Rethinking NATO’s Future

It wasn’t too long ago that NATO’s post-Cold War purpose seemed perfectly clear. During the Clinton Administration, the United Stated led allies in humanitarian efforts around the world but in Europe’s backyard especially. Up to this very day, Western forces are actively engaged in peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia and, of course, in Afghanistan.

The Afghanistan mission however, within the context of counterterrorism and -insurgency, has cast doubt upon NATO’s proper role. European allies are increasingly weary about risking soldiers’ lives for the sake of ensuring peace and stability in regions far beyond their borders. Many countries contribute only modestly to ISAF; others, like Canada and the Netherlands, are preparing to pull out altogether while in the United States, traditionally the most supportive of military endeavors overseas, public support for the war is shrinking.

At the same time, former Cold War rival Russia isn’t at all enthusiastic about NATO’s eastward expansion. The Russian Bear roars anew, intend on safeguarding its former spheres of influence.

No wonder then that Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is planning for the NATO of tomorrow. He has invited former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to chair a panel that will make recommendations about the organization’s future. Albright is thrilled to do it. “NATO has been a thread throughout my life,” she told Politico last week.

Albright describes NATO’s challenge as follows: “How does an alliance that unifies peoples and values under a common defense, created to defend against a threat that no longer exists find relevance against a whole new set of threats?” Especially when at least part of that alliance doesn’t considering fighting wars in the Middle East directly in its own interest.

In NATO’s ill-defined twenty-first century role — serving as something of an international police force while trying to bring peace and democracy to other parts of the world — Western European member states, in spite of all their admiration for President Barack Obama, have been reluctant to pitch in. For a new Atlantic order to take shape, the alliance must find a way to get Europe more involved.

That is why current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking in Washington DC yesterday, stressed that the EU is no competitor of NATO. “We see a strong Europe as an essential partner,” she said.

“NATO’s success in providing a security foundation for Europe’s transformation is one of the great accomplishments not only of NATO but, as many of you also believe, of any political-military alliance in history.” The alliance has fostered political and economic reform and “helped create the stable, democratic Europe we see today,” according to Clinton. As such, the alliance should “continue to keep its door open to new members.”

Clinton is aware of Russia’s unease with NATO expansion. “While Russia faces challenges to its security,” she said, “NATO is not among them.” The secretary called on Russia to collaborate with the alliance on the missile defense of Europe and the fight against nuclear proliferation. “European security will benefit if NATO and Russia are more open about our armaments, our military facilities, and our exercises.”

As the United States see it, the original tenets of NATO’s mission — “defending our nations, strengthening transatlantic ties, and fostering European integration” — still hold. But in an interconnected world, the alliance cannot accomplish that mission by crouching behind its geographic boundaries. “Reality has redefined the area in which we operate.”

For the organization to survive into the twenty-first century, said Clinton, “we’ll need to ensure that the evolution of NATO’s political capabilities keeps pace with its operational capabilities.”

This means that it may also have to provide civilian capabilities, especially in the early phases of a crisis when it is the only institution in the field. For too long, our alliance has been hamstrung by those who argue that NATO is an exclusively military organization and oppose attempts to develop — or in some cases even to discuss — the alliance’s capacity to take on civilian responsibilities.

The war in Afghanistan has shown that NATO cannot fulfill its new, broader purpose without developing non-military means to resolve conflicts. “If we are going to succeed in counterinsurgency warfare,” said Clinton, “NATO must continue developing mechanisms to draw on the existing security-oriented civilian capacities of its member states.”