The end of the year is a traditional time to pause for reflection and take a moment to look ahead. Especially so, if the upcoming year brings an important milestone, like the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Alliance.
From the outside, it may seem that NATO is approaching the year 2019 quite perplexed, if not embattled. The important decisions of the NATO Brussels Summit were overshadowed by acrimonious public exchanges among the allies on the highly sensitive issue of burden-sharing. Moreover, the recent initiatives on European defense — in particular, all the talk about a “European army” — are perceived by many as highly divisive and damaging to the very foundations of NATO.
However, to paraphrase a famous saying, the rumors of the imminent death of the alliance seem to be greatly exaggerated. The burden-sharing drama at the NATO Brussels Summit has obscured the vitally important decisions that were taken there to prepare the alliance for the post-2014 security environment. Whereas the earlier NATO summits in Wales and Warsaw focused on quick-impact deterrence measures to support the most vulnerable allies, the Brussels Summit marks the start of a systemic NATO adaptation to the conventional threat posed by Russia (as well as to the threats emanating from the south). This adaptation will take many years to complete, but its impact will be durable and profound.
In the course of 2019 we will see the key elements of NATO’s long-term adaptation process taking shape. In February, NATO will start systemic implementation of a reinforcement strategy, which will be a major step in carrying out the Readiness Initiative, better known as the Four Thirties. The initiative aims at providing the alliance with more high-readiness forces — a crucial aspect in today’s security context.
Furthermore, we will be making significant advances with the NATO Command Structure update and upgrade. Work will continue in setting up the new Cyberspace Operations Centre in Belgium to provide situational awareness and coordination of operational activity within cyberspace — a capacity that is long overdue in the alliance. Next year, the Joint Support and Enabling Command in Germany will achieve its initial operational capability to ensure rapid movement of troops and equipment into and across Europe, which has become one of the most pressing operational needs. All of these steps will make us more fit to plan and execute operations in today’s demanding security environment.
A significantly improved financial background is another major reason to approach the new year optimistically. In fact, if there is any drama in the NATO context, it is the dramatically increased defense budgets across the alliance. Last year we witnessed the most substantial growth in defense spending since the end of the Cold War, and 2019 will continue to mark further progress in this area, with the majority of the allies nearing the fulfillment of their commitment to reach 2 percent of their gross domestic product by 2024. Two eastern flank allies — Lithuania and Poland — have committed to moving well-beyond this number, striving to raise their defense spending to 2.5 percent of the GDP by 2030. We should be soon starting to see how the additional investments translate into more and better capabilities for the alliance.
We are also approaching 2019 after a year of passionate discussions on European defense and the ways to organize it. There are voices putting forward ideas on how the European Union should strengthen its “strategic autonomy” and make sure it is able to ensure security independently.
The launch of the Permanent Structured Cooperation and other European initiatives are sometimes interpreted across the Atlantic as an attempt to build an alternative to the alliance. We find such fears ungrounded. Europe’s own defense efforts notwithstanding, NATO is bound to remain an irreplaceable pillar of collective defense on the European continent. It is the sole organization that can provide truly credible deterrence and defense for its members.
As keen supporters of NATO-EU cooperation, we are very pleased to have witnessed the recent expansion of this cooperation into new areas. This cooperation has acquired additional importance with the finish line of Brexit just around the corner.
While leaving the EU, the United Kingdom will remain in Europe, with every significant defense problem in and around the continent still affecting it. The U.K. has already assumed an immense role within NATO in addressing them, and the country has continuously indicated that its commitment to the alliance will be even stronger following Brexit.
In welcoming a new year and a new chapter of its history, NATO is not doing it perplexed. The alliance is turning a new leaf, is proud of its achievements and with confidence is looking toward the future. For this reason, I am sure that 2019 is going to be a great year for the alliance.
Raimundas Karoblis is the defense minister of Lithuania.