As spring 2011 bursts into bloom, the NATO alliance finds itself withering on the vine. An alliance that was once the quintessential expression and spearpoint of the Transatlantic security relationship is now at risk of undermining it. Notwithstanding the adoption of a New Strategic Concept and Critical Capabilities Initiative at the November 2010 Lisbon Summit, internal differences over Afghanistan and a widening Transatlantic gap in defense spending are fast overshadowing the larger imperative of Euro-American security cooperation. All signs point to accumulating distress.
At a time when the Obama Administration has committed to a 30,000-strong troop surge in Afghanistan and has apparently extended its timetable for withdrawal, Europe’s response has been to further reduce defense spending across the board and accelerate its own disengagement from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Cracks in the Transatlantic relationship, however, go beyond anxieties over current Afghan operations. A few months ago at Lisbon, NATO heralded the adoption of a New Strategic Concept, but that concept, quite aside from its being a disturbingly 25 years late aborning, doesn’t look like it will help the allies overcome their disparate perceptions of threat environments and hence of the alliance mission itself.
From the post-9/11 U.S. perspective, NATO makes sense mainly as a global expeditionary alliance that should be structured and equipped to “deliver security where needed.” For continental West Europeans, particularly France and Germany, the alliance is an enabler of cooperative regional security and a contextual marker for bilateral relations with Russia. For the post-communist NATO members, the alliance’s key concern should be the continued viability of Article V, which states that an attack on one alliance member is an attack on all. This concern was much magnified by the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, which played out against an overall backdrop of resurgent Russian assertiveness. Internal polarization within NATO has been further exacerbated by the impact of the 2008 global economic crisis, which continues to reorder both the intra-European power dynamic and internal debates on defense reform in NATO.
The devolution of NATO as a premier Transatlantic security organization has proceeded in tandem with the decline of American influence on the Old Continent, a good bit of which appears to be self-induced. In the larger European context, the United States no longer leads on key security issues, instead assuming the role of an increasingly behind-the-scenes enabler. The Obama Administration’s domestic priorities, too, coupled with challenges in Asia and the Middle East, have made the Transatlantic nexus even less prominent in American thinking. Finally, the Obama Administration also places a premium on engagement with difficult states and partnership initiatives outside the core of NATO. The President himself rarely speaks of allies, and in his September 2009 address to the UN General Assembly he said that the “alignments of nations rooted in the cleavages of a long-gone Cold War” make no sense “in an interconnected world.” That, if not a repudiation of NATO, is the closest thing to it uttered by any U.S. President since Harry S. Truman.
Clearly, the further enlargement of NATO is no longer a key priority of U.S. policy. The 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit and the consequences of the Russo-Georgian War had already effectively foreclosed it for the near future, but now it appears to be closed out for the far-flung future as well. Debate within NATO has focused instead on how to strengthen European security against the threat of a newly avaricious Russia. Among the subjects of this debate is another attempt to revisit the idea of European defense, one of the key priorities of the Polish European Union presidency this summer. From the European perspective, the alliance needs workable answers to several key questions abutting on NATO’s future relations with Russia: cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran; the evolution of the NATO-Russia Council; energy security; and Russia’s regional influence in the post-Soviet sphere. The problem, of course, is that NATO-Europe hardly speaks with a monolithic voice on these issues, as is evident from the fact that they (and other issues) are a source of disharmony within the European Union at least as much as they are within NATO. And the divisions cannot be broken down into a simple West versus East, or “old” versus “new” alignment; it’s much more complex than that.
Europe’s security equation also requires NATO to tackle such diverse issues as cyber security, missile defense and unresolved questions about the Balkans. Of equal importance, perhaps, is Europe’s search for ways to restart the EU’s Eastern Partnership and to adapt to the aftershocks of Aleksandr Lukashenko’s crackdown following the stolen elections in Belarus. But the same internal divisions bedevil most approaches to these problems, as well—internal divisions from which neither a common threat nor strong American leadership will save Europe.
For the United States, perhaps the most important factor in defining NATO’s continued utility is the extent to which it can preserve and expand its global reach. In other words, to what extent are its European allies willing (and able) to address urgent questions confronting America not only in Southwest Asia and the Middle East, but also in the rest of Asia? This question will likely continue to drive much thinking in Washington, given that its alliance relationships span some fifty partnerships on five continents. Last but not least, from the U.S. perspective the long-term viability of NATO will depend not on whether, but on how, it proves itself capable of navigating the EU security nexus, a task that the New Strategic Concept indicates is high on NATO’s agenda. In some respects U.S. leaders see this problem more clearly from a distance than European leaders do, stuck, as they are, in the middle of it.
Ultimately, NATO’s effectiveness depends, as it always has, on the ability of U.S. and European statesmen to see the larger stakes beyond narrow regional interests. For the United States, a forward-deployed, multidimensional great power since the end of World War II, acquiring a broader perspective on its interests comes more naturally than it does to individual European states, or even to Europe as a collective. During the Cold War, the global scope of the Soviet threat furnished for Europe what its own purview did not supply. The question now is: What can furnish it today?
The most obvious answer to that question is enlightened and far-sighted leadership, a rare but nonetheless historically discernable phenomenon. As it happens, Germany is fast emerging as the Continent’s political leader. Is the German political class capable of lifting its gaze beyond its own borders, and then beyond the borders of a Europe very nearly whole and free, to be a leading partner with the United States in guiding the Transatlantic relationship to work to benefit the whole world? That, to put it mildly, remains to be seen.
No longer absorbed by the burden of modernizing the five eastern Länder, the German government is plainly determined to preserve the viability of the Eurozone and to reconnect the monetary policy of Europe’s central banking institution with the fiscal policies of EU member-states. The message of strong deficit reduction as a quid pro quo for the German-financed bailout that Berlin delivered to Europe’s most debt-ridden economies has rapidly begun to consolidate a distinct intra-EU dynamic. But this dynamic is not easily translatable into a strategic vision extending beyond Europe. Indeed, in some ways, it points in the opposite direction.
German-imposed austerity has led to defense spending in Europe enduring deep cuts across the board. Even European countries that have historically been able to maintain a meaningful set of capabilities, such as France and the United Kingdom, have made or plan to make significant reductions in defense spending. This trend, in combination with “Afghanistan fatigue”, is sapping NATO members’ willingness to persevere with current operations.
To compensate for these flagging budgets and backbones, NATO Headquarters in Brussels has adopted a buzzword inspired by the New Strategic Concept: “smart defense.” This appears to mean doing more with less by pooling resources and sharing capabilities. No one should doubt that the allies could operate a lot smarter than they have, but “smart power” may end up being little more than a pretty mask covering an ugly face. At Lisbon NATO recommitted itself to strengthening existing partnerships, reaching out to Russia, China and India, and better resourcing the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. But buzzwords alone can’t provide the fundamentals NATO is missing.
Arguably, the most important result of the Lisbon summit was the Critical Capabilities Commitment, which, not unlike the Prague Capabilities Commitment of 2004 and the Defense Capabilities Initiative before it, is intended to address the chronic gap between rhetoric and reality. But again, despite the veritable orgy of communiqués and meetings, several elements that once defined the alliance are clearly absent. Outside the lip service that the New Strategic Concept pays to the principle, there is no more talk of enlargement, a dynamic that, whatever one may think of its strategic consequences, clearly helped breathe life into NATO for the better part of two decades. With the prospect of further eastward enlargement effectively off the table, the only direction to look is south, toward the Balkans, and few find that vista, which arguably promises more trouble than benefits to the alliance as a whole, especially appealing.
The second critical element missing from the Lisbon summit was a clear agreement on the connection between mission and capabilities. The countries agreed that resources in “requisite amounts” should be forthcoming to support the tasks reaffirmed in Lisbon—everything from the centrality of Article V to the need for new capabilities in cyber security and missile defense. But who exactly is to supply these resources? Discussions in Lisbon took on an eerily detached tone, as if the alliance somehow had an existence apart from the members that compose it.
The consequences of the failure to answer this question are already manifest, especially for the more recent NATO entrants. Defense reforms in those countries are far from complete, and growing resource constraints will likely keep them that way. This affects ministerial structures as well as military staffs—from personnel management systems, including promotion, to the still-embryonic parliamentary oversight functions among countries that are now full-fledged NATO members. This unfinished business is generating varieties of “buyer’s remorse” among the older member-states, who, in an era of shrinking budgets and continued operational demands, question the ability of the 28 countries to work together effectively either on core territorial defense tasks or in expeditionary roles. Nowhere is this more evident today than at the level of integration of the new members, especially in the various joint staffs.
A new development whose long-term consequences remain difficult to predict is the rising level of defense industry cooperation between European NATO allies and the Russian Federation. Russia is now negotiating contracts to procure advanced French, German and Italian military equipment. The countries of Central Europe and the Baltic region view these purchases as part of a dramatic shift in NATO-Russia relations that is possibly also connected to the U.S.-Russia reset. They believe that, in time, this shift could vitiate the promise contained in Article V.
The final and defining variable for the future of the alliance depends on the larger and more general tenor of U.S.-European relations. In current U.S.-European relations, the news, mainly from Afghanistan, is increasingly troubling. Washington initially had high hopes that enthusiasm for Barack Obama would translate into a genuine willingness on Europe’s part to step up efforts to assist the United States with current operations. That illusion is fast giving way to indifference and resentment. Despite the positive results of some joint operations in Afghanistan, Washington has an increasingly dour assessment of Europe’s ISAF contribution. In an environment where parliamentary caveats continue to define the boundaries of what European allies can and cannot do in Afghanistan, the experience of shared risks undermines allied solidarity more often than it supports it.
Such experience reinforces an impression now many years in the making that there are two types of NATO forces in Afghanistan: the Americans who fight, and the Europeans who either don’t or won’t. (Admittedly, this is a bad rap, when one looks at casualties on a per capita basis—especially for countries like Estonia.) This impression creates an odd dissonance in the United States: We don’t want Europe to leave, but then again they haven’t been all that much help in any case. Some Europeans privately admit as much. As one senior European diplomat recently told me:
For eight years we told the Americans that when it comes to the relative importance of Afghanistan versus Iraq, they were wrong and we were right. And now, when they refocused on Afghanistan, we seem to be saying that yes we were indeed right, but we didn’t really mean it.
Afghanistan thus marks a defining moment for the alliance. The Obama Administration understands the importance of leaving behind a semblance of stability in the country, and the potentially prohibitive political costs of walking away from a ten-year campaign that has consumed hundreds of billions of dollars and will cost still more in veterans’ care and equipment replacement. Most European governments understand this too, but they appear to care less and less, given mounting pressure from their economies, public opinion and ongoing efforts to refocus the European security perimeter toward the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, Europe’s most salient “out-of-area” concerns. This redefinition bears Transatlantic political implications, for it is now becoming difficult for European governments to make a compelling case as to why the NATO alliance continues to matter.
They aren’t getting much help from the Obama Administration, either. At a time of Russian resurgence, the ongoing reorientation of U.S. policy toward Asia and the fracturing within the alliance itself, Europe’s old reflex is to look to Washington for leadership. In Washington, however, no such leadership is on offer. The days when Washington led from out in front are likely behind us. Left to their own devices, the Europeans cannot replace the traditional American role with one of their own making. And so Europe continues both to criticize Washington and to long for its direction. We have come to the point that NATO has been reduced to something like the Transatlantic family’s used, somewhat beat-up second car. Everyone admits that we still need it, but no one wants to be the family member stuck driving it.
There is no great mystery about what needs to happen to keep NATO from becoming finally a victim of its own Cold War success. It needs to inject some strategic and fiscal reality into the conversation and consign buzz words like “smart defense” to the hell of academic conferences. NATO members need to multiply real resources, not conceptual abstractions. Above all, the alliance needs to define a task that it can succeed at in the near term.
The best candidate for this task is to agree on and implement a strategy to depart from Afghanistan in a way that preserves a sense of shared purpose. For European leaders, this may mean accepting the political price of making unpopular arguments about the greater good that will flow from sticking it out with America. As to the former task, the alliance must implement the Lisbon capabilities commitment. If that commitment goes the way of the Prague Capabilities Commitment of 2004 and the 1999 Defense Capabilities Initiative, then NATO might as well apply for unemployment insurance.
Fortunately, there is a way in which part of the larger political task of responsibly leaving Afghanistan as a genuinely common project and implementing some critical capabilities pledges go hand in hand. The development of counter-IED systems, medevac, strategic transport, heavy lift and investment in helicopters are all key areas that NATO officials have identified as essential but underfunded. They can all play a role in the final stages of the ISAF effort in Afghanistan. Cooperation on missile defense, too, is a propitious area of potential long-term joint effort, as Europe looks ever more anxiously toward its southern perimeter. If we can accomplish these relatively modest tasks, then NATO may survive long enough to wrestle with post-2014 conduct assessments of how “NATO 2.0” should position itself in both traditional territorial defense and expeditionary roles. If not, then John Kenneth Galbraith’s famous quip about the onset of the Great Depression may well come to apply to NATO: “The end had come, but it is not yet in sight.”