NATO After Afghanistan

“NATO is much more than Afghanistan,” former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the Atlantic Council on May 19. Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stravidis agreed, noting that although Afghanistan is important, the alliance is a “very, very active” fighting force engaged in missions all over the world.

Albright was invited by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in February to lead a panel that will make recommendations on the alliance’s future. The challenge ahead for NATO, she said at the time, is to determine how an alliance, “that unifies peoples and values under a common defense, created to defend against a threat that no longer exists [can] find relevance against a whole new set of threats.” The question is all the more pressing because part of that alliance doesn’t count waging war in the Middle East among its priorities anymore.

Admiral Stavridis maintains that NATO has done “a good job of getting 28 member nations together” on Afghanistan but that’s not the whole story. The German government has been under pressure for months on the Afghanistan issue while the ruling coalition in the Netherlands even collapsed last February when it proved unable to decide whether or not to prolong the Dutch participation in ISAF. What’s more, NATO has been deeply divided over the war in Iraq with particularly France objecting staunchly to unilateral military action on the part of the United States.

Sarwar Kashmeri at the New Atlanticist is more realistic in his assessment. NATO, he warns, is “increasingly dysfunctional” and “still searching for a new role two decades after the end of the Cold War.”

Left dangling in this state NATO will soon become irrelevant to the security needs of the Euro-Atlantic area. Worse, its internal tensions will continue to damage the already frayed transatlantic ties.

The answer, Kashmeri believes, is to “bridge the alliance with the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy” which would augment NATO’s military power with civilian, legal and police tools while boosting legitimacy of American-led endeavors among European allies.

The problem, as always, is Europe’s willingness — or lack thereof — to participate in missions overseas. Most European NATO members spend less than the required 2 percent of GDP on defense while decades of peace and stability on the continent have left Western Europe with little appetite for war. Much of the West prefers to free ride on American power instead and for the last half century or so, America has been comfortable with that situation. Increasing financial pressure at home and military overstretch in the Middle East are forcing the United States to cut back however. Europe will have to shoulder its part of the burden soon.

Not all NATO partners always shrink from doing their bit. Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom all maintain sizable armed forces while France still likes to think itself a great power. Smaller nations like the Netherlands and Norway invest particularly in their navies while Austria and Canada for instance maintain respectable and specialized air forces. European countries have been quite willing to participate in peacekeeping operations in former Yugoslavia and several are currently engaged in anti-piracy efforts off the Horn of Africa — the obvious difference between Yugoslavia and anti-piracy on the one hand and Afghanistan on the other being that Europe doesn’t consider the latter to be so much in its own interest though. The United States may be happy to fight for peace and democracy all over the globe; Europe isn’t.

Part of the solution is to let Europe operate more on its own in order to avoid resentment toward perceived American unilateralism. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem. In the years ahead the United States’ focus will logically turn to the Pacific. American policymakers continue to worry about China’s naval ascendancy and will likely persist in their efforts to counterbalance that largely imaginary threat by strengthening their ties with Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and South Korea. Europe would have to cover the Atlantic and Africa.

The tricky part is to persuade Europe that it should. Closer integration of EU and NATO security policies is desirable in this regard, not just because the potential of European might is slim indeed. As Robert Kaplan predicated last year, “America will have no choice but to yank Europe kicking and screaming into conflict zones.” Better if it feels that it has something to say about where it is being dragged into combat.