Much of the debate about NATO's current crisis is related to its problematic mission in Afghanistan. At the core of this debate is the fact that some members are considered "free riders" while others could be called "overburdened" because they make impressive military as well as financial contributions and they also accept risk for their troops deployed in the combat in southern Afghanistan. Therefore, the question of how to measure and judge "equality" in the intra-alliance burden -- as well as risk sharing -- might be crucial to assure cohesion in an Alliance based on the principle of "the three Musketeers".
On the one hand, it is natural that nations like the Netherlands and Canada, which suffered considerable losses in southern Afghanistan, will complain about taking on an unequal share of the burden. On the other hand, it seems almost too easy to criticize nations like Germany for keeping tight restrictions on the use of their forces in Afghanistan. Instead of finger pointing at others with even less engagement in Afghanistan or using the usual German rebuke about their domestic situation, more thought should be given to the fundamental question: whether an unequal shared burden in non-Article-5 activities can and should be considered as "free riding" at all.
One counter argument would be the fact that the Bush Administration argued for a more flexible alliance, one that should be offering merely a tool box for future coalitions of the willing. And in some way, despite all the criticism from European Nations, NATO has evolved at least partly in this way. Using this measure, in a way, almost all out-of-area commitments -- even if under NATO flag -- could be seen as part of a coalition of the willing. Therefore, more than just black and white criteria like raw troop commitments and death toll would be needed to measure solidarity. What about civil and financial contributions to missions, where success could not be achieved with military means alone, as is the case in all recent NATO out-of-area activities? Despite all the criticism about a revival of "check book diplomacy", it should be remembered that these contributions might be as critical as military personnel for mission success.
Furthermore, other military engagements outside of NATO might also been taken into account. Just one not too hypothetical example: would or could a European-only military mission in Africa, undertaken maybe in order to avoid mass movements of refugees into the European Union, be seen as a lack of burden sharing from the US? If not, this would call for a much broader assessment of burdens and risks to be shared. In addition, one of the most important issues here is whether national interests are at stake. At least three different kinds of national interests should be taken into account:
- First and most importantly, there are vital national security interests. If they are at stake, which could be argued in Afghanistan, we come at least close to the Art.5 issue and everything else other than a full scale engagement could rightfully be called free riding. But the extent to which security interests are involved will, of course, depend largely on the national perceptions of the level, scope and nature of the threat. Therefore, free riding should not be judged from the standpoint of a single nation's definition.
- Second, there is the long term interest in NATO's solidarity and reliability. In this case only a limited engagement might be justified at the domestic front. Therefore, the slightest contribution might be an important symbol of alliance solidarity.
- And third, there are other bilateral interests like the hopes of some Eastern European governments to build a special relationship with the US by contributing more than the normal share to missions, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this case, it could be argued that any reference to burden sharing should be avoided since these are more or less egoistic national interests.
Since these debates are going to haunt NATO again and again, it will be very important for the future cohesion of the alliance to address the issue in depth. Much more research and well thought out assessments will be needed to achieve a more balanced answer than currently offered in the media.
Dr Olaf Theiler is a national specialist in NATO's Operations Division in the International Staff of NATO HQ in Brussels, Belgium
Related materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Yasser Abumuailek: NATO to Lead the War on Terror
- Stefanie Babst: NATO's New Public Diplomacy: The Art of Engaging and Influencing
- David S. Yost : NATO Transforms for Civil-Military Cooperation