Imperial Ambitions: NATO’s Uncertain Path

NATO's Imperial Plans are mostly smoke, and if Asian countries have common sense, they will not tie themselves to NATO.

5 mins read
NATO summit in Washington

NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  The name should have been changed long ago, when NATO shifted its focus and operations south and eastward. NATO is shifting once again, most seriously by expanding its membership without any serous planning about how to secure its new flanks.

Outgoing NATO Chief  Jens Stoltenberg said last month that China should face consequences for its support of Russia. He wasn’t specific. “It’s too early for me to say exactly… My message is that is… it’s not sustainable and viable that China continues to fuel the biggest security threats … for NATO allies, especially in Europe.”

Adding China, even theoretically, to the concerns of the Atlantic Alliance is a very big step and it widens the list of countries looking for NATO protection.

The limited good news at the NATO Summit is that the alliance actually recognizes its weakness.  The plan is to increase budgets and significantly enlarge the number of troops that can be committed if NATO goes to war.  

According to the internal plan, NATO must grow its deployed or deployable troop strength by 35 to 50 brigades.  The NATO leadership will need to convince its members to enlarge their armies, equip them, and have the transport and supply capability to support them in the field.

The US also has around 100,000 troops in Europe, with around 20,000 helping shore up NATO’s battlegroups.  NATO’s troop expansion is on top of the US troop presence.

A brigade in NATO is 3-5,000 troops, meaning that NATO could be short up to 250,000 troops in total.  Raising and training a large number of soldiers in NATO countries is a challenging task; it may also be impossible. 

In most of Europe and in the United States, military recruiting is well below where it should be. In the US, only the Marine Corps and Space Command met their recruiting goals – the Army, Navy and Air Force fell short. The British and Germans missed their targets by wide margins.

Germany, which could again become a front line target if there is a war in Europe, has an army of 184,000 military personnel and 80,000 civilian personnel made up of Professional soldiers (57,365), Contract soldiers (114,243) and Voluntary military personnel (9,748); there is no conscription. Very recently, the proposed German defense budget was reduced by 5 billion Euros.  For Germany to comply with NATO’s plan it would have to quadruple its defense budget and impose conscription.

Fat chance.

At present NATO does not have brigades – it has battlegroups, each of which has about 1,000 soldiers. There are presently 8 battlegroups and NATO is trying to add 4 more. This means is that in addition to creating 35 to 50 new brigades, it would also have to enlarge its 8 battlegroups into brigades. So far at least, there is no agreement on how to do so.

At the NATO Summit, new commitments have been made to shore up Ukraine by offering four new Patriot air defense batteries and additional F-16s (six of them) from Norway. Some NATO members are now also talking about shipping “squadrons” of F-16s to Ukraine, but that may be propaganda. (There is a good chance the US will end up paying for the Patriots.) The reason is straightforward: NATO knows that its grandiose enlargement plans are not going to happen, so it needs Ukraine as a buffer to Russia.  As long as Russia is tied down, NATO can avoid exposure of its shortcomings.

In the Pacific

While NATO is floating plans for enlargement of its membership and its capabilities, and putting China on notice about its own behavior, democratic friends in the Pacific are looking for a NATO umbrella. 

Australia is attending the Summit, wanting to take advantage of NATO military know-how.  New Zealand, which wants to encourage the US as the leading NATO member, to protect it from China, has sent its Prime Minister to the meeting.    

Japan’s Prime Minister and South Korea’s President are there, apparently buying into NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s vision that NATO must confront both Russia and China.  Japan has longstanding, unresolved issues over the Northern Territories (the Kuril Islands), occupied by the USSR at the end of World War II.   But the bigger problem is China, which Japan fears will soon take over the Pacific First Island Chain after “solving” the Taiwan issue; Taiwan sits right in the center of the chain. China has territorial claims on Japanese-administered islands, essentially the Senkaku Islands – which China calls the Diaoyu Islands. China also claims Okinawa, which is militarily important to the United States.

The US and Japan and the US and Korea have defense treaties (the 1960 Japan-US treaty was recently updated).  The US maintains a significant presence in both countries. In Japan there are 54,000 US military personnel and another 8,000 contractors (plus another 25,000 Japanese workers). The US home ports a nuclear aircraft carrier in Japan and maintains a significant air force and naval presence. In Korea, the US has 28,500 troops, primarily Army, stationed mostly at Camp Humphreys.  The US also maintains strategic missile defenses in Korea.

South Korea has mandatory military service for all males starting at the age of 18, producing a large army with 500,000 active troops and 3,100,000 reservists.  Its primary adversary, North Korea, has an even larger active army, now numbering 1,320,000 active troops and a reserve of 560,000.  Unlike North Korea, which has nuclear weapons, South Korea relies on the American “nuclear umbrella” for protection from its northern neighbor.

Japan, however, does not have conscription and has missed its Self Defense Force recruiting goal by more than 50%.  Young people in Japan today can get good jobs that pay well.  The Self Defense Force pays poorly and is unattractive as a career choice.

Who Benefits?

What would Japan or South Korea gain from a relationship with NATO – if not membership?  It is hard to see how NATO could be of any real help to either and it could complicate the US-Japanese and US-South Korean relationships by adding another command complex standing between them and their American sponsor.

Likewise, it is worth asking, what would NATO gain from a relationship with major US clients in Asia?  NATO does not have any power projection capability with respect to Asia.  There is not much that NATO can put on the table of any real interest to either Japan or Korea, other than politics.

In fact, it can be argued that many European “prestige” projects have squandered sensible efforts to strengthen conventional land, air, and naval forces. 

Political Headwinds

NATO also faces some significant political headwinds. 

One is from former President Donald Trump.  As president, Trump loudly demanded that the NATO partners increase their defense spending. While the US was spending 3.57 percent in 2018, only eight of the 29 allies at the time were spending the NATO goal of 2 percent. Some of the allies moved forward, some did not. Perhaps more worrisome, former Trump aides have suggested that Ukraine is a European problem, not an American one.  Stories that NATO wants to “Trump-proof” itself are all around, as European politicians fear that Trump won’t favor a continuous war with Russia. 

What is clear is that Trump’s instinct is to negotiate with Russia, something Europe, aside from Hungary, rejects unequivocally.  

There also are serious and unavoidable economic issues.  Should French President Emmanuel Macron make concessions to the left,  it will be painful.  The left wants a 90% “wealth tax” and far greater social spending. (“Wealth” is already leaving France.)  France cannot do that and still put billions into Ukraine.  Current arsenals are badly depleted, so real funding for the future will have to come out of current operating budgets.  The consequences are an economic death spiral for France; one that could be repeated in the UK with its new Labor government.

NATO’s Imperial Plans are mostly smoke, and if Asian countries have common sense, they will not tie themselves to NATO.

Stephen Bryen

Stephen Bryen is a former Deputy Under Secretary of Defense and is a leading expert in security strategy and technology. Bryen writes for Asia Times, American Thinker, Epoch Times, Newsweek, Washington Times, the Jewish Policy Center and others.

Shoshana Bryen

Shoshana Bryen is senior director of the Jewish Policy Center and editor of in FOCUS Quarterly.

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