Fraser Forum | 2.1.09
Alan W. Dowd

After doing one thing—and one thing well—for its first 40 years, the NATO alliance now seems to be a work in progress.

In fact, the alliance has tweaked its mission three times in the past 15 years. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO turned to stabilizing Eastern Europe and pacifying the Balkans. After 9/11, it added counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation of WMDs to its list of responsibilities. As one NATO ambassador put it in 2002, “We’re deconstructing the old NATO to build a new one to meet the threat of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction” (NATO, 2002). Finally, in recent years, NATO has been focused on the war in Afghanistan.

Perhaps this search for a new mission is a function of how fast the world is changing, or perhaps it’s happening because NATO’s record of late is decidedly mixed.

Caveat emptor: Allies beware

First, the good news: In 1999, NATO officially adopted a plan to stabilize Eastern Europe and “build an undivided continent” (NATO, 1999).

That vision for post-Cold War Europe has been largely fulfilled. NATO offered security to most of the orphan states of Russia’s receding empire, smothered Slobodan Milosevic’s wars, and gave Europe time to rebuild the links that were severed by the Iron Curtain. Thriving with commerce, free from the daily threat of war, and no longer divided by an occupying army, today’s Europe is unrecognizable from the one we knew in 1989. And NATO deserves much of the credit.

But NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is another story, and this brings us to the bad news.

The war-torn country is no longer under the control of the Taliban and its al-Qaeda partners. Yet after seven years of NATO nation-building, it does not appear that Afghanistan is under anyone’s control.

Thanks to sanctuaries in Pakistan, remnants of the Taliban and al-Qaeda are waging a bloody guerilla war against NATO and the Afghan people. In fact, insurgent attacks jumped 50% in 2008 (Gopal, 2009, Jan. 2). Although NATO’s 51,000 troops in Afghanistan—2,500 Canadian troops among them—are doing their best to smother the insurgency, the same cannot be said of some of their governments.

Many members of NATO have been short-changing the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) from the very beginning. This is partly a function of their paltry investment in defense.

For example, while the United States spends about 4% of its GDP on defense—a GDP that is enormous compared to that of other NATO nations—only six of NATO’s 26 members have mustered the will to meet the alliance’s standard of investing 2% of GDP on defense. Although Canada is still under the 2% threshold (at just 1.2%), it has made significant contributions to ISAF—some $8.1 billion as of the end of the 2008 fiscal year. Ottawa expects to spend $14 to $18 billion by the end of Canada’s commitment in Afghanistan, which is set for 2011 (Clark, 2008, Oct. 9).

As a consequence of low investment in defense, most NATO members have to hitch a ride with the US Air Force or rent Soviet-era transports to deploy troops and equipment to Afghanistan (Sieff and NATO 2004). They lack helicopters to move within Afghanistan. They “are not trained in counterinsurgency,” in the blunt words of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Spiegel, 2008, Jan. 16). And they aren’t fulfilling their troop commitments. For example, in 2006, alliance members only contributed 85% of the forces they pledged to ISAF.

Not much has changed since then. In fact, in early 2008, Canada threatened to withdraw its 2,500 troops if NATO failed to muster 1,000 more personnel for operations in Afghanistan’s restive south. At NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest, some allies were cajoled into action: France sent 1,000 additional troops, Britain 800 more, and Poland another 400 (Baker and Tyson, 2008, Mar. 31).

Even so, a January 2009 analysis by the New York Times concludes, “NATO has not met its pledges for combat troops, nor for the vitally important transport helicopters, military trainers and other support personnel” (Shanker and Cooper, 2009, Jan. 3).

Predictably, the United States will fill the gaps, deploying as many as 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan this year (in addition to the 32,000 American personnel already there).

However, the extra troops only solve part of the problem. NATO still allows members with military forces in Afghanistan to opt out of certain missions. These “caveats,” as they are euphemistically called, have been used by Germany, Italy and Spain, for example, to steer clear of combat in southern Afghanistan. Others have played the caveat card to limit the use of air assets or the deployment of personnel near Pakistan (Reuters).

Caveats not only make it difficult to field an effective combat force, but they also strike at the very heart of NATO’s cohesiveness. After all, an ally that promises to help only when the guns are quiet and where the scenery is serene is not much of an ally.

“We must not—we cannot—become a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not,” Defense Secretary Gates warned last year, adding that such a development “would in effect destroy the alliance” (Gray, 2008, Feb. 10).

The will to prevail

Of course, if the Afghanistan mission is any indication, the alliance is already two-tiered, with the Americans, British, Canadians, Dutch, and Danes doing most of the fighting and dying.

That explains why at the Bucharest Summit NATO members were implored to “support each other in sharing the burden in Afghanistan” and to “provide maximum possible flexibility of use of our forces by the ISAF Commander” (NATO, 2008a).

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the failure of major European nations to send more troops to Afghanistan—and to send them with no strings attached—is the fact that NATO’s European contingent fields some 2.3 million active-duty troops and another 3.04 million reserves (Coonen, 2006). The United States, by comparison, has 1.4 million troops on active duty and less than one million reserves.

Several retired NATO generals grimly conclude that NATO “lacks capabilities, and its constituent nations are showing a marked lack of will for it to prevail” (Shalikashvili et al., 2008). The generals are so concerned that they issued a paper on the eve of the Bucharest Summit calling for sweeping reforms.

Among other things, they propose the “abolition of the system of national caveats”; recommend that NATO jettison consensus-based decision making at the operational level in favour of majority voting to “enable NATO to take quick decisions in crises, when minutes matter”; argue that “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”; and call on the alliance to maintain the option of pre-emptive and even preventive war (Shalikashvili et al., 2008).

Along with these reforms, there must be a renewed awareness on the part of governments and populations alike that NATO is not attempting to keep peace in Afghanistan, but waging war.

NATO’s fighting forces know that they’re at war. More than seven years after intervening in Afghanistan, NATO has lost 634 Americans, 139 Britons, 107 Canadians, 25 Germans, 25 Spaniards, 23 French, 21 Danes, 18 Dutch, 12 Italians, and a number of others (as of January 15, 2009) (CNN, 2009).

No free ride

Given all the headaches and half-measures, is NATO still worth the time, trouble and treasure? Yes.

From Kosovo to Kandahar, the past decade reminds us that alliance warfare is never easy, but it is preferable to the alternative—fighting alone. And thanks to NATO, America has not been alone in its campaign against terror.

Immediately after 9/11, NATO invoked Article V, the alliance’s collective defense clause. Europe soon became a key jumping-off point for the war on terror. Operations in the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, and beyond depend on NATO infrastructure in places like Lakenheath, Ramstein, Aviano, and Incirlik.

Of course, Canada was the first NATO ally to stand with America after the 9/11 attacks. In fact, Canadian personnel at NORAD in Colorado and the Northeast Air Defense Sector in New York were standing with their American counterparts during the attacks, first trying to make sense of what was happening on 9/11 and then securing the skies over North America (Hograth, 2006).

Ever since, Canada has contributed heavily to post-9/11 missions, both within and outside the NATO context. The Canadian navy, air force, and commando forces were deployed during the initial counterstrikes against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in October 2001. Canada later commanded peacekeeping and combat operations in Afghanistan, and there are thousands of Canadian troops in Afghanistan today.

Some wonder if it is in the economic or national interests of Canada and other NATO members to invest more in defense and to stand with the US in Afghanistan. After all, the cost in blood and treasure is high and growing each day.

We might find part of the answer from no less an authority on economic behavior than Adam Smith, who noted that “the first duty of the sovereign, that of protecting the society from the violence and invasion of other independent societies, can be performed only by means of a military force” (Smith, 689).

Smith argued that “a wealthy nation is of all nations the most likely to be attacked,” yet he concluded that in societies marked by progress and wealth “the great body of the people becomes altogether unwarlike,” even as their condition—their wealth, their improvements in life—“provokes the invasion of all their neighbors” (Smith, 697-698). Thus, he concluded that the state must provide “a well-regulated standing army” for defense “against the invasion of a poor and barbarous neighbor,” even if the cost of that defense “grows gradually more and more expensive” (Smith, 706-707).

In a sense, that is an illustration of how al-Qaeda and its kindred movements view the developed world—and how the chunk of the developed world known as the transatlantic community must respond.

There should be no free-riders in this community because being a member of NATO comes with certain responsibilities. The main responsibility of every NATO member is to rise in defense of another who has been attacked. Specifically, Article V declares that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and obliges members to come to the aid of an attacked ally “to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area” (NATO 1949).

NATO is in Afghanistan because that country spawned an armed attack against a NATO member, which prompted NATO to invoke Article V for the first time in history. NATO’s Afghanistan mission is an indication of how difficult it is to meet the responsibilities of Article V for allies that do not make serious investments in defense, which makes carrying out the mission difficult for the rest of the alliance.

If NATO’s own don’t take Article V seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies. In other words, for NATO to work, it cannot be a “one for all” public good; it must be an “all for one” alliance.

NATO’s future

Those who say that Afghanistan is NATO’s Waterloo forget that equally dire diagnoses were made when NATO watched Yugoslavia tear itself apart in the early 1990s, when the United States deployed Pershing missiles along the NATO-Warsaw Pact line in 1983, and when France withdrew from NATO’s military command in 1966.

Yet NATO has found a way to survive. In fact, it turns 60 this year. The reason for its staying power is simple: Despite all its shortcomings, NATO still serves an important purpose—or more accurately, a number of important purposes. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO has evolved into a ready-made structure for building military coalitions of the willing. These alliances within the alliance helped to liberate Kuwait and Kabul, wage war and keep peace in the Balkans, and topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Plus, NATO has taken on other new missions—such as tackling cyber-defense and deploying missile defenses—and continues to carry out its oldest mission—keeping an eye on Moscow.

In fact, the alliance that once focused on defending Western Europe from a Soviet invasion is now playing a role in several global hot spots:

  • NATO has supported African Union peacekeepers with training and transport.
  • Built around a strong NATO core, the Proliferation Security Initiative is an ongoing naval operation that intercepts weapons of mass destruction and their precursors while in transit. Similarly, NATO taskforces patrol the Mediterranean to deter terrorist activity and have been deployed off the Horn of Africa to fight piracy.
  • NATO has trained 10,000 Iraqi security forces and is developing what the alliance calls “a long-term relationship with Iraq” (NATO, 2008b). 
  • NATO’s membership invitations to Albania and Croatia, pending invitation to Macedonia, 16,000-person peacekeeping force in Kosovo, and entreaties to Serbia are proof of its determination to make Europe whole. And Russia’s foray into Georgia, a former Soviet republic, serves as a grim reminder that NATO may be the only source for real security in Europe’s borderlands.

Mind your business

In 1993, when NATO leaders were debating whether to intervene in the Balkans, US Senator Richard Lugar predicted that NATO would either “go out of area or out of business” (Lugar, 2002). In other words, the middle-aged alliance would have to reorient itself for new missions outside of what NATO’s founding document calls the “North Atlantic area.”

NATO heeded Lugar’s counsel and cautiously intervened in Yugoslavia. Sixteen years later, it appears that NATO has more “business” than it can handle. But to extend Lugar’s metaphor, NATO’s CEOs need to invest more in human resources and training, acquire new equipment, and refine the organization’s mission if they hope to keep pace with the challenges of today—and tomorrow.