The American Legion Magazine
April 2003
By Alan W. Dowd

With handshakes and toasts, NATO leaders used the recent Prague Summit to invite Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania into the most successful and enduring military alliance in history. NATO’s rapid expansion into what was once enemy territory may have grabbed all the headlines, but the Alliance altered far more than its membership roster in Prague.

For the second time in just four years, NATO is changing its mission to respond to a changed world. As US Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns puts it, “We’re deconstructing the old NATO to build a new one to meet the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.”[1] Whether the middle-aged alliance has the endurance and flexibility to shoulder this new mission remains to be seen.

From Berlin to bin Laden?

When NATO’s founding fathers gathered in Washington to create the Alliance in 1949, their primary concern was protecting Western Europe from the Red Army. In an unusual display of candor for a diplomat, NATO’s first secretary general described the organization’s mission as “keeping the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down.” Moscow pushed in Berlin and all across the European front, but NATO pushed back; the United States became a European power; and Germany finally found its place in a wider community.

However, by the time NATO turned fifty, both the Alliance and its mission were in need of an overhaul. After eight years of ethnic warfare and 250,000 deaths, the Balkans were still hemorrhaging. And after a full decade of independence from Moscow, the rest of Eastern Europe was clamoring for security. It was in this atmosphere that NATO embraced a new mission in 1999: No longer would the Alliance simply defend Western Europe, it would stabilize Eastern Europe, making "full use of every opportunity to build an undivided continent by promoting and fostering the vision of a Europe whole and free."[2]

As if to underscore those words, the Alliance added Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into the fold—and then went to war over tiny Kosovo, the besieged Albanian enclave in southern Serbia. Europe reaped immediate benefits from NATO expansion: As a precondition of joining the Alliance, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were required to iron out long-standing territorial and ethnic disputes with their neighbors, liberalize their economies, and westernize their political systems.

However, there were plenty of problems with NATO’s Kosovo intervention: The generals underestimated the enemy; the politicians micromanaged the generals; and after fifty years of practice, NATO seemed strangely ill-prepared to fight—all of which explains the qualms expressed by Congress and the Legion. But four years later, even the critics have to concede that Europe is a better place because of NATO’s decision to march eastward. The Balkans are stable. Milosevic is rotting away in a jail cell. And the continent is arguably freer and more united than it has ever been.

Yet the same cannot be said for the rest of the globe. As Europe came together, the rest of the world has come apart. Not only did September 11 shatter the post-Cold War illusion of a united world, it challenged NATO to reevaluate its place and purpose. As President George W. Bush observed in Prague, “Our NATO alliance faces dangers very different from those it was formed to confront. Yet never has our need for collective defense been more urgent.”[3] The dangers come not from Soviet divisions plowing through the Fulda Gap, but from failed states and rogue regimes on faraway continents, where terrorism breeds.

As a consequence, the running post-Cold War argument over NATO’s role beyond Europe is now closed. As French Ambassador to NATO Benoit D’Aboville observes, that dispute “has fallen away with the twin towers.”[4] NATO is not yet prepared to become the top cop in the global fight against terror, but it is ready to join the posse. According to NATO Secretary General George Robertson, “For our people and our societies, terrorism poses a mortal danger—a danger we must protect ourselves against here and now.”[5]

Hard Choices, Hard Feelings

The new NATO will be characterized not just by a longer reach, but by new command procedures and new capabilities. The Alliance needs all three to be effective in the global fight against terror.

In Robertson’s view, “NATO’s credibility comes from its capability.” Hoping to enhance their joint capabilities, NATO leaders have agreed to forge a 21,000-man rapid reaction force. First proposed by Washington, the NATO Response Force (NRF) will be something like an all-star team: Countries will voluntarily contribute specialty units, thereby accentuating their strengths and enhancing flexibility. Deployable both in Europe and beyond, the ad hoc force will be outfitted with the very latest in high-tech weaponry—heavy-lift cargo planes to move troops and equipment rapidly, mid-air refuelers to extend the range of warplanes, precision-guided weapons to limit both civilian casualties and the duration of war, and modern communications assets to speed the movement of information.[6]   

The only NATO member that has integrated all of these 21st-century capabilities into its military is the United States, as was painfully evident in Afghanistan.  

Just days after the attacks on America, NATO invoked Article V, its all-for-one collective defense clause. Soon, NATO planes were deployed to the United States to monitor the skies for hostile or suspicious aircraft. But the deployments, like the sincere statement of solidarity expressed in Article V, were more symbolic than substantive. After years of miniscule investments in defense, there simply wasn’t much NATO could do collectively to help Washington in the campaign against al Queda and the Taliban. This should come as no surprise: America’s 2003 increase in military spending was actually more than the total defense outlays of any European government. To borrow a phrase from scripture, NATO’s spirit was willing but the body was weak.  

There were notable individual exceptions in Afghanistan: Great Britain had both the means and the will to join America in the first counterstroke against the global terror axis. Other NATO nations contributed after the Taliban was routed. Turkey led the International Security Assistance Force in and around Kabul. Germany, France, and a handful of other NATO allies sent units to clear caves. But their role was limited, and Washington’s invitation came late, causing hard feelings in Europe.  

Still, this asymmetry of power was a problem long before Afghanistan. When NATO used air strikes to muscle Bosnian Serbs to the peace table in 1995, 75 percent of the raids were conducted by two air forces—the American and British. Four years later, during the Kosovo War, US warplanes comprised over 65 percent of the NATO air armada. A study by The Economist conducted during the Kosovo War revealed that only 10 percent of NATO’s European combat aircraft were capable of precision bombing.[7] As Lt. Gen. Michael Short, who helped plan the Kosovo air campaign, bluntly concluded, “We’ve got an A Team and a B Team now.”[8]  

War by Committee

Of course, there is more at work here than Europe’s relative military weakness. The Kosovo War no doubt affected Washington’s confidence in NATO’s capacity to conduct military operations. As The Economist laments, “Europe’s real weakness in security matters lies not in a shortage of cruise missiles, but in a deep reluctance—born of years of letting America do the hard geopolitical work—to think strategically.”[9] For example, in the very first hours of the Kosovo campaign, Greece and Italy called for a bombing pause. Germany publicly dismissed Britain’s suggestion of a ground attack. Britain retained veto power over anything targeted by British-based B-52s. France vetoed “sensitive” targets throughout the war. Hence, Short’s initial target list of thousands was chopped down to hundreds by NATO’s less-hawkish members. In fact, only 53 targets were hit on the war’s opening night.[10] Belgrade wasn’t even hit until Day 11 of the air campaign. “Instead of a fierce, full-out attack at the beginning, hammering away at all targets,” recalls historian David Halberstam in his latest book War in a Time of Peace, “the number of targets, the importance of the targets and the number of planes had been greatly reduced.”[11]  

However, the most critical internal dispute came as a Russian brigade lunged at the Pristina airport. When NATO Commander Wes Clark (an American) ordered Gen. Michael Jackson (a Briton) to seize the airport, Jackson refused. Both men then appealed to their national commanders, a practice permitted under NATO’s vague and unwieldy war-fighting conventions. Hours later, Washington and London concluded that NATO’s unity was more important than Kosovo’s airport. And a humiliated Clark was forced to rescind his order.[12] 

The result was a war that took weeks rather than days to finish, a peace that was almost lost, and a lingering question mark over future NATO operations, which by definition will be multinational. As Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) asked after learning of the Clark-Jackson standoff, “How do you run a military operation if the subordinates can decide they don’t want to follow the supreme commander?”[13]  

Recognizing that there is no good answer to Warner’s question, NATO leaders vowed in Prague to create “a leaner, more streamlined, effective and deployable command structure.”[14] That’s a good sign; however, this new structure is still largely on the drawing board. That’s why Robertson is only partly right: New capabilities are important, but they are no more important than a workable command structure, which is no more important than agreement among NATO’s political leaders. As Gen. Klaus Naumann, former chief of NATO’s military committee, concludes, “We need to find a way to reconcile the conditions of coalition war with the principle of military operations such as surprise and overwhelming force.”[15]  In other words, when (or if) NATO’s politicians decide to intervene, operational matters such as tactics, targeting, and timing must be left to NATO’s commanding general. NATO simply cannot function as an effective military organization in an age of terror if its commanding officer’s orders are treated as suggestions—and if its battle plans and missions are shaped by the lowest common denominator.  

But even with new command procedures and new hardware, it will still be difficult for a consensus-based organization of 26 sovereign nations to agree on waging war. Simply put, it’s much easier to play defense than to plan and execute an offense. And as we wade ever deeper into this global war, one wonders if new command procedures will be able to remove the real impediment to collective offensive military action: the increasingly divergent worldviews of Western Europe and the United States. Consider Germany, where Washington’s determination to disarm and dislodge Saddam Hussein was cynically used by leading politicians to sway the autumn elections. Or consider France, which used its seat on the UN Security Council not to assist its NATO allies, but to delay and distract them.  

Given this record and these realities, one can hardly blame Washington for deciding to prosecute the anti-terror campaign independent of Brussels. 

Shifting Alliances?

NATO’s struggle to make the transition from defense to offense could be a simple matter of growing pains, but it raises the very real possibility that the Alliance will do more talking than acting in the war on terror. And if that happens, the hard feelings will spread to both sides of the Atlantic. However, the Prague Summit may help avoid that messy prospect. At Prague, Bush made it clear that America needs NATO—but not the bureaucratic and balky NATO of yesterday. “A strong and vibrant NATO is in the best interests of America, so we’ll be active and good partners,” he vowed, adding pointedly, “we expect the same from our NATO friends.”[16]

The West Europeans seem to have gotten the message. As one French official conceded, “If we do not deliver on the NRF, we could be blamed for reducing the Alliance to a mere diplomatic and political prop for the US.”[17] 

However, Washington isn’t alone in challenging Western Europe. The East Europeans are rapidly shifting the balance of power within NATO. Indeed, NATO’s newest members are arguably its most pro-American, and as the Prague Summit illustrated they are forming an alliance within the Alliance. Seeking to downplay the differences separating Germany and France from the United States and Britain, NATO’s post-summit communiqué merely mouthed the UN’s watered-down resolution on Iraq, notably stopping short of committing forces to any campaign against Saddam. But NATO’s seven newest members joined NATO aspirants Albania, Croatia and Macedonia in issuing their own communiqué that announced their intention “to contribute to an international coalition to enforce…the disarmament of Iraq.”[18]

In committing their tiny armies to military action, Eastern Europe’s courageous leaders may have done more than simply stand with America and Britain: Perhaps they reminded their western neighbors of what it means to be in an alliance.

[1] Kaiser, Richburg.
[2] NATO Strategic Concept, April 1999.
[3] ELISABETH BUMILLER, “NATO Leaders Join Demands for Iraq to Disarm,” NY Times, November 21, 2002.
[4] Robert Kaiser, Keith Richburg, “NATO looking ahead to a mission makeover,” Washington Post, November 5, 2002.
[5] George Robertson, speech in Berlin, November 4, 2002.
[6] George Robertson, November 4, 2002 Address, Berlin, www.nato.int.
[7] “Armies and Arms,” The Economist, April 24, 1999,  pp.11-12.
[8] See General Short’s remarks in John Tirpak, “Short’s View of the Air Campaign,” Air Force Magazine, September 1999.
[9] “Knights in Shining Armour,” The Economist, April 24, 1999, p.5.
[10] Dana Priest, “United NATO front was divided within,” The Washington Post, September 21, 1999.
[11] David Halberstam, War in a Time of Peace, p.451.
[12] Elizabeth Becker, “U.S. General Was Overruled in Kosovo,” The New York Times, September 10, 1999.
[13] See Becker.
[14] Prague Summit Declaration, November 21, 2002, ww.nato.int.
[15] General Klaus Naumann, NATO Briefing, May 4, 1999.
[16] George W. Bush, remarks in Prague, Nov. 20, 2002
[17] Judy Dempsey, “NATO Enlargement,” Financial Times, Nov. 20, 2002.
[18] Patrick Tyler, “NATO backs Bush on Iraq but Germans oppose war,” New York Times, November 22, 2002.