April 4 is NATO’s Birthday The Europeans do very little for the common defense. Is there still a role for the Atlantic Alliance created in 1949?

By Paolo von Schirach

April 3, 2008

WASHINGTON – Tomorrow is April 4, another birthday for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. The Western Alliance linking North America to Europe was created on this very day in 1949, as a manifestation of a shared western concern about Soviet expansionism. Of course, it was declared at the time that the Alliance was aimed at the preservation  of common values uniting America and Europe. But, in truth, it is was the expression of a shared fear. However, when the major threat to Western security–the USSR– disappeared, it was decided to keep this instrument created to counter it. So, NATO survived the end of the main East-West conflict; but the reason for its existence is less clear today, as perceptions about what constitutes a threat to all perhaps are not really shared by all members. 

As a result of a reduced sense of purpose, as this “NATO birthday” passes unmentioned and unnoticed, this institution has become less relevant and less vibrant. With the old existential threat gone, unless all members can clearly define and agree upon what is the new threat and thus the new mission, there is an open question as to why we should keep this Western security system. In other words, if the US and Europe do not seriously believe that only by pooling their resources they can face the major challenges of this era, this security instrument, created long ago, in totally different historic circumstances, may have become obsolete.

In principle, while we no longer worry about the defunct Warsaw Pact, the Alliance declares that there are other threats facing the West. And the NATO members seem to indicate that cooperation among them is the best way to deal with them. Furthermore, NATO has added many East European members (with more to come) since the end of the Cold War. But what does this prestigious club do these days?

For starters, NATO is committed to prevail in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

Yet, the NATO committment to Afghanistan looks a bit like the Italian farce of “Armiamoci e Partite“, something like “Let Us All Get Our Weapons…and You Go“. Lip service to the enterprise is more widespread than real action. In other words, not many NATO partners seem to regard this conflict as critically important. Hence minimal support to the effort. Of course, not all Allies are unserious. Some are very, very serious –and their determination is matched by their commitments. But, for many others, this is at best an opportunity to show the flag with the deployment of token contingents, in order to be able to say, at some future date: “we were there”.

This uninspiring reality is the expression of a lack of clearly definded and truly shared interests and objectives. However, this fuzziness about first principles is neither discussed nor recognized. Public NATO events are all about the proclamation of high minded principles, with a clear unwillingness by most to point out the mismatch between the reaffirmation of shared principles and the resources allocated to protect them.

Again, the case of Afghanistan, the most important ongoing conflict involving NATO, is illustrative. Indeed, after the recent Bucharest NATO summit, at least one media account presented French president Sarkozy’s announcement that France will provide additional 700 troops to Afghanistan as something close to heroic. Just when things were looking dire, here comes the unflinching ally to save the day. With a mere 700 hundred extra soldiers? In a context in which military commanders on the ground have indicated that they need at least additional 7,500 to 10,000 troops? And this is the best contribution coming from an Alliance that ties together the western developed and rich world?

Of course, 700 hundred French soldiers is a lot better than nothing which is pretty much what many of the other Lion Hearts of NATO (including those whose contributions number anywhere from 25 to 250 or 300 soldiers) are prepared to do. And so this French pledge is rated a real triumph that shows how seriously the Allies take the threat coming from a still violent Afghanistan. But this way all parties are complicit in creating ans selling make believe, with the result of a level of non seriousness transaparent to all, especially to the potential enemies who can have a practical illustration of what most western countries are prepared to contribute to the common security. Once again, the Emperor has no clothes.

Now, if NATO were convinced that this enterprise –Afghanistan– is a mistake, it could change course and conclude that it wants nothing to do with it. It could withdraw its contingents and leave it to the messy Americans (and may be a few other misguided souls) to deal with it. But to proclaim a continuing commitment and do so little to meet the challenge is border line farcical. If nothing else, it shows the lack of a shared definition of a common security threat. Alliances are based on shared interests. This lack of action is an indication that a serious debate on what these interests might be is overdue.

In truth, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently indicated that this lack of European follow on in Afghanistan (in terms of resources and troops) could potentially trigger a crisis between Europe and the United States. Yet, there has been no serious reaction from Europe to this rather open US threat which amounted to saying: “If you are not serious about follow on, then we should look at the whole concept of collective western security and see if it is still viable”.

While this might have been the beginning of a serious conversation, it has become subsequently clear that the US, on second thought, decided not to push this crucial reappraisal. The Bush administration backtracked. In its last few months in office, it does not have the stomach to start a fight with those who, at least nominally, are Allies. So, for the time being, the US accepts a lack of commitment to the common security on the part of many Europeans as a fact of life that cannot be reversed. While the desire to avoid a crisis can be understood, at some point the members will have to redefine what this Alliance is about. And if they will come to the decision that it no longer serves a valid purspose they can dissolve it.

Whereas, the display of verbal support and little action in Afghanistan indicates at least lack of clarity on the part of many members as to what their interests are.  This is a NATO war and NATO is not performing. This Alliance has become soggy. It is mostly a transatlantic forum for meetings followed by generic platitudes, with not much in terms of muscle (military power) and willingness to use it.

Oddly enough, at the recent April Bucharest summit the Allies recognized that NATO has huge unmet needs. The Bucharest communiqué most amazingly admits that:

“We must ensure that we provide the forces required for our operations and other commitments. (Bold added). To that end we will continue efforts to be able to deploy and sustain more forces. We are committed to support the NATO Response Force by providing the necessary forces, and to improving the availability of operational and strategic reserve forces for our operations. We will seek greater domestic support for our operations, including through improved public diplomacy efforts.

We will further develop the capabilities required to conduct the full range of our missions and to remedy specific shortfalls. We will work particularly at improving strategic lift and intra-theatre airlift, especially mission-capable helicopters and welcome national initiatives in support of this work, as well as addressing multinational logistics.(…..).We will continue to enhance the capability and interoperability of our special operations forces. Supported by the defense planning processes, we will enhance our efforts to develop and field the right capabilities and forces, with the greatest practicable interoperability and standardization. This will be furthered by improving trans-Atlantic defense industrial cooperation”.

Now, this open and detailed admission of lack of basic resources and capabilities, (number of forces, airlift, logistics and interoperability), is truly startling. This is NATO. “The” defense apparatus that for decades has been regarded as the backbone of western security. Reading this, the proverbial visitor from outer space might surmise that NATO must be a brand new thing. And so planners are just now getting started to create the tools and the networks that will make future action possible.

If we believe that NATO is still relevant as a security instrument in this entirely different post Cold War context, it needs real teeth. The admission that, today, a few years into a NATO led conflict in Afghanistan, NATO members have to “provide the forces required”; while NATO needs public diplomacy efforts to convince –I suppose–the political leadership of member countries that they need to do this and pay for this, is an indication that without a clear formulation and agreement about shared security interests the Alliance is becoming more and more form without substance.

The Bush administration can be rightfully blamed for its recklessness, unilateralism, misguided policies, the Iraq enterprise etc. It can also be blamed for not consulting Allies and not listening to them. But it can hardly be blamed for the falling defense budgets of many European countries and for the token commitments of many to what should be a shared effort. Defense budgets and military preparedness are a function of perception. If Europe believes that its current efforts are about right, so be it. But if this so, is there still a role for this Alliance?

In a few months President George Bush will be out of the scene, for good. But the lukewarm feelings about the need to provide for defense that we notice in many European countries are likely to stay. This does not augur well for Afghanistan, or for dealing with any future threat for that matter. If the members have developed different views about security needs, a rediscussion about the role of this Alliance is in order.



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