeans were counting too heavily on the United States for their security at a time when Americans were increasingly preoccupied with advancing their strategic interests in Asia and the Pacific. In short, the perception grew that the trans-Atlantic link was weakening. This assessment is neither an accurate description of current reality nor an inevitable trend.
First, the American strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific are shared by European nations that have equal stake in the region’s peace, prosperity and stability. East Asia accounts for more than a quarter of the European Union’s global trade, while China is now its second trading partner — after the United States.
Second, while short-term pressure on defense budgets on both sides of the Atlantic may contribute to deepening the capabilities’ gap, promising steps are being taken to mitigate the effects of fiscal austerity on defense budgets.
Within the European Union, the Pooling and Sharing initiative seeks to build European capabilities through multinational cooperation. This is a complementary approach to what we are doing at NATO. The Smart Defense initiative involves aligning NATO’s capability priorities with those of states; emphasizing multinational cooperation in the development, acquisition and deployment of military capabilities across the full range; and, proposing paths for specialization by design in areas where nations have comparative strengths.
The Connected Forces Initiative aims to preserve the interoperability and enhance shared abilities that have resulted from years of operations in the field. It reinforces Smart Defense through greater collaboration in military education, training and exercises, and application of new technologies.
Multinational harmonization of this scale is undoubtedly a challenge, since defense is tightly bound with national sovereignty. Nonetheless, it is incumbent on my command and all NATO structures to implement the political commitments that will be taken at Chicago and put the alliance firmly on this new path. The result will be a more cohesive and stronger trans-Atlantic alliance, adapted to the 21st century.
Ultimately, the goal our leaders will set in Chicago is to fundamentally change the way allied nations think about developing our capabilities in the long run. This objective must be sustained by strong political commitments to deepen cooperation necessary for the alliance to be prepared for current and future challenges.
NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, Libya, Kosovo and in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean all demonstrate that, more than 60 years after its ratification, the Washington Treaty remains relevant — an essential guarantor of peace and security.
Chicago, a city whose diverse population embodies the bond between North America and Europe, will provide the ideal venue to demonstrate the continued strength and relevance of the trans-Atlantic partnership as an indispensable forum for political consultation and for action.
Stéphane Abrial, a general in the French Air Force, is the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation.