The key for the future of NATO is to once again establish a clear strategic rationale for its existence. This was a relatively easy task during the Cold War, when the threat of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact was very real and perceived as existential. In the years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, this is obviously no longer the case. NATO's actions since that time, in terms of its use of military force against Serbia during the Kosovo crisis in the 1990s and its extensive work in Afghanistan, illustrate how NATO can work and how it really cannot.
The key question is this: Should NATO in the twenty-first century be used primarily to defend Europe from external aggression while also facilitating intra-European stability, or is it to be a platform for external stabilizing missions in other geographic regions, such as the Middle East or East Asia?
The answer is that it should remain focused on what it can do and do well.
If NATO was largely created "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down," as stated memorably by the Alliance's first Secretary-General, Lord Ismay, this should in large measure be maintained as a raison d'etre. The questions of Russia and Germany continue to be, as they always have been, of paramount importance to European stability. NATO can and should deal with this. The Alliance should remain a serious player in Europe, capable of defending against any potential external aggression, especially coming from Russia (even though this scenario seems highly unlikely any time in the foreseeable future). It should also retain the ability to maintain a sense of order in the continually tumultuous southern side of Europe, especially the Balkan tinderbox.
That being said, NATO must re-examine its capacity to engage in missions outside of Europe, and should probably scale back any extra-European ambitions. The fiscal and military resources are not available to engage in global operations, and the scarce resources that are available are better spent in the European neighborhood.
Referring again to the Kosovo air campaign, it appears that NATO can use force effectively when deployed against malefactors within the general European area. By contrast, although NATO has played a significant role in Afghanistan, the ambiguities of general policy towards that nation and the larger issues pertaining in particular to stability in Pakistan have made it a far less successful endeavor. Granted, much of this is due to internal policy divisions within the United States, which is quite evidently the largest player in the Afghan theatre. However, the projection capabilities of NATO are not all that impressive when looking outside of Europe. Attempting to bolster that in order to essentially become some kind of global constabulary force seems unwise.
At the end of the day, each region of the world will require its own multilateral (though not pan-global) institutions.
The US will, for as long as it remains the single most powerful nation in the world, play a key role in each of these regional institutions. Yet these institutions should remain regional, focusing on their own neighborhoods so that they can be more effective, rather than morphing into grandiose institutions with ambitions far exceeding capabilities. That is a sure-fire recipe for ineffective institutions that spend more time talking than acting on the imperatives of the moment.
Greg Randolph Lawson is the Director of Communications for a US based political advocacy organization and is a life-long observer of political and foreign affairs.
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