Alliance Looks East: NATO’s Pacific Future

NATO’s future as an actor in Asia is a natural extension of its post Cold War evolution.

If the doomsayers are to be believed, the Atlantic alliance has been in an almost perpetual state of crisis since its conception in 1949.

Certainly, NATO has had its fair share of crises, from France leaving the integrated military structure in 1966 to the split over the 2003 Iraq War and, most recently, the 2011 intervention in Libya. Yet time and time again, the alliance has not just survived but flourished.

The NATO we see today is unrecognizable from the NATO of 1949. The alliance has swelled to 28 member states from an original twelve, encompassing many of their former Warsaw Pact adversaries. NATO has evolved from a static collective defense alliance into a dynamic, out of area operating entity. With the Soviet nemesis long gone, NATO has taken on a new set of tasks that has led it to retain its relevance in the post-Cold War world.

So why has NATO survived when by all rights its raison d’etre died with the Soviet Union? The answer is simple: NATO is much more than a military alliance.

The bonds shared by NATO members run deeper than military ties. Over the years, the alliance has generated an “Atlantic community” that has cemented the alliance and allowed it to survive and prosper. Supplementing this, the alliance still — on the contrary to what some may argue — provides substantial benefits to members on both sides of the Atlantic.

For the Europeans, NATO affords them the American security guarantee as well as a common, functional framework to respond to mutual threats. The Americans benefit when NATO provides international legitimacy to military missions. The alliance’s network of partners, including the Partnership for Peace and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, also allow the United States to incubate relationships and form partnerships with strategically important states.

There are those that decry the European allies for “free riding” on the back of American defense spending, pointing toward the disparity in terms of defense budgets between European members and the United States. However, the method used — comparing defense spending to gross domestic product — is archaic and borderline redundant as a tool for measuring the burden sharing divide. American defense spending may be higher than every other NATO member’s relative to GDP; it is important to remember that the United States are a global superpower with a vast swath of national interests to protect that are completely independent of the alliance.

It’s not that NATO doesn’t suffer any serious problems. It does. But hasn’t it always?

Last year’s military intervention in Libya was yet again heralded as proof NATO was on life support. Only fourteen out of 28 member states participated in the mission. The most militarily capable of European states, France and the United Kingdom, were shown to be heavily reliant on the United States to operate efficiently. Perhaps most worryingly, Germany abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote that authorized intervention.

Despite these perturbing manifestations, the intervention also served to highlight the unmatchable utility of the alliance to deal with crises of this manner. Non-NATO states such as Qatar and Sweden managed to slot into the alliance’s aerial capability, thanks to the command and control structure of NATO being highly conducive to outside integration.

Much has been made of the American “pivot” to East Asia and the perceived irrelevance of Europe to the United States in the modern age. While the Americans are undoubtedly posturing toward Asia to balance China, it is highly presumptuous to assume that they will discard Europe (and by virtue NATO) as inconsequential as power gravitates to the East.

If anything, the future could see NATO become more important to American foreign policy. In 2012, NATO is in essence a global alliance. It has conducted interventions out of area in Afghanistan and Libya as well as developed a network of partners the world over.

The American strategic turn to Asia will likely lead to resources being pulled from Europe to allow the United States to increase their presence in Pacific region. However, this shouldn’t be misconstrued as the United States “abandoning” the European continent. It should be interpreted as the success of the Americans’ heavy post-World War II presence in Europe. The United States can only lessen their presence in Europe because it is now secure, self-sufficient and strong.

As it aims to counterbalance China in East Asia, the United States will seek to draw on its strong relations with states like Japan and South Korea (a trilateral grouping that China has dubbed a “mini NATO”) as well as elevate its partnerships with Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam.

As threats and opportunities are increasingly globalized, it is only natural that NATO, an increasingly global alliance, will have interests in the Pacific region, an area where both military and economic strength is tipping to.

It seems unlikely that NATO will expand to include non-European if likeminded states as Australia and Japan but both European and North American members will seek closer relations with them.

NATO’s 2010 Security Concept shows that the alliance realizes that threats and opportunities now lie outside of its traditional playground, offering “partners around the globe more political engagement with the alliance,” recognizing that “instability or conflict beyond NATO borders can directly threaten alliance security.”

The alliance broadening its horizons will not be without problems. There will be some in Central and Eastern Europe that argue for a more European-centric approach that is focused on Russia, as well as those that see NATO as merely as a tool of the United States’ global ambitions.

In spite of this, NATO’s potential future as an actor in the Pacific region is simply a natural extension of its evolution from a static defensive force during the Cold War to the active and global actor that it is today.

Just like those who claimed France’s 1966 exit from the NATO military structure signaled the end for the alliance, those who insists today that NATO is on its deathbed are likely to be uttering the same pronouncements in another fifty years’ time.