US Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ warning that NATO is becoming a "two-tier alliance" with some allies willing to fight and die while others remain combat-shy, have led to questions about the viability of the alliance.
The ISAF mission is not the only chink in NATO’s armor. The Alliance’s attempts at reform have not seen shifts in European spending patterns, a prerequisite for meaningful reform: defense budgets are held level in real terms - insufficient to fund new capabilities, or maintain force levels over a period of time.
The NATO Response Force has not proven its worth yet, beyond small-scale assignments such as supporting the Olympic Games in Athens and its numbers are mainly filled by countries, like Britain and France.
Germany has come a long way in its policy towards the military and resents suggestions that it is not ‘doing enough.’ But German troops remain ill-prepared for high-intensity combat, and have a dogmatic doctrinal approach to complex, civil-military operations. France is benefiting from its intention to return to NATO, but nothing has come of this yet and is unlikely to unless Britain agrees to a St. Malo-style rejuvenation of ESDP during the French EU Presidency in late 2008.
Most dangerously, the U.S has come back with a circumscribed concept for the organization. While calling NATO a "value-based alliance," the Bush Administration’s actions demonstrate an earthier, tactical view, encouraging a focus on capabilities for stabilization operations, and dismissing NATO as a political forum of liberal constitutional democracies.
European leaders are right to reject accusations of abandoning NATO. Most of their offers of military assistance in Afghanistan were rejected by the US, led by a president who derided the ‘multilateralization’ of US foreign policy; and because the US believed most NATO allies were incapable of helping militarily.
Now, as the Bush administration draws to a close, European allies expect a new US president – Republican or Democrat – to re-launch Euro-Atlantic relations. However, this is a high-risk strategy. For, while a new US president will want to re-invest in NATO, most presidential candidates have talked about the need to deploy more troops to Afghanistan. All see NATO as part of a tool box to effect operations around the world, not just for the territorial defense of Europe.
If Europe remains unwilling to make the necessary military contribution to ISAF – and the US becomes forced to "surge" unilaterally – a new administration is likely to conclude that NATO has little to offer as a war-fighting organization and is not relevant as an alliance of ideals.
How, then, to get out of the current downward spiral and ensure that NATO’s Bucharest Summit in April becomes a success?
First, the Alliance should be re-asserted as the centre of US-European relations. The U.S. needs to put aside talk of ‘coalitions of the willing’ and allegations of European weakness and reaffirm the multilateral nature and collective defense orientation of the Alliance. But, for this to be sustained, Europe must accept a role for the Alliance ‘out of area’ and it must do much more than has been the case in Afghanistan.
Second, allies need to reaffirm their liberal values as the basis of NATO and redraft a strategic concept that addresses the current ‘narrative confusion’ in current counter terrorist and stabilization operations. By making liberal interventionism less erratic, a new strategic consensus would greatly enhance the ability of NATO to condition behavior and deter courses of action before they occur. With a new concept, hopefully, all the allies could contribute more equitably to future missions avoiding the ‘tiering ‘of the Alliance.
Third, NATO needs to become operationally capable. It is not enough to be willing to act; allies must also be capable. it’s the military transformation need to be capable in both low-intensity stabilization operations and high-intensity combat operations. Big changes are needed in decision-making, funding and operational control of military missions.
The Alliance must also be more useful to its most powerful member. This is not about NATO being subservient to the US – it is about the transatlantic community making a serious, cooperative contribution to global security.
Robert Gates’ warning that NATO risks irrelevance should be treated as a call for action by both Europe and the US. The US and Europe have a lot in common, but without a common enterprise like NATO, centrifugal forces could pull us in different directions. NATO is likely to survive even if the ISAF mission in Afghanistan fails. But it may not be in a state that benefits anyone.
Daniel Korski is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. A former British official, he was a Senior Advisor in the US State Department, and then led the Basra Reconstruction Team.
Michael Williams is the Head of the Transatlantic Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security in London. A longer version of this article can be found here.
Related material from the Atlantic Community:
- Dominique Moisi: Will NATO's Prodigal Son Return?
- Dr. Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg: Afghans Respond Favourably to NATO Efforts in Afghanistan
- Volker Perthes: The Hard Choices of Intervention