NATO Leaders Look Beyond Afghanistan

The North Atlantic allies meet in Lisbon this week to discuss their future role in Afghanistan.

The members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meet in Lisbon, Portugal this week to discuss their strategy for the years ahead. Although the summit is supposed to discuss the new “strategic concept” prepared by Madeleine Albright this year, the ongoing war in Afghanistan, Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program as well as Western relations with former Cold War rival Russia are likely to dominate the agenda instead.

Albright has been leading a panel charged with rethinking NATO’s future for several months. When she started her work in February of this year, the former American secretary of state wondered aloud 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?” Her answers haven’t been particularly refreshing.

As the European allies are increasingly reluctant to contribute to military intervention overseas, as is currently the case in Afghanistan, the future of NATO as something of an international police force seems in doubt. Albright liked to believe that “NATO is much more than Afghanistan” but in reality, the role of the alliance will be very much shaped by how it handles the end of that war.

The problem, as always, is Europe’s willingness — or rather lack thereof — to participate in military operations. 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. Mounting fiscal 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.

But America is not alone in cutting back on defense. Across Europe, governments are implementing spending cuts and not overlooking their militaries in the effort. The future of British armed forces looks particularly bleak in the near future with scores of programs and entire brigades being scrapped. As the United Kingdom is — or at least was — America’s primary foreign policy ally, this enormous reduction in British defense expenditures may very well alter the “special relationship” into something more mundane. With Britain and France set to pool military resources, instead, Washington may come to regard Britain as just another European power, punching above its weight.

NATO’s relevance further threatens to be undermined by lasting ambiguity about the meaning of its infamous Article 5 which prescribes that an attack against one member state is to be regarded as an attack upon all. In a world of cybercrime and terrorism however it is increasingly difficult to determine what constitutes an “attack”.

Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, formerly prime minister of Denmark, believes that there is nothing wrong with a bit of “constructive ambiguity” on this issue but member states in Central Europe, eying a sometimes still belligerent Russia over their shoulders, aren’t so confident. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, they remember, the West did nothing but complain.

Although Arctic tensions are rising because of Russia’s newfound assertiveness in that region and although Russian bomber planes are regularly intercepted over European airspace since recently, the alliance has made the gesture of inviting President Dmitri Mevedev to Lisbon and discuss future cooperation.

Moscow previously objected to the erection of a American missile shield in Central Europe which, it feared, would undermine Russia’s nuclear posture. Although the shield was more obviously aimed at Iran, the Obama Administration agreed to construct a more modest version of the defense system with early warning radars to be placed in Turkey. That country, recently awakened as a regional power, is now reluctant to offend Tehran however which it believes it can negotiate with. So NATO has offered to involve Russia in the project, in order to alleviate Ankara of part of the burden and to make it clear once again that the Cold War is over.

When Medvedev met with his French and German counterparts last month, there was talk of pulling Russia into a European security zone, independent of NATO — and independent of American policy.

Russia is also expected to become more involved in Afghanistan, from supplying helicopters to training Afghan armed forced.