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NATO at Sixty: Prospects for the Transatlantic Alliance

Commentary, 30 March 2009
International Institutions
The celebration of NATO’s sixtieth anniversary will be accompanied with renewed skepticism about the Alliance’s role and relevance. However such calls are not new, and though NATO faced a major challenge to its unity and coherence in the Bush years, the Obama Administration is breathing new life into the Alliance

The celebration of NATO’s sixtieth anniversary will be accompanied with renewed skepticism about the Alliance’s role and relevance. However such calls are not new, and though NATO faced a major challenge to its unity and coherence in the Bush years, the Obama Administration is breathing new life into the Alliance

By Dr Ellen Hallams for RUSI.org

As NATO leaders prepare to gather in Strasbourg the vultures are circling, hovering over the inevitable demise of an alliance that has seemingly lurched from crisis to crisis over the past decade. From the recriminations over NATO’s ‘war by committee’ in Kosovo to the seismic shock of 9/11, the alliance has not had a smooth ride. From Prague to Riga, Istanbul to Bucharest and now on to Strasbourg, pundits and scholars have continually spoken of NATO’s slow but steady decline. They are wrong. To look back over the last two decades is to witness an alliance that has utterly transformed itself. NATO has adapted to new risks and challenges, expanded to include new members and in doing so has demonstrated that although not perfect – indeed far from it – it remains alive and well – and very much in business.

Weathering the Storm

The Bush Administration’s decision to bypass NATO following 9/11 in preference of a strategy centered on ‘coalitions of the willing’ seemed to strike a knife through NATO’s very heart. As the United States marched on into Afghanistan, the NATO alliance that had served as the bedrock of transatlantic security for more than fifty years was left to ruminate on missed opportunities and future probabilities.

The crisis over the war in Iraq seemed further vindication for the NATO doomsayers and pessimists as fundamental differences in outlook and approach between the US and its European allies threatened to undermine a once solid marriage of interests. The notion of NATO as an ‘Atlantic Community’ bound together by shared values and ideals seemed a romantic relic of a bygone era. Even as NATO took on greater responsibilities in Afghanistan and Iraq, the sense of crisis remained and divisive debates over burden-sharing, force-generation and funding continue to rumble on, giving succor to those who see NATO as an increasingly irrelevant alliance, plagued by structural and institutional weaknesses for which there is no quick fix.

Yet looking ahead, there is every reason to believe that NATO will continue to confound its critics, just as it has done for the past twenty years. The election of Barack Obama as US President has signaled a change in style and tone in US foreign policy that may well breathe new life into the alliance. Images of Obama speaking before a crowd of adoring Berliners might not have played out well in the American heartland, but to many in Europe his pledge that US foreign policy would seek to ‘not only project power, but also to listen and build consensus’ was a blessed relief from the arrogance and hubris of the Bush Administration, the ‘thanks, but no thanks’ attitude that left so many in the Alliance feeling utterly deflated. If NATO can weather the storm that was the Bush presidency, it can surely look forward with a renewed sense of optimism.

All politics is local

Translating rhetoric into reality will not be easy, however. Obama inherits many of the same problems that his predecessor had to confront and the election of a new US president will not simply wipe away the strains and tensions of the last few years. Obama’s evident desire to work more closely with European allies will require a concomitant commitment from those same allies to pledge increased troops for Afghanistan.

Yet as the last few years have demonstrated, continuing to lecture European allies on this issue is not a viable long-term option. One of the reasons the US has found it so difficult to generate the kinds of contributions they want from European allies is because the sharp decline in European public opinion towards US leadership since 2002 has made it that much harder for European governments to sustain public support for NATO’s ISAF mission. That 58 per cent of the German electorate wants the 3,500 troops Germany has in Afghanistan brought home reflects the reality than in an alliance of twenty-six nations, all politics is local.

Both Obama and US Defence Secretary Robert Gates have recognised that such constraints cannot be easily overcome. As a result, European allies will be asked to focus on what they can do, increasing funding and resources for civilian reconstruction. Putting more boots on the ground is but one element of what has to be an increasingly comprehensive approach that fuses the ‘surge’ in troop numbers with more funding and resources for promoting better governance, police training and economic development. NATO leaders will also attempt to re-brand the Afghan mission to reflect a growing consensus that achieving security and stability depends upon increasing engagement with Afghanistan’s neighbours, including Iran and Pakistan.

Such a division of labour, with the US, UK, Canada and the Netherlands continuing to bear the brunt of the military campaign while other allies step up civilian reconstruction and development efforts may not be desirable. But it does reflect a pragmatic understanding of both the nature of alliance politics and what is required to ensure Afghanistan’s long-term stability. The reality that all politics is local should not – and must not – doom NATO to irrelevance. Instead, it must be made to work to NATO’s advantage by recognising and harnessing the different capabilities and expertise individual allies can bring to alliance operations, instead of engaging in endless – and futile – bickering and recriminations.

The true value of NATO

Critics of NATO have often predicted that the US will eventually turn away from the alliance. Such predictions, however, fail to recognise that more often than not it is the US that drives the alliance forwards. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the US belatedly realised the true value of NATO, turning to the alliance for help and support with post-combat reconstruction and stabilisation. Despite the problems NATO has experienced in Afghanistan, its mission has also demonstrated many of the key advantages to be derived from operating within and through the alliance, not least some sixty years of political and military cooperation and an organisational structure that, although slow and laborious at times, provides an indispensable forum in which differences among allies can be discussed and worked out.

The US decision not to operate through NATO after 9/11 galvanised the alliance into undertaking a much-needed programme of reform and transformation. There is much still to be achieved in what is an on-going process, but there is also much that has been accomplished, not least the streamlining of the command structure, significant advances in terrorist and WMD capabilities, and new initiatives on energy and cyber-security. NATO achieved its goal of having a fully operational NATO Response Force (NRF) by October 2006, only to find it quickly fell below full operating capacity as over-stretched allies began reneging on their pledges of military assets. One of the key challenges for NATO moving forward is thus to get the NRF ‘off the shelf’; having been billed as NATO’s engine of transformation, the longer the NRF remains on the back-burner, the more the critics will continue to hover like vultures.

A global alliance or an alliance with global partners?

It is precisely because NATO has proved it is capable of evolving and adapting to meet new challenges and responsibilities that it will continue to re-mould itself as a global alliance. Having taken on operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Darfur and provided humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistani earthquake, it is abundantly clear that NATO is now an alliance with an increasingly global reach. It has also established a series of global partnerships with nations including Australia, Japan and India.

The possibility that these countries might one day become fully fledged members – an idea supported by Obama’s new US Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder –raises profound questions over whether NATO will remain a transatlantic alliance or evolve into a global alliance of democracies. Although NATO’s global partnerships are likely to be central to the alliance’s ability to meet global security threats and challenges, expanding NATO to include other democracies risks undermining the uniquely transatlantic character of the alliance and alienating those not included – not least an increasingly belligerent Russia.

NATO’s global partnerships should be carefully nurtured; they are vital to its growing effectiveness in dealing with global threats but alliance members should not become sidetracked by grandiose notions of turning NATO into a global club of democracies. It is clear NATO has more existential soul-searching to do. A new Strategic Concept that attempts to impose a coherent long-term vision and strategy for the Alliance seems inevitable but such debates are, however, signs of the Alliance’s fundamental health and vitality.

With the Obama Administration pledging to reach out to many of those European allies who felt snubbed by the Bush Administration, and a new generation of European leaders eager to put behind them the difficulties of the past eight years, the indicators are that NATO will weather its current ‘crisis’ just as it has weathered every other crisis it has confronted since 1949. The alliance may be facing many difficult questions, but that is no reason to assume it is fading into obscurity.

Dr Ellen Hallams is a lecturer in Defence Studies at the Joint Services Staff and Command College, Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham.

The views expressed above are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI.

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