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Seiron column: “Laxity” in the U.S.-Europe alliance leads to inaction in the face of crisis

  • 2015-11-12 15:00:00
  • , Sankei
  • Translation

(Sankei: November 11, 2015 – p. 7)


 By Masamori Sase, professor emeritus at the National Defense Academy of Japan


 The world rejoiced in December 1989 when the leaders of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics declared an end to the Cold War [at a joint news conference held on board a Soviet cruise ship] off the coast of Malta. A very small number of intellectuals said something telling at that time: At some future time, everyone will look back with nostalgia on the days of the Cold War. Today, quite a few people say that prediction was correct.


 NATO members have low defense budgets


 I do not agree, but some are calling the situation today the second Cold War. They say that the whistle announcing the start of the new Cold War was blown when Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea by force last year. Kiev was plunged into deep turmoil. Ukraine has long sought to become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and yet the world’s largest and strongest – supposedly anyway – military alliance did not respond appropriately or take the necessary actions.


 One reason for that is NATO’s complacency. NATO says we are no longer in an era in which force is used to resolve issues. In other words, they seem to be saying: What is wrong with being satisfied with the status quo?


 This mentality is fully evident from the military expenditures of the members. At the NATO Wales Summit in 2014, the heads of state and government of the member countries renewed the guideline that Allies should spend 2% of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense. Not surprisingly, the guideline was already widely known as a “gentleman’s agreement” in 2002 [when it was first established].


 Most member countries are not meeting the threshold even today, 13 years later. According to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the only countries satisfying the guideline other than the United States and the United Kingdom are Estonia on the Baltic Sea and Greece on the Aegean. Compliance with the guideline is in a miserable state. France, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, spends only 1.9% of its GDP on defense, and the average spent by European members of NATO is a low 1.45%.


 The problem is that economic giant Germany earmarks only 1.2% of its GDP for defense, even though the nation used to spend 3.3% of its GDP on defense in the days of West Germany (according to a 1984 survey). In a sense, this too is only natural.


 West Germany was on the frontlines of the confrontation between East and West whereas now Germany is living in complete peace and happiness surrounded on all four sides by NATO member nations. This is a perfect example of a country that is satisfied with the status quo.


 Chaotic state of the Obama administration is a headache for NATO


 In 1987, I was a visiting professor at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (German Institute for International and Security Affairs; SWP), a think tank in southern Germany. Recently an outstanding young SWP associate published a paper titled “NATO’s Two Percent Illusion.” Doesn’t that title say it all for a country that is satisfied the status quo? The article harshly criticizes the viewpoint advocated by the United States that the 2% guideline is needed.


 Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, which are all located in the northeastern segment of the NATO bloc, are very sensitive about Putin-style expansionism because they all share borders with Russia. Needless to say, they seem to have learned a lesson from Russia’s military action in Ukraine. In response, NATO is making an all-out effort to provide air support to these four countries, but NATO cannot do as much as it wants due to its tight finances.


 It seems, however, that NATO has another headache: the confused state of the Obama administration in the United States.


 With two difficult foreign policy issues facing his country at the time of his installation – the conflict in Iraq and the issue of Afghanistan – President Obama promised he would pull out of Bagdad and fight the Taliban forces, which were sheltering Usama bin Ladin. Obama moved steadily forward with his promises up through the elimination of that international terrorist group leader. Now, however, there no longer seems to be any hope that the U.S. will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year, as Obama had promised.


 Strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance


 In addition, the world now faces the issue of the Islamic State (IS). The Obama administration’s measures to suppress this inscrutable extremist group have been too reactive so far and have produced absolutely no results. Taking advantage of the situation, the Putin administration is bent on profiting from the sidelines and has discretely made its desires known to President Bashar al-Assad, dictator of Syria. President Obama strongly called for the “total abolition of nuclear weapons” when he took office; however, there is no longer any trace of the idealist he used to be at that time.


 Unfortunately, the U.S. media is now awash with news related to the next president. Every day the TV networks are absorbed in a viewer ratings battle using Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, it seems as though the current president has already been made a lame duck. This is not right.


 NATO Headquarters must keenly feel the Obama administration’s decline in leadership. Lord Ismay, the first secretary general of NATO, said the aim of the alliance was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” It seems that the reality today, however, is that the Russians are outside hurling insults, the Americans are inside but flustered, and the Germans are being selfish.


 NATO is a huge military alliance of 28 members. The Japan-U.S. Security Alliance is just a bilateral connection, but it is much stronger than NATO. Japan should learn a lesson from the state of disarray in the U.S.-Europe alliance and strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance as it looks ahead to the post-Obama era.

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