Defense policy during the new reality of tight budgets

  • 2011-09-14
  • By Karoliina Raudsepp

IN THE LION’S DEN: Dr. Liam Fox was in Tallinn for discussions including member state responsibilities to NATO.

TARTU - Defense is always high on the agenda. This is the message that was enforced at the end of August by the two-day visit to Estonia by the British Minister of Defense Dr. Liam Fox. During his first day, on Aug. 30, he visited the Baltic Defense College and held a speech about multi-layered security.

On the second day he met with the president of Estonia and the minister of defense. He also visited the Freedom Square where he laid a wreath in memory of the Estonian as well as British lives lost in the Estonian War of Independence. During his speech he praised Baltic commitments in Afghanistan and praised the “Lions of Estonia” who work there as part of Taskforce Helmand. He also emphasized the need to get rid of structural economic weakness in order to ensure security.

Dr. Fox also explained the importance of the Nordic Group of nations, which includes the Baltic and Nordic countries, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands, in ensuring security. He was asked by The Baltic Times if some member states, not following the 2 percent of GDP spending rule, hamper a NATO response in case of aggression from a third state. “Yes, I think it is important that we recognize that membership in NATO brings with it responsibilities, and these are manifold. They require us to maintain our investment in the total project; otherwise the burden will fall on some of the members. Politically that might be risky in terms of those taxpayers continuing to fund that. And we also have to look how we integrate better inside NATO with joint procurement and development to ensure that we are not duplicating by investing in things that might be complimentary.

So I think there is quite a big change that needs to take place in NATO thinking to be able to ensure that we maximize our ability to respond, given the size of the finances we have. America is about to embark on very big defense cuts, at least 450 billion dollars between now and 2020, but if there is not an adequate budget settlement in Washington, that could be as high as 900 billion dollars and this could have major implications,” said Dr. Fox.

In terms of whether NATO has the ability to enforce member states in meeting spending rules, he goes on, saying “Unlike other parts of government spending, defense spending is different. We do not choose wars, they usually choose us and we therefore have to respond. We are always in a better place if we have made the investment in advance. In Afghanistan, Britain found itself with, for example, too few helicopters because we had not invested in the previous years. We are doing that again so we do not run into the same problems. There is no mechanism to force NATO members into spending, but I think we do need to have some pretty rigorous debate whether countries can expect to hear their voice as loudly if they are not willing to take part in the activity. One of the things that has been very useful about the Nordic group that we have been involved in is that we have said we have a common strategic outlook, common interests in maritime security and anti-piracy and so on.”

Dr. Fox discussed what NATO initiatives are included, in terms of soft power, in countering  a massive Russian attack against the Baltics, for example, or its interference in the politics of both the Baltics and Russia. “I think the most important thing that NATO brings to that is to say that the small nations count just as much as the big nations when it comes to Article 5. Once you have the guarantee of Article 5 it does not matter whether you are the size of the U.S. or Estonia. And that umbrella, I think, has more credibility when the burden is shared more widely and when countries feel that all NATO members would come to their rescue. One of the reasons Britain got involved in the Nordic group is precisely because of these anxieties mentioned. Britain is more involved, it is a nuclear power, it has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – I think this brings confidence in the Article 5 message home in a much stronger way if we accept that we are a Northern European power,” asserted the defense minister.

Though he said in his speech that NATO is no longer a threat to Russia, to the question is Russia a threat to the Baltics, he replied: “I do not think NATO ever was a threat to Russia. NATO’s aim is to protect the values and freedoms that we took from the defeat of Nazi Germany. We have acted under the rules of the United Nations to carry out a global security role. When you are speaking privately to Russian politicians they accept that NATO is not a threat to Russia. I do not believe that Russia is a direct threat to Western Europe in the way that it used to be, but there are still political tensions that we need to try to work to defuse so that Russia recognizes that we can be a partner in terms of global security and common strategic outlooks that we are likely to increasingly share. We have been discussing with some of our Russian colleagues how we can better share knowledge of one another’s strategic global view so that we might work through some of these probably unnecessary historically dated tensions that exist. We need to work with Russia to get them to work alongside us on things like missile defense to understand common threats – we have to do that in a way that does not make them feel in any way threatened.”

On the second day of his visit, Dr. Fox and the Estonian Minister of Defense Mart Laar sat down for a longer conversation on defense policy. They discussed the situation in Afghanistan, where Estonian and British soldiers fight side-by-side. Dr. Fox thanked the Estonian soldiers for their input and highlighted the role of political and economic reconstruction needed in Afghanistan.

The defense ministers agreed to exchange information and coordinate their activities in Afghanistan, which includes organizing a separate meeting between the Estonian, Danish and British ministers of defense during the NATO meeting in October. Dr. Fox also praised the Estonian decision to raise their defense budget to the two per cent of GDP agreed in the NATO treaty. Laar and Fox also discussed the importance of economic policies in regard of defense policy, focusing especially on controlling the debt burden and keeping national budgets in balance.

Defense Minister Laar said that this was a reunion of old friends, reports the Ministry of Defense. “Estonia and the United Kingdom cooperated closely as far back in history as during the War of Independence, as well as today in Afghanistan. Both sides value this cooperation greatly. We share a common understanding of both the situation in the world as well as NATO and the both of us have decided to commit to ensuring security, not only in words but also in actions. This creates a good foundation for further concrete cooperation,” said Laar.

Dr. Fox’s visit and his discussion with The Baltic Times brought up bigger questions about the role of the Baltic States within NATO, as well as in a redefined European Union which increasingly includes defense initiatives. In the new millennium it has become popular to equate two of the key EU principles of economic prosperity and democracy with defense. International relations analysts call this the widening of the security concept, an issue which has caused much debate in the political science community.

What is more, another question important not only to Estonia and the Baltics, but also other NATO member states, is to keep to their 2 percent commitment. It should also be acknowledged that the U.S. and the UK cannot be expected to pick up the slack when other NATO members refuse to contribute the required spending amount.
Even if the Baltics could demonstrate that 2 percent of their budgets were going to defense, they are still some of the smallest members, as well as geopolitically the most vulnerable. Baltic hopes are likely to be lying on Article 5 of the NATO treaty, whereby an “armed attack against one or more of [the member states] in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and, consequently [...], if such an armed attack occurs, each of them will assist the Party or Parties so attacked.”

Worries are still present in the Baltic States, however. Seeing as an armed attack on any three could really only come from one great power in the world - namely Russia - there have been questions about the willingness of the NATO partners to protect the Baltics. Peeter Kuimet from the press office at the Estonian Ministry of Defense commented that “In the more than 60 years of NATO, no member state has fallen victim to a direct military aggression, as the defense of Article 5 of the NATO treaty has successfully deterred all possible aggressors. Even more so, there is no reason to doubt the effectiveness of Article 5.”

Estonia is currently just short of its 2 percent commitment. In 2011 the country’s defense budget was 279.9 million euros, which translates to 1.9 percent of Estonian GDP. This is 31.0 million euros more than the year before. Latvian and Lithuanian defense budgets have in recent years been proportionately considerably smaller; in 2010 neither reached 1.2 percent. Kuimet explains: “according to the coalition treaty, defense spending will be raised to 2 percent of the gross domestic product in 2012, and that level will be maintained. Thereby we will reach the level of defense spending recommended by NATO; we guarantee the money needed to enhance Estonian defense abilities and give defense planners a stable and safe monetary limit for the planning of future investments.” When Estonia joined NATO, defense spending was 1.51 percent of GDP and over the tumultuous years that followed, although sums might have increased, the percentage has never reached the 2 percent line. 2012 would be the first year when Estonia fills its commitments.

According to the Estonian “Military Defense Action Plan 2009-2018,” Estonia will spend 40 percent of its defense spending on procurement and funding construction; 60 percent will be spent on every day costs and spending. The key investments planned for the near future are the renovation of Amari Airbase; renovation of practice fields; the building of the 3D medium-range radar in Muhumaa and other renovation plans.

In order to enhance security further, Estonia is supporting the implementation of the Common Foreign and Security policy of the European Union. According to Kuimet, “It is in Estonian interests for the European Union to be visible in the world and that it would have the necessary military and civilian means to achieve that. What is more, Estonia also supports the development and use of the European Union fast reaction force. The Estonian Defense League units have taken part in the European Union Nordic Task Force in both 2008 and 2011 and we are planning to do that again in 2014.”