By Sarah Raine

Since its foundation in 1949, NATO has been the cornerstone of the defense of the liberal international order.  Yet as this 20th century alliance for regional territorial defense confronts the more amorphous and global security challenges of the 21st century, so the alliance has to adapt.  Should it fail to do so, NATO will survive as a collective defense organisation, but it will not thrive.  It will be the regional alliance which handles, for example, severe disorder on the periphery of the Eurozone, or the rise of violent nationalism in states that find themselves on the outside of a reworked European project.   But it will not be the type of alliance which, in 2011, conducted six operations on three continents.  To thrive, NATO has to evolve into a hub of global security with a network of partners across the globe.

As about 60 member states, partners and international organizations assembled in Chicago for the biggest summit in NATO’s history, the superficial signs of adaptation were there.  But the reality is that the present network is unhealthily dependent on the United States, whilst the relevant capabilities of NATO’s European members – and in some instances even their aspirations to such capabilities- are becoming ever more limited.   Only 10 NATO member states chose to participate in Operation Unified Protector in Libya, and only six demonstrated both the capability and the willingness to conduct air strikes.

In contrast, amongst “the rest,” defense spending is on the rise.  This year defense spending in Asia is set to exceed spending in Europe for the first time in modern history.  One recent Economist projection based on current trends foresaw China’s defense spending overtaking U.S. defense spending around 2035.

Europe’s extreme dependence on the United States for NATO’s hard security capabilities is bad for stakeholders in the liberal international order and bad for the alliance. Some aspects of this dependency are unlikely to change.  Absent an unforeseen existential threat, defense budgets are not about to rise any time soon.  Meanwhile, pragmatic concerns over the retention of sovereign control of military capabilities will continue severely to limit the impact of any belated conversion to the pooling and sharing of European military resources.

Yet in a world of the rising rest, it is both realistic and practical to expect European member states to pay more attention to the cultivation of security dialogues beyond NATO’s borders — including joint exercises and the expansion of military training, exchange programs and port visits.  European NATO member states such as the UK and Germany are belatedly ramping up their diplomatic engagements in Asia and Latin America, but the development of parallel military-to-military dialogues is lagging behind.  (In Asia, Europe’s preservation of the arms embargo on China and its promotion of arms exports to friendly powers like India are not insignificant, but it is strategy more by default than by design.)

In the encouragement and coordination of a broader security strategy by NATO’s European members to engage “the rest,” the example offered by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, with his February 2012 visit to Brussels and London to discuss common interests in the Asia-Pacific, is noteworthy.

However, even in the event of this broader outreach materializing, antipathies on the part of the “rest” towards this Cold War-era alliance of the West will be hard to overcome.  Meanwhile, NATO’s own abilities to defend the liberal international order are becoming more limited as security stretches beyond traditional geopolitics to include issues such as economics and resource management.

The community of values which NATO represents in hard security terms will therefore need bolstering through cooperation in other fora.  Parallel organizations of like-minded allies will have to emerge, incorporating those states committed to issues such as freedom of trade, the protection of intellectual property, and the primacy of the rule of law.  The Trans Pacific Partnership has potential to develop into one such organization.  A similarly inclusive initiative in the maritime arena based around the protection of sea lines of communication could also be considered.

The rise of the rest does not need to mean an end to the thriving of the West.  But the continued preservation of the liberal international order will be best protected by a security alliance that evolves beyond shared cultural and historical affinities to engage new partners in new arenas — and by the promotion of parallel economic and resource communities which are inclusive by outlook but disciplined in the values and standards demanded of their members.

Sarah Raine is a Berlin-based Fellow of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the German Marshall Fund of the United States.