The Realist Prism: Moving Beyond NATO's Perpetual Crisis

By Nikolas Gvosdev

Just as the turning of the leaves heralds the arrival of winter's chill, so too are there unmistakable signs whenever a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization draws near. The media is filled with commentary about "NATO's crisis," while statements percolate forth from the alliance's capitals about NATO's clear purpose for the 21st century.

This is a yearly ritual, with the proclamations of alliance unity and cohesion that inevitably accompany any NATO summit having similarly acquired a totemic quality.

When the meeting is over, reality catches up with the vision that has been so ardently reaffirmed. The same issues come up again and again: burden-sharing, the proper geographic focus of the alliance, and other well-worn debates. True, since 2002, Afghanistan has been added to the mix. But despite new strategic concepts, declarations and commitments, nothing seems to change: If NATO were a movie, it would be "Groundhog Day."

Indeed, had I wanted to be very lazy for my column this week, I could have taken this 2002 National Review essay, updated a few names and dates, tweaked a few points, and it would be just as relevant today as it was eight years ago. Instead, in advance of this year's Lisbon summit, I'll offer for consideration the following resolutions on NATO, in the hopes that we can put a certain number of these perennial debates behind us and move on to the serious business of updating a still-vital alliance.

First, we must stop living in a "post-Soviet world" that no longer exists. It makes as much sense today to continue using the Soviet Union and 1989 as a frame of reference as it would have been to talk about Europe in 1938 as a "post-Hapsburg" world. If the proposals advanced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the recent trilateral summit between France, Germany and Russia take root over the next few years -- especially one that would create a European security council and what Sarkozy labeled a "technical, human and security partnership" between Europe and Russia -- then Europe's overall architecture would be fundamentally changed in a way that once and for all relegates its Cold War-era divisions to the ashbin of history.

Second, with regards to the war in Afghanistan, we must stop equating NATO with the Soviet Union. Whether Afghanistan ends up being a "win, lose or draw" is not an existential matter for the alliance. This is not to say that what happens in Central Asia is unimportant for NATO -- the perception of a "defeat" would certainly have negative consequences for the alliance. But it has been a mistake to make the Afghan mission NATO's raison d'être, because it implies that the stability of the Euro-Atlantic community can be taken for granted; it can't. NATO's primary foci must be to ensure the stability of the eastern and southern flanks of the Atlantic community. And when it comes to the rising security challenges massing on the southern frontier, the alliance cannot afford to be complacent. The new drug trade flowing from South America via Africa into Europe shows that the Mediterranean as a whole remains a "soft underbelly" for the Euro-Atlantic world -- and extending and exporting security southward into Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America ought to be a key priority for the alliance.

Third, we have to break out of an unhealthy binary dynamic that says that NATO must be everything or it is nothing. There is no deep-seated political will or desire among the member states to dissolve the alliance or proclaim its "mission accomplished," despite a good deal of ink being spilled on the subject. On the other hand, neither is there any political will or desire among member states to double down on the alliance by augmenting it or putting it at the center of their security policies. NATO matters today not because it holds back "the eastern hordes" -- whether Soviet, al-Qaida or even Chinese – but because it effectively manages risks within the Euro-Atlantic zone.

Finally, we must stop trying to find a "replacement" for the Soviet Union as a central organizing principle to justify NATO's existence. There are plenty of security challenges that the alliance can help address without the need for any single one to represent an existential threat.

These four resolutions have implications for political narratives in the alliance countries, but most importantly, in the United States. For the last 20 years, successive American administrations have sought to "sell" NATO to the Congress and the public as a burden-sharing device: Essentially, other members of the alliance, grateful for U.S. efforts to keep Soviet tanks on the other side of the Elbe river from 1945 to 1989, would now express that gratitude by easing America's burdens in other parts of the world. When NATO "fails to deliver," as many perceive that it has in Afghanistan, public opinion begins to question the value of continued U.S. engagement.

Instead, our politicians should explain to NATO skeptics that the alliance's primary value is in keeping Europe quiet and stable. The George H.W. Bush administration was well aware that the 1990-91 Desert Shield/Desert Storm mission could not have been undertaken had Europe still been locked in its Cold War configuration. It is precisely the stabilization of the European theater that has allowed the U.S. to focus more attention and resources on other parts of the world in recent years. Seen in that light, NATO remains a relative security bargain for U.S. interests.

But now the zone of NATO activity must expand beyond its traditional geographic delineations to cover North and West Africa, the Middle East, and even parts of the Western Hemisphere. And other NATO members must be capable of handling operations in this expanded zone – the anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia, for instance – without significant U.S. input.

Europeans, for their part, understandably resist the idea of expanding the alliance in a way that makes the entire world a part of the North Atlantic. This then leads to another question that has to be addressed: how consensus is reached within the alliance. The current approach at work in Afghanistan is for the United States to define most of the alliance's objectives and to assume the lion's share of the burdens, with other NATO members choosing whether and under what conditions to offer support. This approach is unsustainable over time, but it cannot be fundamentally altered until there is more agreement on what missions the alliance is prepared to undertake, and how alliance members decide, on a bilateral basis, whether to participate in them. In the future, we should expect to see the emergence of intra-alliance ententes, security arrangements, and dare I say it, even coalitions of the willing -- all beneath the overall aegis of NATO.

If all alliance members can agree on these points, instead of seeking to obfuscate them for the sake of producing consensus statements, then the ongoing evolution of the North Atlantic alliance can continue. But as long as the Washington policy community continues to hold out the hope of NATO assuming a truly global security role in order to justify America's continued engagement with the alliance, and Europeans continue to define the zone of Euro-Atlantic security in narrower terms while allowing their own capabilities for power-projection even in a more-reduced regional sense to atrophy, then we should expect the Lisbon Summit to produce the same results that the Bucharest Summit, the Prague Summit, and any other summit you care to name did in the past. And if so, I'll keep that old NATO essay on hand, ready for updating.
Editors Note: Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest, and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.
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