The Holland Bureau: Maintaining a ‘Triple A alliance ‘in an age of austerity

What price defence in times of austerity, asks the Holland Bureau.

A week after the Obama administration released its Strategic Defense Review and in anticipation of the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago in May, Dutch Defence Secretary Hans Hillen was in the United States to discuss budget cuts in defence spending as well as the development of the F35/Joint Strike Fighter.
After meeting with his American counterpart Leon Panetta, Secretary Hillen spoke at the Atlantic Council in Washington DC on “how the Atlantic alliance can keep its triple A status in an age of austerity.” Hillen’s answer was threefold: 1) NATO needs to adapt to new strategic realities, 2) it needs to substantially deepen its defence cooperation and 3) it has to secure public support for the alliance through political will and leadership. The main focus was on the importance of defence cooperation, especially in Europe.
Hillen promised the Netherlands would take a leading role in intensifying defence cooperation in Europe, something he has been pushing for a while now. Last November, Hillen initiated a debate on this topic in the Dutch parliament in which he pleaded for a fresh and pragmatic approach to the idea of sovereignty, which was not well received by Geert Wilders’ PVV. The Dutch Defence Secretary called for a ‘relaxed’ discussion and promised the Netherlands would lead by example, hoping to inspire other European countries to deepen defence cooperation from the bottum up. Joint investment and procurement should be the starting point.
Approached from this angle, Hillen was actually able to present recent trouble with the development of the JSF/F35 [see HB post JSF – Hanging In There] as one of the most promising opportunities for closer defence cooperation in a time of austerity: the ‘price problem’ has created a platform for cooperation between the Netherlands and countries like Denmark and Norway to think about collaboration in the fields of acquisition, maintenance “and perhaps even in the field of operations”. He identified the ‘formality’ of NATO as the biggest obstacle to success. (“If you’ve ever been to a NATO meeting, it is so formal, so dreadful…”). “Relaxation” was to be the key word, Hillen declared (about seven times), without it nothing would be possible.
With regards to his last point – the importance of public support for NATO – it seems that Hillen may have some reason to be relaxed: the Dutch Atlantic Association (Atlantische Commissie) just released the outcome of an opinion poll by TNS/NIPO concerning Dutch opinions about NATO and Dutch security which shows that 79% of the Dutch think NATO membership is important to their security and 73% believes that NATO offers a positive contribution to the Dutch-American relationship. Furthermore, only 15% of the responders were in favor of more budget cuts in the defence realm.
While many Europeans have expressed concern about the American defence strategy’s change of focus from Europe and NATO to Asia and the Pacific, Hillen declared he was optimistic, saying he regards the American document as “a commonsensical response to a rapidly changing world.” According to him, America’s growing strategic attention towards Asia is a very logical development. It does mean, however, that Europe, for its part, will need to pick up more of the burden when security problems arise on its own periphery.
“It is obvious that the European and American continents are drifting apart,” Hillen said at the end of his speech. “This has been going on for some time, it is impossible to stop and will result in closer proximity of the US to the Far East than to Europe. The good news is that this is only a geological fact and that our tectonic plates only drift apart with a speed of two centimeters per year.”

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