What Lies Beneath: The Future of NATO through the ISAF Prism

By Michael Williams and Julianne Smith

Few would have thought in 1990 that NATO had a bright future. The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the demise of the Warsaw Pact had pundits and academics alike predicting NATO’s demise. But instead of withering away, NATO has spent the last 18 years redefining itself and taking on new missions. It has expanded into Central and Eastern Europe, ensuring the spread of democracy and stability; helped to end conflict in the former Yugoslavia; and provided relief for the victims of natural disasters in Pakistan and on America’s Gulf coast. Today the Alliance is on the front line of the struggle against global terrorism with a full on campaign against al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

However, despite its long list of achievements, NATO continues to experience strategic drift, with deep divisions inside the Alliance on future roles and missions. The Alliance’s summit this month in Bucharest was intended to get at the heart of such debates (in addition to adding three new members). But NATO’s current mission in Afghanistan, which currently is suffering from a lack of both resources and political will, now threatens to cast a dark shadow over the summit’s agenda. With the U.S. in election mode and a new president due in January 2009, postponing NATO reforms may not be all bad. Understandably, the allies are cautious about major initiatives in light of their current operations. At the same time, France’s revelation that it wants to explore re-joining the military committee also poses a number of questions that many believe will be best answered by giving Paris (and the Alliance) a bit more time to develop their thinking on what this means. That said, NATO is facing a long list of pressing challenges, many of which demand immediate attention.

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