NATO At 60: Not Much Reason for Celebration

WASHINGTON – Quite a long time ago, while in London, I happened to walk in St. James’s Park at a time of some kind of Veterans celebration. There were hundreds of old men, marching in perfect order, medals tinkling on many chests. There was a military band. And they were all led by a soldier carrying a flag. And on the flag one could read: “Burma Star”. The whole thing was solemn and quite beautiful. And yet it was also sad and in many ways incongruous. They were remembering past service in Burma, (officially renamed Myanmar in 1989), a remote part of the world. Indeed so remote to be disconnected from the issues of the day. “Burma Star”? In the middle of London? Sure, the British have maintained a keen interest in matters pertaining to their Old Empire. But not much in remote, secluded, autocratic Burma. A country where Britain has not much clout or influence of any kind. And so I looked at the marching old men, with their medals, their band and their beautiful flag, thinking with some sadness about past glories that lost their relevance with the end of the Empire.

Well, the comparison may appear a bit stretched; but, soon enough, on April 4, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, will celebrate its own sixtieth anniversary. Unlike the celebration featuring the British Veterans, this is about both the past and the present. NATO is the premier security institution binding Europe, the US and Canada and, as such, supposedly a key pillar of international order and stability. This celebration should not be just about past history but about the present and the future. It should be about renewed vows about existing commitments premised on shared values; and, as it happens, ongoing missions –Afghanistan being the most obvious. And NATO is arguably quite alive. In fact, in recent years it has expanded its membership welcoming many former Warsaw Pact countries and the Baltic states, among others. 

But, If so, what is the similarity between the melancholy echo of a dead Empire and NATO’ sixtieth? Very simple. The British Empire is gone. And equally gone is much of the spirit that supposedly was behind the creation of this Atlantic Alliance –the spirit that made it meaningful for many years. Today NATO may be technically alive; but it is not very meaningful in as much as the institution does not embody shared values, shared interests and –most importantly– a shared agreement on the resources to be dedicated by all members to the effort of protecting them against threats that may not be as self-evident as the Soviet Army Divisions that used to stationed in then East Germany. So, we have a military alliance with fewer resources and a certain ambiguity about its meaning and mission. Not exactly a revved up champion, ready to move.

Without an immediate, direct challenge that would test the cohesion of the members, this objective confusion does not constitute a threat to the continuing existence of NATO. We do a have a NATO today and, for all I know, we shall continue to have a NATO for quite a while. And all members would claim that NATO is very useful;  that it provides a proven and tried institutional forum for a transatlantic dialogue on security matters; that it has created channels of communication with Eastern Europe, with Russia and beyond, etc. Fine.

However, the problem is lack of substance. Unless all the members agree on what a real threat is and unless they follow up with real, tangible resources devoted to meeting it, NATO will be a place for meetings and discussions, possibly of some use, but not very relevant. And it should be quite clear that the reason why resources are not allocated to NATO is because it is not at all self-evident to many if not most members –absent and immediate, clear threat– that a strong and credible NATO, capable of projecting credible force, is truly the essential basis for their security.

The problem is that there is a basic equivocation about the motives that supposedly provide the underpinnings of the Alliance –an equivocation that goes back to the very beginning of NATO. Reading the Preamble to what was known at the time as “The Treaty of Washington” that established NATO on April 4, 1949, one would get the idea that NATO was all about getting together to preserve shared values:

The Parties to this Treaty……. are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. They seek to promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area. They are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security. They therefore agree to this North Atlantic Treaty”

But, while the values referred to in the Preamble at the time were in some measure truly shared, the real reason justifying the birth of this unprecedented Alliance linking Europe and North America was to create a credible deterrent against Soviet ambitions in Europe by ensuring that the United States of America would intervene in case of an attack againts Western Europe. And NATO, with all its flaws, by creating some kind of a united Western Front, supported and led by an integrated military command, did its job. So, while values were important, the real deal was a shared fear of the Red Army.

Well, we know what happened regarding the Soviet threat. So, as of the 1990s, the geopolitical reality in Europe having been dramatically altered –and entirely in our favor– via the dissolution of the old Soviet Union and of the old Warsaw Pact, was there a residual mission for NATO? And, if so, what would it be?

Quite frankly, a serious discussion about any relevant new post Cold War mission should have been premised by a check on the validity of the Preamble to the NATO Treaty quoted above. Absent an immediate threat, did the western democracies still feel the need to be tied together by a military alliance in order to safeguard their common civilizations? And again, what could be the future threats against which NATO should prepare itself? Admittedly, not very easy to make commitments about vague, below the horizon stuff that may not look the same to all members.

But, while probably quite useful as a way to ascertain continued relevance for an institution created to face a clear menace that no longer existed, this exercise was avoided. No one intended to seriously verify to what extent there really was any spiritual glue left holding together Europe and North America and whether or not this assumed kinship would make both sides devote real resources (and this means budgetary allocations for state of the art military assets) to preserve peace and stability, in a future post Cold War environment —an environment in which threats would not be necessarily existential, imminent or self-evident to all.   

So, the “stress test” (to borrow from an expression coined by the Obama administration in reference to a needed check on the health of financial institutions) was not applied to NATO. There being no immediate crisis, it was assumed that all was well, to pretend that we all agreed on the fundamentals; and that, while the Soviet Union had graciously removed itself from the horizon, we should keep working together for the preservation of our shared values through our commitment to this regional security institution. Fine. And how did it go?

Fast forward to Afghanistan. This is admittedly a complicated and in many ways botched affair, largely because of poor American leadership. After the initial success in the quick campaign of 2001 resulting in the removal of the Taliban, the US was distracted by new business. As of 2002, the US thought that Iraq presented a greater strategic challenge.

Focusing on Iraq, and the actual war that began in March 2003, America thought that it could safely “subcontract” Afghanistan to NATO and other assorted non NATO do-gooders. The idea was that the Taliban had been routed; thus, going forward, Afghanistan was all about governance, development and the training of policemen. Well, the Europeans under the NATO umbrella could take the lead on that. And so they did.

Except that they really did not. Living up to the sarcastic characterization of NATO as “No Action, Talk Only”, the Alliance proceeded to create initiatives not backed by resources. Some countries, such as Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, have done a lot; in varying degrees France, Germany, Poland and Italy have done something. All the others just showed up, with literally token this or that: some sent 20 soldiers, others 100 or so. And this may have been fine when things were relatively calm. But we know that the situation has unfortunately deteriorated –and quite significantly in the last few years. We know about a resurgent Taliban. We know about the sanctuary offered to them in lawless North West Pakistan.

This marked deterioration produced a needed reassessment of the effort required to stabilize Afghanistan. And the reassessment is premised on the notion that a safe haven for radicals in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan is dangerous, not just because it may destabilize both countries, but for the security and stability of the region; while the harboring of radicals there may create future dangers for the security of Western Countries –and that would be the NATO countries, front and center.

This analysis has been done. And there is no serious disagreement about the diagnosis. The military commanders on the ground estimate  that there is a need for at least 30,000 additional troops to have a chance to stabilize the situation, itself an essential precondition to build more solid national institutions and hopefully economic development. Washington has admitted that mistakes were made and that allowing Afghanistan to fester in large measure contributed to the regrouping of the Taliban and their assorted allies.

While further analysis and a more detailed plan will follow, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, under the direction of President Barak Obama, already ordered 17,000 additional US troops to be deployed to Afghanistan. So, there will be more US resources and a deeper engagement in the complicated effort of building a viable economy in Afghanistan. In all this, this continues to be a NATO mission. And what have we heard from the Allies in terms of additional contributions? Well, not much. At least not much in terms of concrete fresh commitments to the operation. And this means that the US urgency about Afghanistan is not shared among all the Allies.

And here is the problem I mentioned at the opening. NATO was and is supposedly based on common values and a shared world view which would include a shared understanding of what constitutes a major threat. This does not entail unanimity; nor should it imply America issuing commands and Europe obeying. But the approaches to this supposedly critical military engagement in Asia are remarkably different.

So different to be almost funny.

For example, to get a flavor of what is going on, one can go and check the website of NATO. Read all the headlines and one could not find the word “war”. Even the prominent announcement of a high level visit to Afghanistan by NATO officials fails to mention that this is where the Alliance is engaged in its most significant military operation. A distracted reader could think that this is part of some kind of diplomatic tour. One should read more than half into a speech delivered just a few days ago in Poland by NATO’s Secretary General Jaap de Hopp Scheffer to find the word “Afghanistan”. And, when mentioned, it is not referred to as a major issue; but as one of the things on the table, routine stuff. None of this indicates that there is a shared perception about urgency regarding this NATO military operation.

So, righly or wrongly, here in Washington we are discussing Afghanistan as a worrisome geopolitical threat because of all the implications for  regional security, stability in Pakistan and the need to avoid the recreation of another breeding ground for radical Islam in a country controlled by guerillas. In the US these are considered major, or at least, significant issues. Allowing Afghanistan to fester and to become chaos is deemed to be dangerous for world security and against the interest of the United States.

And the European Allies? What do they think? Well, we do not know exactly, but there is no major new action announced or planned. While the Obama administration recently announced this significant scaling up of American troops to be deployed to Afghanistan, the rest of NATO meager contribution to the common effort will not be significantly augmented. And this is the primary indicator of how strongly the Europeans feel threatened by that caldron of instability. Which is to say that, if the US wants to achieve some results in Afghanistan, it has to rely mostly on its own efforts and essentially forget about meaningful “burden sharing” with the European Allies. Yet, if this is so, if we disagree about the seriousness of this threat, it would make sense to have at some point a frank discussion about what is the real function of NATO. 

But this is unlikely. Indeed, serious differences about Afghanistan  notwithstanding, in a few days there will be celebrations for NATO’s sixtieth. They will be held in Baden-Baden and Kehl in Germany and in Strasbourg, in France. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nikolas Sarkozy of France, the heads of government of the European countries once enemies, now friends, will co-host the events. And there will be speeches and self congratulatory remarks about this long era of peace in Europe made possible, among other factors, by this resilient NATO Alliance. 

And, after a few days, the whole thing will be forgotten. This Alliance, lacking a real shared purpose, sadly, has become almost irrelevant; just like the old Veterans of the Burma Star. They were marching in London behind a flag that today, except as a revered relic of a glorious past, means absolutely nothing.

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