Starting from the four questions raised by Joerg Wolf, Editor in-Chief of atlantic-community.org, in order to initiate a debate, this article tries to outline my very personal view on the future of the North Atlantic Alliance.
21st Century Security: A New Test for Cohesion Building Among NATO Member States.
NATO has been threatened throughout its existence by diverging interests of its members - or to be precise, by the lack of trust in the solidarity of its members in the light of these diverging interests. The persistent mistrust of some European members concerning the willingness of the United States to risk their own survival for the sake of Alliance security was a constant background issue in all major strategic debates in NATO in the Cold War period. Nevertheless, the Alliance has been able to overcome all of these crises through its ability to build a consensus that secured the needed level of solidarity and engagement among all of its members. This was never fully satisfying for both NATO's critics and enthusiasts but preserved very successfully the Alliance and its cohesion.
In the current security environment with its unpredictable and multifaceted risks and potential threats - including some dangers more imminent but at the same time limited in scope and range - it seems to be much more difficult to reach this minimum consensus. The growing number of members makes it even more difficult for NATO to remain focused. At the same time, NATO member states have been willing to maintain their cohesion in Non-Article-5 Operations despite occasional heavy domestic turmoil. The Balkan Crises have shown this more than once. Afghanistan poses a completely new challenge for the Alliance, stretching the level of diversity in threat and risk perception as well as solidarity needs much further than any other crisis NATO had to manage before. But in my personal view it reflects only a new phase in the old game of balancing the national interests of each member with the shared interests of an Alliance.
NATO's nations are currently re-delineating the limits and scope of their solidarity as well as their capabilities - and the political will to provide them. If NATO fails to maintain its cohesion in Afghanistan after eight years of struggle, it will not mean the end for the Alliance, but in fact a more precise delineation of its role and political scope for the near future. In contradiction to the well-known argument of the missing threat, the current difficult security environment is actually helpful for the continuing engagement in NATO since no nation will risk losing this valuable tool (providing the ability to act through Art.4 in addition to the safety net of Art.5) in times of uncertainty. This is true for the United States after a period of what some already call "imperial overstretch". It is even more true for the European Nations because NATO remains the only instrument offering some kind of global influence.
Afghanistan: Toward a Unified NATO strategy
For NATO, different national cultures and related differences in public acceptance of the use of force beyond self defense are not new. Interestingly, the dividing line cannot be purely drawn between North America and Europe. Studies prove that some European states - namely the Netherlands and the United Kingdom - share the more belligerent attitude of the United States and Canada. The catchy Mars vs. Venus metaphor, used by Robert Kagan at the peak of the transatlantic divide about U.S. pre-emptive actions in Iraq against a perceived but unproven nuclear threat, does not fit the case of Afghanistan. European Nations were engaged in the U.S.-Led Operation Enduring Freedom as well as in the UN mandated ISAF mission since 2001. European Nations such as Germany, probably one of the most pacifist countries today, have argued that NATO should not only take on the responsibility for ISAF but also enlarge ISAF's responsibility to cover the entire Afghanistan territory.
The very notion of a pacifist Europe led to the political conclusion on both sides of the Atlantic that it would be better not to provide citizens with the complete picture of what actions would be necessary in Afghanistan. The inherent risk was that this policy might not be sustainable in the light of several setbacks and enduring problems on the ground. The final result was indeed constantly diminishing public support for the ISAF mission currently culminating in the break of the coalition government in Den Hague.
Unfortunately, NATO is experiencing the lack of public support for its efforts in Afghanistan in a moment, when - for the first time since 2001 - the Alliance has reached full agreement on a common strategy and - even more importantly - the resources necessary for its full implementation. In a complex situation like Afghanistan the oversimplified notion of Mars vs. Venus hinders the public understanding of the recent and most important shift in U.S. and NATO conceptual thinking. For several years now European nations have been rightfully insisting that the problems in Afghanistan cannot be solved by military means alone. Needed instead is a comprehensive approach including civil, economic, social, judicial, and political measures as much as military efforts. European pressure and the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan led Washington to initiate a complete review of its own Afghanistan strategy. The result was today's enhanced NATO Strategy for Afghanistan as agreed by Alliance Foreign Ministers in December 2009. The combination of civil and military activities is deeply enshrined in this strategy. Almost ironically, after years of political and military consensus building, currently there is no visible "cultural divide" any more in NATO concerning the requirements for success in Afghanistan.
From Hope to Realism: A Recurring Cycle
Regarding their impact on the transatlantic climate, recent developments have clearly been overestimated. President Obama will go through the well-known cycle of exaggerated expectations, related disappointments and fruitless search for alternatives, followed by inevitable realism and reluctant acceptance of the limited support by European allies. We have seen this happening with several US presidents since the end of the Cold War. Bill Clinton - who started his presidency praising international multilateralism while later declaring the willingness "to act together where we can but alone where we must" - passed this cycle as did George W. Bush. With Obama now just entering the disappointment phase, we are likely to see attempts to find other sources of support in the near future (e.g. his attempts to engage with Russia and China) that are predictably bound to fail.
Recovering from Injury: NATO Overstretch and New Cohesion
This leads to the final question on the potential abandonment of NATO by its most important member, the United States. The Bush administration in fact has tried, if not to abandon, to at least ignore the Alliance structures after 2001. Nevertheless, their policy was still supported by 17 NATO members if only on a bilateral basis. This ad-hoc coalition proved to be less coherent and in the end, the U.S. found itself struggling to solve multiple crises with rather stretched resources. In 2005/6 the Bush-Administration finally changed its policy and renewed its attempts to convince or coerce European Partners into more support for either Iraq or Afghanistan. Thereby Washington pushed the limits of NATO solidarity far beyond what Clinton had achieved in 1994 and 1999 in the Balkans.
It doesn't come as a surprise that those nations most engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Netherlands and Canada - with the UK still as an exception - are the first to drop out of the coalition in Afghanistan due to growing domestic resistance. With their Governments attempting to maintain transatlantic allegiance despite dissent over Iraq and Afghanistan, these nations took on the biggest share of the burden and the highest risk in the field. Unfortunately, they also failed to convince their European partners to take on more burdens or risks. So in the end they paid a disproportionate price for the overextension of Alliance cohesion by its most powerful member.
The current dissent - basically the result of an overextension of solidarity from 2003 2005 - is only the aftershock of the Iraq-Crisis and has been fading since 2006. Efforts from both sides and changes of Governments have contributed to closing the transatlantic rift. Therefore, NATO should be able to define the current level of solidarity and cohesion much more precisely in the upcoming strategic concept. This could then be the starting point for renewed Alliance cohesion. The unpredictable security environment is in fact helpful in preserving this consensus whereas a new existential threat would probably cause new and even deeper frictions. A new imminent threat would rather inspire the formation of new alliances within or beyond today's NATO as the level of threat (-perception) would differ in terms of diverging interests and geography.
So far this could be avoided and, beyond media speculation, there have been no real signs yet of a real breakup of NATO in a near future. A recent Council of Foreign Relations Study stated rightfully that "While the bonds across the Atlantic might be frayed, they are stronger than those tying the United States to other parts of the World". The same is true for all European Nations since NATO enables its members to cooperate with allies in a way that would be practically impossible without formal institutions, in place military structures, and - most importantly - defined rules and procedures for consensus building. However, building consensus was never easy in NATO. The current problems the Alliance has to face in Afghanistan and at its home fronts will not make it easier. The processes described above, though, allow for a considerable amount of optimism that NATO will again be able to overcome these difficulties, reach a new consensus and maintain its cohesion.
Dr. Olaf Theiler is a national specialist in NATO's Operations Division in the International Staff of NATO HQ in Brussels, Belgium.
Related Material from Atlantic Community
- Jackson Janes: Alliance Asymmetries
- Joerg Wolf: Is NATO's Future Threatened by the Diverging Priorities of its Members?
- Julian Lindley-French & Kurt Volker: Dutch Exodus a Game Changer