1 – The only problem but not NATO
Over the past week, American officials have attended meetings of NATO and the Munich Security Conference. The topic has been the future of NATO, with the United States demanding once more that the Europeans carry out their obligation to maintain effective military forces in order to participate in the NATO military alliance. At the same time, many European countries raised the question of whether the United States is committed to NATO. The Europeans are charging that that Americans may have military force but lack political commitment to Europe. The Americans are charging that the Europeans may be politically committed to NATO but lack the military force to give meaning to their commitment.
- The real issue is that NATO has achieved its original mission, and no agreement exists on what its mission is now. NATO’s original mission was to block a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. That was achieved in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.
- Having achieved the mission, NATO could have dissolved, but the problem with multinational institutions is that they take on a life of their own, independent of the reason they were created.
- Disbanding NATO because it had achieved its goal was never an option. So it continued to exist, holding conferences, maintaining planning staff and acting as if there was political agreement on what it was supposed to do.
As the Soviet Union was collapsing, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States, as the only global power, created a coalition going far beyond NATO to repel the invasion. There was great satisfaction at the outcome, without a realization that the Iraqi invasion was not a stand-alone event but the beginning of a massive restructuring of the Middle East that would include vast instability and terrorist attacks on the U.S. and Europe.
From 1945 until 1991, the fundamental global issue was the status of Europe in the wake of World War II. From 1991 until today, the fundamental issue for Europe and the United States has been the status of the Islamic world in the wake of the end of the Cold War, which had the effect of imposing a kind of stability in the region.
NATO was created to address post-World War II Europe. That is no longer the pivotal issue. NATO was not built to deal with what came after its success. There is consensus that chaos in the Islamic world is undesirable, but no consensus on three other points. First, there is no agreement that NATO as an institution has an obligation to take collective military action to pacify the region. Second, there is no consensus over what pacification would look like. Third, there is no consensus that a coordinated and collective effort to prevent terrorist attacks on NATO countries should be undertaken.
NATO’s institutions were created with a crisply defined mission, an understanding of the consequences of failure and, therefore, an allocation of military resources appropriate to the mission and to member states’ resources. There is no such agreement on the current conflict and, therefore, NATO does not have a unifying mission.
The Cold War was seen as an existential threat to Europe. The Islamic conflict is seen in different ways by different countries at different times. No military strategy can exist based on this political base of sand. Therefore, interests within NATO diverge, particularly between the United States and many European countries.
The U.S. has fought a war for 15 years in the Muslim world designed to contain those forces the U.S. perceived as a danger to its security and interests. Some European countries, such as the United Kingdom, have joined this war with major resources. Some have given what I can only call symbolic gestures, considering the resources they could have devoted. Others have been deeply skeptical and critical of U.S. strategy.
Therefore, these countries cannot fully agree on the strategic problem NATO faces and, as a result, can’t adopt a unified strategy. NATO members’ view of the world and willingness to act decisively varies widely. Therefore, the reasonable question is what is the point of NATO? The general feeling is that while the U.S.’ 15-year war did not compel Europe to act as a matter of collective security, other interests bind members together.
- The problem is defining what other issues require an organization such as NATO, and whether, having defined the issue, the Europeans are prepared to devote the resources required to carry out the mission.
- It is vital to constantly point out that NATO is not a political framework where discussions take place but a military alliance that rests on military goals and resources.
- It is about soldiers and sailors, and if the issues being faced do not involve these, then NATO has no use. Some other sort of institution may be required to address these issues instead.
NATO is an alliance of habit. We used to need NATO and, therefore, surely we still need NATO. It is also an alliance of convenience. Rather than being committed to the military management of current problems, which is its mission, it has become selective in its engagements. The difference between NATO prior to 1991 and now is simple. Prior to 1991, it had a clear purpose and all members were committed to that purpose.
It no longer has a clear purpose, and when some members, such as the United States, become involved in wars, participation is elective. To be more precise, participation can be broad but militarily insignificant. Europe’s military force is rationally shaped to the risk it is prepared to take and not to the requirements of the conflict at hand. Participation in conflict is not automatic but optional. Therefore, NATO is no longer an alliance, as an alliance requires mutual interests and support. NATO members have no mutual interest.
In trying to find a reason for NATO to continue operating, the obvious solution is to once again address NATO’s founding mission: deterring Russia. From 1991 until 2008 and the war in Georgia, NATO’s assumption about Russia was that it was the crippled remnant of the Soviet Union, incapable of posing a military hazard and interested primarily in evolving into a variety of liberal democracy with a vibrant economy linked to Europe. It seemed a reasonable assumption, but it was defective.
The Russians increasingly saw European and American help as undermining Russia’s economic viability, and saw NATO expansion as designed to strangle Russia. Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004 was the breaking point, along with the admission of the Baltic states into NATO. The Russians saw the latter as a violation of the West’s pledge not to expand NATO into the former Soviet Union, and the former as a desire to build anti-Russian regimes in areas of vital interest to the Russians.
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