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Strong Points of the West – Part 4 of the World War IV Series

In this five-​part series, I explore the development and scope of what I term World War IV. This series is based on my presentation at the CDA Institute Roundtable “Knocking on the Door of World War IV,” held in Ottawa on 10 June 2015.

In dealing with the current challenges to international peace and stability, the West currently enjoys several strong suits. Here are what I think to be the most important ones.

First, and most obviously, all the members of NATO and the European Union (EU) have democratically elected governments, supported by rule of law, a free press and thriving civil societies.

Second, the resources they can call on are unparalleled. The EU has a gross domestic product (GDP) of just under a quarter of the world’s total. The EU, Canada, and the United States together make up roughly half of global GDP. In contrast, Russia’s GDP is about one-​tenth of the EU’s. And the population of NATO Europe alone is almost four times as large as that of Russia.

Third, the Western world can call on a long experience of interstate cooperation. The United States, Canada, and their democratic allies in Europe and around the world enjoy a historically unparalleled tradition of working together, in many cases going back well over a half century. Much of this cooperation is conducted through an array of intergovernmental organizations, active across several sectors. The security dimension is particularly relevant. The military ties that bind the West and the increasing number of countries from around the world that have sought to work with NATO are unprecedented. The Alliance’s 28 member states work together with 22 partner countries and another 15 nations involved in varying degrees in a wide range of NATO programmes.

NATO’s partners include all the former Soviet and Yugoslav states not members of the Alliance (cooperation with the Russian Federation has been frozen since April 2014), six European neutral states, fourteen Muslim-​majority states, as well as Australia, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and New Zealand. While the breadth and intensity of cooperation between NATO and its partner countries varies considerably, ranging from tight forms of interoperability to looser partnership relations, this is by far the largest and most potent security network in the world.

NATO militaries and their partners can also draw on their joint experience in the field. Since the end of the Cold War, they have seen action on a variety of fronts: the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, in the Mediterranean with a variety of interdiction and stabilization measures, off the Horn of Africa with anti-​pirating actions, support for the African Union, plus a series of other non-​NATO actions such as in Iraq, Libya and Syria in which NATO member states and partners have played a leading role. Neither the Islamic State nor Al-​Qaeda, nor indeed Russia or China, has anything even closely approximating this operational experience under their belts.

It’s also useful to be mindful of some key military numbers. If one looks at NATO Europe alone (without the United States and Canada), it has twice as many potentially deployable military personnel as Russia. The NATO members bordering Russia have forces – standing and reserves, including those of Ukraine – that represent roughly two-​thirds those of Russia. By the same token, these countries have not undergone defence spending increases anywhere close to that of Russia.

In the Asian theatre, the numbers are broadly similar. Here, there is no equivalent to NATO but there are some fifteen countries – the ten ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members plus the five regional NATO partners mentioned above (Australia, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and New Zealand) – that could potentially work together if China were to overplay its hand. ASEAN, for example, has recently departed from its tendency to be diplomatically polite, criticizing China for its efforts to lay claim to ever wider swathes of the seas around its territory. The combined militaries of these regional actors, roughly half a million in size, could be expected to resist any strong-​armed moves on the part of China to secure its dominance in these waters; if one includes India, this number would rise to 1.7 million. China, with its few regional allies, could at most assemble one and a half million. If we compare regional defence spending, the numbers are also not in China’s favour.

Of course, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-​Sham (ISIS) has nothing comparable to show in any of these areas. It is opposed by Iran as well as the twenty-​two states of the Arab League (Syria’s membership is currently suspended). Twelve of the Arab League’s members are NATO partners and six are involved in the ongoing actions against the Islamic State in Iraq and/​or Syria. The GDP of Arab League members is roughly one thousand times as great as that reportedly available to ISIS. Arab League states can call on active and reserve forces of some five million, whose effectiveness in dealing with anything other than a domestic insurgency are widely questioned. That said, in April 2015, the organization announced that it would be putting together a joint Defence Force of forty thousand. The numbers imputed to ISIS range wildly from 30,000 to 100,000, with the only certainty apparently being that the numbers have been steadily increasing.

But numbers tell only part of the story – as will be addressed in the concluding blog post in this series.

David Law, a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning Unit, is currently a Senior Associate with the Kitchener-​based Security Governance Group, and a Senior Fellow with it sister organization, the Centre for Security Governance.

(Image courtesy of the US Department of Defense.)

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