There is a constant drumbeat on both sides of the Atlantic that we must enhance NATO and make sure it’s up to the multifarious challenges of a globalized world. This is a questionable assertion. By contrast, it seems increasingly likely that the new global security infrastructure should be built on a foundation of regionalism.
The United States, for as long as it remains the single most powerful nation in the world, should play a pivotal role in each of several key security institutions. Yet these institutions should remain regional, focusing on their own neighborhoods where they can be more effective, rather than morphing into grandiose institutions with ambitions far exceeding their capabilities.
For the transatlantic world, NATO is, unfortunately, becoming a prime example of an institution that is flailing about in the globalized post-Cold War world. Its most recent attempt to maintain relevance above and beyond what it should be is its relatively ill-fated Libyan intervention. While NATO played a major role in ousting then leader Muammar Gaddafi, the operation highlighted American strengths and European weaknesses.
In many ways, this peripheral theater did much to advertise both Europe’s challenges and America’s unwillingness to act decisively to do what is necessary to win in a small-scale conflict. Not only did it take a prolonged period of time to overthrow Gaddafi; the operation failed to secure many of Libya’s weapons which has resulted in instability throughout northern Africa, particularly in Mali.
Additionally, there are serious questions as to why this operation was done in the first place. If it was really engaged in due to the hazy concept of a “responsibility to protect,” then it is quite embarrassing to see what has happened in Syria both during the operation itself and after its completion.
Indeed, one can make the cogent argument that the Ba’athist regime crackdown in Syria is of far more strategic importance to the region than whatever Colonel Gadaffi did. The point is, if one is to engage, one must engage fully. This NATO emphatically did not do and that weakness is visible to other nations and growing power centers in the world.
The take away from this sorry state of affairs is that NATO should remain focused on European stability, not out of theater operations. Efforts like Libya to use NATO outside of Europe leave much to be desired. Fundamentally, it is making the Atlantic alliance look weaker not stronger.
Meanwhile, threats in the new, globalized world are vastly different than those previously confronted before and after World War II. Their amorphous nature does not lend itself to having to create institutions that are all things to all people. It makes little sense for NATO to be involved in Asian security competition for the long run. By contrast, something akin to the old South East Asia Treaty Organization would make perfect sense in the region.
Yes, the old SEATO disbanded due to the fractiousness of its members. However, with the rise of China and threats like terrorism, piracy off the Somalian coast, Indo-Pakistani tension and a nuclearized Korea, there could be renewed interest in a security system for the region. Overlapping membership with the ASEAN and APEC would be guaranteed.
It could also serve as a useful balancer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization but its membership should not be contingent upon the domestic political structure of various interested states. Though it would probably need to exclude China as a direct member, it can certainly look for something akin to the NATO-Russia council to assuage legitimate Chinese concerns.
Also, given the importance of East Asia to the future economic order of the world, a “quadrilateral commission” comprised of China, India, the United States and possibly Japan should be sought out for both additional economic discussions and peer to peer military exercises.
Meanwhile, the United States should pursue more robust engagement with Brazil in South America and seek a “South Atlantic Treaty Organization” that might deal not only with Marxist revisionists like Hugo Chávez but violent drug cartels as well.
A revival of the Central Treaty Organization, or CENTO, that focuses on Middle Eastern security could easily be envisaged and linked with existing institutions such as the Gulf Cooperation Council in order to manage the long-term fallout of the “Arab Spring” and ongoing security issues in the greater Middle East.
Certainly, this is all very rough in conception but the point is that there is an increasing need to become focused on regions. By making security architectures appropriately focused, they can avoid becoming empty hulks that do little more than offer superficial comfort.
This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared at the Atlantic Community, August 12, 2011.