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New NATO Members: Security Consumers or Producers?

Authored by Colonel Joel R. Hillison. | April 2009

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In reading the headlines recently, one would assume that all of our North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies are shirking their commitments to the alliance and relying on the United States to do the heavy lifting in places like Afghanistan. But the reality is more nuanced. The contributions of NATO members vary greatly from country to country, and not all NATO allies can be characterized as free riders. While burden-sharing debates have been an enduring feature of NATO since its founding in 1949, they have become more heated in recent years as the U.S. military finds itself over-stretched in Afghanistan and Iraq and facing tough budgetary decisions due to the recent economic crisis.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the recent enlargement of NATO from 16 to 28 members have increased the challenges faced by the transatlantic alliance. Combined with a larger and less homogenous group of states and a more ambiguous threat environment, NATO's attempts at crisis management have magnified the challenges of garnering sufficient political will and resources to support its required capabilities and out of area missions.

While there is little that can be done to compel alliance members to contribute, it is important to understand the nature of burden-sharing in the alliance, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in April 2009. This monograph uses a historical analysis of burden-sharing among new NATO member states in the post-Cold War period (1992-2008) to provide insight on burden-sharing behavior to senior leaders in the U.S. military and for researchers interested in NATO issues.

Burden-sharing can be defined as "the distribution of costs and risks among members of a group in the process of accomplishing a common goal." Burden-sharing is essentially a collective action problem. Those who do not contribute to the attainment of the common goal are called free riders. The problem of burden-sharing between the United States and other alliance members has been extensively studied in the context of NATO prior to 1999. However, little has been written about burden-sharing by NATO's new members.

This monograph tested the hypotheses that large states would contribute more than smaller states and that new members would contribute more than older members, using a regression model of defense expenditures. The results of this model suggest that the larger NATO states (as measured by population and physical area) had higher levels of military expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) than older states. However, the results also suggested that wealthier states had relatively lower military expenditures as a percentage of GDP.

The results of this model also suggest that the new NATO states, on average, had higher levels of military expenditures as a percentage of GDP than older states. This relationship was also true when comparing individual new members (the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland) to older NATO members of comparable population size (Belgium, Portugal, and Spain). This was partially because of the new members' need to modernize their armed forces and their desire to develop compatible NATO capabilities. However, it was also due to their desire to establish a good reputation within NATO.

This monograph also looked at new member contributions to three NATO missions: Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. While old members shared a greater relative proportion of burdens than new members in two of the three cases examined, the contributions of the new members, on average, increased over time after gaining membership. In the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, as in the U.S.-led mission Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the new member contributions from the 1999 wave equaled or exceeded those of similar sized older NATO members. These contributions were also qualitatively different from some of the older members in that these forces had few, if any, caveats. The increasing level of contributions by new members over time suggests that earlier disparities were more likely caused by capability shortfalls rather than deliberate free-riding behavior. As new member capabilities and levels of interoperability increased, new member states have been more willing and able to take on additional responsibility and burdens.

The findings suggest that new members have done reasonably well in sharing alliance burdens over the past 10 years. When looking at defense expenditures, while not currently meeting the NATO standard of 2 percent of GDP, new members are spending relatively more than their older alliance counterparts. In looking at troop contributions, especially in Afghanistan, new members have done quite well. Where troop contributions lagged during early NATO missions, this can largely be attributed to a lack of capability versus a lack of willingness to contribute.

However, since new members have earned their credibility in NATO, they may feel less compelled to live up to their commitments if other NATO members continue to free ride. Our focus now should be on building capability in our new NATO partners and sustaining their willingness to contribute through military assistance, bilateral encouragement, public recognition, and continued cooperation. It is also prudent to remember that burden-sharing is in the eyes of the beholder. While asking how much more allies can provide to NATO, the United States should also consider where it would be without NATO.