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 no longer the case and it has forced NATO to evaluate exactly what role it should play in the twenty-first century.
While it seems that many in Europe and the United States have a desire to turn NATO into some sort of “GloboCop” looking perennially abroad for new monsters to slay, NATO’s actions since the conclusion of the Cold War raise serious questions about the wisdom of such a course. Its use of military force against Serbia during the Kosovo crisis in the 1990s, its extensive work in Afghanistan and, most recently, in Libya illustrate how NATO can work and how it really cannot.
The key question is this: Should NATO in this century be used primarily to defend Europe from external aggression while 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. It should also retain the ability to maintain a sense of order in the continually tumultuous southern side of Europe, especially the Balkan tinderbox.
Meanwhile, NATO must reexamine 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 toward 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 theater. However, the projection capabilities of NATO are not all that impressive when looking at the difficulty in doing what is necessary to win a small-scale conflict beyond Europe.
The Libyan intervention reinforces this impression. Aside from the question of whether the regime crackdown in Syria is of more strategic importance to the region than whatever Colonel Muammar Gaddafi did, the point is, if one is to engage, one must engage fully. That NATO proved only half willing to do so elongated the conflict and could have facilitated the stealing of many weapons that are now finding their way into a myriad of other conflict zones like Mali.
The take away from this state of affairs is that NATO should remain focused on European stability, not out of theater operations. Efforts to use NATO outside of Europe leave much to be desired and fundamentally risk making the Atlantic alliance look weaker, not stronger.
Attempting to bolster NATO in order that it essentially becomes some kind of global constabulary force seems unwise. Each region of the world will require its own multilateral (though not panglobal) institutions.
The United States 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.
Europe and the United States are the pillars of transatlanticism and the “West” more broadly conceived. They must hang together or they will hang separately. Narrowing NATO’s focus in such a way that it maintains stability in the European heartland is a key step to making sure they hang together even if economic power seems to be shifting eastward in the twenty-first century.
At the end of the day, NATO leaders should say no to “GloboCop” and yes to their own backyard.
This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared at the Atlantic Community, September 3, 2010.