Wednesday, October 10, 2012

NATO: A Closer Look at Mitt Romney’s Two Percent Solution

by Nomad


s any businessman or lawyer will confirm, the art of deception often involves things are not said, rather than the things that are actually specified. Mitt Romney's recent foreign policy speech the other day, entitled "The Mantle of Leadership, delivered at  Virginia Military Institute, definitely fits this profile. 

Here's an interesting statement from that speech.
And I will call on our NATO allies to keep the greatest military alliance in history strong by honoring their commitment to each devote 2 percent of their GDP to security spending. Today, only 3 of the 28 NATO nations meet this benchmark.
Compared to both the United Kingdom and the United States, the rest of the NATO-member countries spend noticeably less of their GDP on defense. Therein lies the Republican complaint. According to a journalist for CQ Press:
European NATO members also spend a smaller percentage of their income on defense than the United States. Although under NATO rules all members vow to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, most European members now treat the 2 percent minimum as a ceiling instead, spending about 1.4 percent of their GDPs on defense. The United States spends about 4 percent of its GDP on defense.
American critics of NATO say that with a productive population of 445 million and a combined GDP of about $11 trillion, Europeans can afford to look after themselves militarily. But by spending less on defense — and refusing to pool their resources on most joint projects — the Europeans create resentment across the Atlantic about the unfair financial burden borne by the United States. The situation also undermines efforts to create a common defense policy within the military organization.
This has been an ongoing gripe by the Republican warhawks since the Bush administration. Certainly they have a point. Michael Cohen, writing for The Century Foundation, a progressive non-partisan think tank, points out:
Why should the United States be responsible for underwriting European security (and in turn the European welfare state), especially when European countries face not a single legitimate military threat to their well-being? Moreover, if Europeans don't think it's important enough to spend their own money on their own security, why should America? Now granted, the Europeans are a little short on cash these days, but then so is the United States. But of course as the House of Representatives reminded us recently—as they eviscerated key social safety net programs to restore cuts made to the defense budget—you can't put a price tag on a huge American military that does little to keep America safe and underwrites the security of other countries.
As unfair as the situation appears to be to some Americans, it cannot be overstated that NATO is not an American organization. Although the United States comprises the largest military force within the organization, NATO is voluntary organization, a working alliance of many nations, all with shared interests, all of them treaty-bound for mutual defense. It's not a company. If you own 51% of the hardware, you still don't have controlling shares or anything like that. 

Strikingly, Mitt Romney clearly has not understood how NATO is organized. He can tease, castigate and pull pigtails of other members but he can't force any of them to do anything. According to NATO’s website:
On signing the Treaty, countries voluntarily commit themselves to participating in the political consultations and military activities of the Organization. Although each and every signatory to the North Atlantic Treaty is subject to the obligations of the Treaty, there remains a certain degree of flexibility which allows members to choose how they participate.
The obligations are in the nature of strategic or logistical cooperation which may be very different that supplying soldiers and hardware. 

Iceland, for example, was welcomed as a NATO member at its creation and it has no armed forces at all. It never has had. It has never been expected to pay a greater share because of that. France also has a special arrangement with the organization which allows it to have greater independence in terms of foreign policy. That in no way reflects on its ability to aid fellow members in key areas when necessary. The chief obligation from its members involves a commitment to act with resolve when any of its members have been attacked. In short, collective security.

An American president cannot simply make demands as if NATO forces were his own private world army. George W. Bush attempted similar bullying tactics; his divisive rhetoric and his arrogance eventually weakened the entire structure. The GOP would never admit how much the Iraqi and Afghan invasions and occupations have damaged the organization and fractured its cohesion. Those conflicts were incredibly mismanaged and, as some cynics would say, were not seen so much as protecting security as establishing business markets and protecting US interests. 

Romney, under the influence of the same advisers from the last Republican presidency, seems eager to continue to pick up where George Bush left off.

In any case, no amount of chiding will change things. NATO-member states will continue to let the US foot the bill because.. well, they know can. There’s nothing America can do about it. Outside of angry rhetoric, what can the US do about the present situation? Threaten to pull out? Be serious. 

From their point of view, defense hardware is just another product that America (or the UK and France) is selling, like Coke, Peugeot or Canburys chocolate. 

The only realistic approach to this problem to convince NATO members that it is in their best interests to provide funding for security. Convince rather than demand, persuade with cool logic rather than hot-headed speeches largely for domestic consumption. 

For example, by encouraging collective action and by taking less of a leadership role in the Libya crisis- (which was, some might say, one of NATO’s successes) President Obama gave much more support to increased economic support from organization member nations than any of Romney’s bluster or Republican posturing. 
That point was, of course, lost on the Republicans.

Blaming the Prez
In Romney’s world, NATO members are not the only ones at fault. In what can only be considered extremely disingenuous, Romney has also pointed his manicured finger at the president for allowing NATO to fall into decay by defense spending cuts. Romney stated:
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has taken actions that will only undermine the alliance. The U.S. military is facing nearly $1 trillion in cuts over the next ten years. And President Obama has sent the message—intentionally or not—that the worth of NATO has diminished in America’s eyes. At this moment of both opportunities and perils, the NATO alliance must retain the capacity to act.

This talking point is part of a concerted effort by the Republicans to  manufacture outrage.

Their goal is partly to drum up opposition to the $500 billion across-the-board defense cut that begins in January, but it also is to get voters to blame Mr. Obama for those cuts. To do so, they have had to be less than forthright about their role in creating one of the worst examples of governance in many years..
More about that:
In last year's congressional bipartisan supercommittee, the Republicans refused to even consider cuts in defense spending to match cuts in domestic programs. Senators like Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina attempted to play chicken with Obama and they lost. This failure set in motion automatic cuts, known as sequestration, which will slash both social and defense programs by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. 
Now Romney is attempting to cast the president in the role of villain.

No matter what carping they might do about military cuts, the NYT article observes, that "the overall budget deal reduces domestic spending significantly more than defense."

This comes from the party that has constantly complained of out of control government spending. They seem to want to have it both ways. Austerity and a balanced budget except when it comes to defense spending and then it is no hold barred.

Republicans would rather cut countless social programs, including pensions for federal workers, cuts to Meals on Wheels, to child welfare, to food stamps for the needy, to day care for both children and adults and help for the disabled, all this rather than touch the Pentagon budget.

President Obama has asked for all government institutions to be pared down, across the board, including defense spending. As USA TODAY reported:
Obama said that the military will indeed be leaner, but the U.S. will maintain a budget that is roughly larger than the next 10 countries' military budgets combined.
That’s.. combined.

The questions then for Romney and all of the other war hawks is how big of an army does a nation actually need? How much of a sacrifice does he expect from the public in order to finance the world’s largest army? Where does one draw the line? How many tanks and helicopters is enough? What is the upper limit for the number of jet fighters or battleships or submarines? 

Most people would agree that if a country cannot maintain its infrastructure, its education system, or a minimum of social programs for the unemployed, the elderly and the ill, then defense spending would have to take a back seat. After all, a permanent, fully equipped modern army is exceedingly expensive and if it means the destruction of all of the nation’s social institutions, then what is the point? What’s being defended? 
These questions are being asked on both sides of the Atlantic, whether Romney and the Republicans are aware of it or not. However, the President is aware. 

He told reporters in January:
"Some will no doubt say the spending reductions are too big; others will say they're too small. It will be easy to take issue with a particular change. But I would encourage all of us to remember what President Eisenhower once said — that 'each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.' "
A Detail Romney Failed to Mention
When listening to this Romney’s diatribe, all of us should be alert to the fact that Romney neglects to mention which of the member states actually met this target. In terms of NATO expenditures by GDP percentage, here are the top seven of 2010 :

United States
United Kingdom

(One nation conspicuously absent is Germany, which, while not the richest nation of Europe does have the largest economy in Europe. Germany contributes 1.41 of its GDP to military expenditure. But then there are political sensitivities involved in advocating a well-armed German state. In fact, Luxembourg- the richest country in Europe by GDP- contributes a mere 0.57. ) 

Of that list, Greece, as the third biggest spender, stands out. It’s a shame that Romney neglected to pay suitable honor to Greece for living up to its responsibility. He might have had a good reason. 

Mitt’s apparently not heard that the bottom has dropped out of the European economy and there are very real concerns that, in light of the public reaction after EU austerity measures, Greece may go bankrupt, default on its bailout loans, and withdraw from the European Union. (Whether that would include NATO is unclear.) 

If Greece defaults as all have feared and many have predicted, nobody seems to know what the fallout will be. Safe to say, but it won’t be pretty. Greece would abandon the Euro, causing a financial/banking crisis, most international contracts would be have to be reconsidered and headaches all around in determining the true value of a new drachma. God knows what else lies around the corner. In the worst case scenario- which is the only scenario if Greece defaults- it could cause a chain reaction of defaults along Europe’s Southern flank, and that would led to a break up of the EU and probable economic collapse of the European Union. 

At present, countries like Spain, Italy and especially Greece are seeing widespread social unrest, violent protests and nation-wide work stoppages. Those austerity measures imposed on Greece in exchange for any further loans by the EU are not unlike those that the Republican leaders would like to see in the US. 

That how the situation is in the real world. In Romney’s world, Greece is doing just fine. Given its precarious economic situation, it is a little tragic to find Romney giving a thumbs up to Greece’s fiscal duties regarding NATO. (But then, for good reason he did not mention Greece at all.) 

The figure cited above is, in fact, a drop from the 2009 figure of 3.2 percent, which at the time made Greece second only to the United States in its military spending. Greece has reportedly spent EUR 8 billion on arms import over the last ten years. But times they are a-changing. 

The 2012 budget foresees spending of EUR 1.3 billion, while the 2013 budget is predicted to set aside EUR 1.5 billion for the purchase of military spare parts and new weapons systems.
According to previous agreements, Greece was to buy between four and six frigates from France and 400 main battle tanks from Russia. The Greek Air Force had lined up for 40 new fighter planes. Greece was to spend EUR 10 billion for these. NATO data indicate that Greece’s military spending has dropped from EUR 7.3 billion in 2009 to 6.7 billion in 2010.
That’s a hefty sum of cash for a nation with a population less than Los Angeles. Undoubtedly, while the party lasted, Greece was considered a valued customer for international defense firms. Nobody’s laughing now.

If anything, Greece provides the best argument against excessive and insupportable defense spending.
As one source reports:
The social hardship being imposed on an already poverty-stricken Greek population is without parallel in post-war Europe...Nowhere have the cuts been as brutal as in the health sector. Under the terms of the first memorandum agreed with the Troika, health spending was gutted by more than 10 percent. Under the second, agreed in March, a further cut of €1 billion (US$1.3 billion) was made.

The effect on the public health service has been devastating. Two weeks ago, six state hospitals reported they had lost, indefinitely, supplies of gauze, syringes and other basic items. Their suppliers claimed they had not been paid for more than a year and a half.
All over Greece citizens tell their personal experiences of economic devastation, stories that could rival any conditions found in the Third World. For good reason, few corporate-owned media outlets in the US have chosen to report how the austerity measures have affected the average citizens, or how those measures are being applied. 
In August, The International Business Times gave this snapshot:
Latest data available shows that Greece's jobless rate climbed to a new record in May, rising 23.1 percent with nearly 55 percent of those aged 15-24 out of work....Poverty is a growing problem for Greece as mass unemployment, high taxes and the rise in the cost of living threatens Greeks' ability to buy food. But pensioners are feeling it the most...

Under the austerity measures, pensioners have seen a 60 percent fall in their pensions - meaning their life savings are now less than half what they expected. Meanwhile, the government is considering more cuts, raising the retirement age and putting a cap on free healthcare provision of just €1,500 per person per year.

Greece used to have one of the lowest suicide rates in the EU but since 2010, the number of people taking their own lives has increased by 40 percent, with a large proportion from the older generation.
Predictably, crime rates have been spiraling to all time highs. Social unrest and protests are becoming so widespread that maintaining some kind of order has, in turn, added to the costs to the economy.
According to reports, one-third of the Greek population lives below the poverty line and yet, until now, the Greek government has refused to make much effort to rein in military spending. Few would say that defense spending alone created the debt that Greece is now burdened with, however, it has certainly helped. 

Incidentally, if any of this sounds like America in the Great Depression of the 1930s, there’s a good reason. The budget-balancing on individual states and the austerity measures put in place by the EU are very similar to the methods that Herbert Hoover tried before Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. And the Republican party would apparently like to return to the very same methods in the US. Except for defense spending, that is.

Imagine President Romney telling Greek citizens that they must endure the hardships of austerity in order to maintain and actually to increase its military expenditures? All because of their commitments to NATO? There is already enough anti-American, anti-European sentiment among the public.

A Tale of Two NATO- Members
Another glance at the top NATO members that Romney considers “committed” and we see Greece’s neighbor to the East, Turkey. 

It is no accident that these two nations have long had a blank check policy when it comes to military spending. In fact there are a host of very particular factors that make the situation of Greece and Turkey unique. Two nations (whose military elite had been able to play a disproportional role in the politics of their respective countries) both with a long history of shared animosity. Where Turkey and Greece meet is where the cultures of Islam and the West, if not clash, then often rub up uncomfortably against one another.
Both nations with problematic borders which they must defend. 
In the case of Turkey, the nation shares a border with eight other nations and each present diplomatic challenges, especially Turkey's two southern neighbors, Iraq and Syria. There has been an internal separatist/terrorist insurgency known as the PKK which has also necessitated a highly equipped armed force. 

Its counterpart, Greece has a border which is comprised of thousands of hard to defend islands- (some uninhabited). Many of the islands are within view of the Turkish coasts and have had a long history of invasions. (Think: easily frightened.) That border is not only the edge of a nation but of Europe itself. For that reason, Greece has long been plagued by refugees attempting to slip into Europe, through the nearby Greek island route. 

For both nations, these and other factors have been used to justify having an unsustainable armed force. It’s a vicious cycle, but certainly a lucrative one for the munitions trade. 

Having said that, NATO membership has had one positive effect. By sharing the aims of collective security, Turkey and Greece have been successful in avoiding armed conflict with one another. Had they not been members, it is doubtful whether all out war could have been avoided on several occasions.
It has, however, come at a very high economic price.

Romney’s Very Poor Timing
If, despite the evidence, Mitt Romney considers Greece a model for other NATO countries in terms of defense spending,  then the question arises how he would expect other countries like Spain, Portugal and Italy- all facing crippling debt to be able to afford to contribute more to NATO at this time. 
Clearly, these nations should be cutting back on defense spending, not increasing the amount. 
 His timing in bringing up this issue (and his call for increased spending) shows how desperately out of touch the candidate is with the true conditions on the ground, with the common folk and their hardships. Not merely Americans but Greek people, as well.  

But if Romney attempts to put his 2 percent solution into effect what would be result?

Firstly it can’t happen. What you saw in Romney’s speech, was a hollow-sounding rant by a confused candidate trying to paint himself as a leader. The text of the speech surely came directly from the oily fingers of Karl Rove. Painting Democratic presidents is as good as Rove's signature. The introduction carefully, subtly implied that President Obama’s foreign policy was based on passivity. In the Rovian world, careful deliberation and a measured approach- as opposed to bombastic threats and bold but reckless actions- can be painted as signs of weakness. 

Still, President Obama’s alternative style of leadership, based on a more thoughtful restrained approach, has had some impressive successes. (To date, not, however, in Syria unfortunately.) Of course, for the Republicans. the appeal of machismo and muscle flexing on the international stage is more important than results. 

For the sake of argument let’s let them have their fantasy. If a future -president Romney should somehow make this 2 percent military expenditure a condition for NATO membership, it is easy to see where it would lead. Many key members which are already having to deal with the economic crisis would simply walk away. They would actually have no choice. 
Or perhaps they would merely bluff. The possibility of the collapse of NATO- -"the greatest military alliance in history"- is frightful enough to cause a serious and embarrassing back-peddling- something Romney is already proficient at. 

Romney has shown, once again, that although he is able to say what the neo-cons, the big business owners and the Tea Party anarchists like to hear, there’s really very little in the way of actual policy. They coo. They rejoice and they hail Romney as the next president, never realizing that he means not one bit of it. 
Deceptive and poorly-timed, nothing in his foreign policy statement amounts to a new direction in foreign affairs. Certainly not as far as American policy for NATO. 
No, this was just Mitt Romney doing his best imitation of a leader.