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Spending smarter by sharing the burden with NATO June 28, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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All the world’s strategies for saving money boil down to two ideas: spend less by doing less, or spend less by doing smarter.  “Doing smarter,” of course, is far less painful than doing less, but finding the efficiencies that make this possible is a much bigger creative challenge.  One of the few clear ways to do this in the world of national security is through alliance-based burden sharing.  (Graphical data from CRS.)

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen drove this home last week in a speech dedicated to the implications of budget constraint on NATO policy.  Acknowledging that “all Allies are having to cope with the serious effects of the economic crisis,” Rasmussen concluded that “by sharing the burden within NATO, individual Allies can achieve a far greater level of security than they could achieve through any national approach – and at far lower cost.”

Secretary-General Rasmussen’s conclusion is spot on.  Sharing the burden in Afghanistan under the auspices of NATO’s International Security Force Assistance (ISAF) mission, for instance, nearly halves the troop requirement for the U.S.  102,554 NATO troops were in Afghanistan in April, but only 62,415 (61%) of those are American.

ISAF, of course, is just the most visible example of effective burden sharing.  NATO’s Partnership for Peace and Mediterranean Dialogue programs influence North African states and former Warsaw Pact members toward internal and regional stability, democratic development, and civilian control of the military.  And, looking forward, the recently-concluded Albright-van der Veer Commission suggested even broader burden sharing, including in the costly areas of missile defense and maritime security (see pg. 10).

These burden sharing opportunities, and the spending efficiencies they generate, have not escaped the Defense Department’s attention.  Secretary Gates recently urged NATO allies to maintain their resolve, and their spending, for near-term challenges.  (See Gates’ June comments in London and Brussels.)  Unstated in this push is the reality that each dollar spent on NATO by the Europeans is a dollar the Pentagon doesn’t have to find itself.

Politically uncomfortable as that reality is, Secretary Gates is right to capitalize on it.  In fact, fiscal constraint requires even more.  Today’s historically high defense budgets are unsustainable in the face of escalating debt and ever more unnecessary as the U.S moves toward withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan.  In fact, the fiscal constraint and defense discipline that we need requires doing less and doing it smarter, in cooperation with NATO and others.  Prioritizing missions is the order of the day.

Burden-sharing with NATO and others can make priority setting somewhat less painful.  Missions that we otherwise couldn’t afford can be retained at far less cost, on the condition that decision-making authority in these areas is diluted among our allies.  That cost is outweighed by the benefits in many instances, but not in all.

A critical decision must be made when the cost to a mission in terms of decision authority outweighs the benefit of greater remit and influence.  Can and should the U.S. resource and implement this mission unilaterally, or is this mission undoable or undesirable?  We must be prepared to fund and implement a select few missions unilaterally, especially those that involve the defense of our territory and sovereignty.  We also must be prepared to jettison a number of other missions that are beyond our means, unrealistic, lesser priority, or all three.

It is in this area, the relinquishing of missions, that defense budget policy is most intractable.  Yet we cannot afford to cling to everything – and NATO burden-sharing is not going to be the panacea to this problem.  Instead, NATO’s burden-sharing impact is apparent on the margins, allowing us to retain influence in missions that are not quite affordable on our own but still high enough priority to warrant attention.  This is where we spend less by doing smarter – and below that standard is where we must start to spend less by simply doing less.



1. Gordon Adams Featured on NPR « Budget Insight - July 6, 2010

[…] Spend smarter by sharing the burden with NATO […]

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