World Politics Review
March 14, 2008
By Alan W. Dowd

The harsh words and hard feelings that chilled transatlantic relations in January, when U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the mistake of stating the obvious about NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, will not be on the agenda during NATO’s Bucharest Summit the first week of April. But the source of Gates’ frustration that, in his words, most of the allies “are not trained in counterinsurgency” or doing enough in Afghanistan, should dominate the agenda—and so should the solution.  

In many ways, NATO’s necessary but nettlesome mission in Afghanistan is a microcosm of its post-Cold War shortcomings: Every member recognizes the challenge and is eager to help. But since the challenge seems so distant and diffuse, every member perceives it—and prepares for it—differently. So a handful of countries carry the bulk of the load, with the U.S. shouldering the heaviest burden. The load is made all the heavier when certain members opt out of operations, fail to make good on their pledges or even fail to field battle-ready forces.

To sharpen the point here, Gates and his counterparts know that most of NATO’s non-U.S. armies had to hitch a ride with the U.S. Air Force or rent Soviet-era transports to deploy to Afghanistan.

Then, when some allies called on the alliance to augment NATO’s commitment in Afghanistan with elements of the NATO Response Force (NRF), other allies balked. “The NRF is not designed for this,” declared Jacques Chirac, then president of France. “It shouldn’t be used for any old matter.” Americans understandably took issue with the notion that the security and long-term stability of the very place that incubated al Qaeda is just “any old matter.” 

Of course, as we later found out, the NRF was critically hamstrung from the start because only seven of NATO’s 26 members mustered the will to meet the alliance’s set standard of investing two percent of GDP on defense. 

Germany is not one of those seven, even though it has an economy that could sustain such a commitment. But frustrations with Germany don’t end there. Germany stubbornly refuses to lift restrictions on where its 3,000 deployed troops will operate in Afghanistan. These “caveats,” as they are euphemistically called, strike at the very heart of the alliance’s cohesiveness. After all, as a handful of allies take big risks and heavy casualties in the restive south, Germany and others caveat their way out of Afghanistan’s most dangerous neighborhoods. 

The good news—and bad news—is that we’ve been here before. History reminds us of two important truths: alliance warfare is never easy, but it’s better than the alternative—fighting alone.

In July of 1943, 450,000 British and American troops squared off against just 60,000 Germans on Sicily. In his history of World War II, A World at Arms, Gerhard Weinberg heaps criticism on the Allies for the “horrendous errors” made as a result of poor coordination between air and naval commanders. “Airborne forces suffered as much from Allied as from Axis fire,” he explains. The Allied command ultimately allowed the Germans to evacuate the bulk of their army onto the Italian mainland. As Omar Bradley would later say of the invasion, “Seldom in war has a major operation been undertaken in such a fog of indecision, confusion, and conflicting plans.”

After the war, Washington had no plans for a long-term military commitment to Europe. So, as the Soviet menace emerged, a handful of European countries scrambled to form their own alliance. Yet it would not be enough to deter Moscow.

Only after America realized that its security was linked to Europe’s did NATO emerge. It’s no coincidence that the alliance came into being during Moscow’s blockade of Berlin. In response, Allied air forces flew 277,000 missions and delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies to Berlin. About 75 percent of those missions were flown by Americans. It was an early indication of the heavy burden the United States would carry throughout the Cold War—and continues to carry today.

Indeed, contrary to the myths we have crafted about the Cold War, the transatlantic partnership was anything but perfect during that “long, twilight struggle.”

In 1956, Britain diverted equipment intended for NATO’s European defense to launch a war in Egypt. Eisenhower found out about British preparations for war from U.S. reconnaissance photos.

Historian Walter LaFeber concludes that Washington’s unilateral handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis left European leaders with the impression that NATO was more akin to a satellite system than an alliance. Shaken by the notion that, in LaFeber’s clever phrase, Washington had dragged them “uncomfortably close to annihilation without representation,” the French and others grew ever more independent.

By the late 1970s, NATO had devolved into “a military museum, and one with a poorly run endowment,” as Derek Leebaert details in The Fifty Year Wound. He recalls how NATO was always said to be in disarray. “Decade in, decade, out,” he writes, the alliance was forever “at the crossroads.” 

NATO came to a dangerous crossroads in 1991, as Yugoslavia descended into civil war. When a European diplomat famously declared it “the hour of Europe,” Washington took the hint. Yet Europe slouched toward the lowest-common denominator of inaction throughout the war. As William Pfaff observes in The Wrath of Nations, the Europeans were “unable to act collectively and refused to act individually.” The Bosnian war would end only after America decided to lead.

When Milosevic turned his sights to Kosovo, NATO proved yet again that waging war by committee is no easy task.  

In the very first hours of the campaign, Greece and Italy called for a bombing pause. Britain retained veto power over anything targeted by British-based B-52s. France vetoed targets throughout the war. As a result, only 53 targets were hit on the war’s opening night. Belgrade wasn’t even hit until eleventh day of the war.  

However, the most worrisome problem emerged after the air war was over, 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 tersely refused, adding, “I’m not going to start World War III for you.” 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 Clark was forced to rescind his order.[1]

The result of such internal disputes and built-in systemic shortcomings was a war that took months rather than days to finish and a peace that almost was lost—which brings us back to Afghanistan. The mission in Afghanistan is a grim reminder that NATO hasn’t learned from its past.

Worried that NATO “runs the risk of failure” and is “in danger of losing its credibility,” Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs; Gen. Klaus Naumann, who commanded Germany’s armed forces; Gen. Henk van den Breemen, former Dutch chief of staff; Adm. Jacques Lanxade, former French chief of staff; and Field Marshall Peter Inge, former chief of the UK general staff, are challenging NATO’s political leaders to revamp the aging alliance with bold, systemic reforms. 

“A NATO without profound reform,” they warn, “will not be the instrument we need at this time or in the future.” 

-The quintet proposes the “abolition of the system of national caveats.” Naumann takes special umbrage at his nation’s use of caveats. “The time has come for Germany to decide if it wants to be a reliable partner,” he says.

-The generals recommend that NATO jettison consensus-based decision-making at the operational level in favor of majority voting to “enable NATO to take quick decisions in crises, when minutes matter.”

-“Only those nations that contribute to a mission—that is, military forces in a military operation—should have the right to a say in the process of the operation,” they conclude.

-They implore European governments to end the creeping rivalry between the EU and NATO by ending the former’s “obstruction of EU-NATO cooperation.”

-They argue that there are times when NATO must act without UN authorization. “We regard the use of force as being legitimate if there is no time to get the UNSC involved, or if the UNSC proves incapable of reaching a decision at a time when immediate action is required to protect large numbers of human beings.”

-And they conclude that “the first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver…to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction in order to avoid truly existential dangers.”

NATO’s wise men understand that the alliance cannot function as an effective military organization if its commanders’ orders are treated as suggestions, if its battle plans are shaped by the lowest-common denominator, and if certain members promise to help only when the guns are quiet and where the scenery is serene.   

Bucharest offers NATO’s political leaders an opportunity to heed their advice.

[1]Elizabeth Becker, “U.S. General Was Overruled in Kosovo,” The New York Times, September 10, 1999.