Doublethink Online | 3.31.09
By Alan W. Dowd

After doing one thing—and one thing well—for its first 40 years, the NATO alliance seems to be an ongoing work in progress nowadays, each summit an attempt to respond to the crisis of the moment.

Just consider what’s on NATO’s plate as the venerable alliance prepares for its 60th anniversary summit, which will be held in Strasbourg-Kehl the first week of April: peacekeeping in Kosovo and war-fighting in Afghanistan, missile defense and cyber-defense, counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation, training Iraqi soldiers, keeping close watch on a resurgent Russia, and the list goes on. In fact, NATO just recently transferred its anti-piracy mission off the Horn of Africa to the European Union, stands ready to resume airlifting African Union peacekeepers and is exploring how to contribute to security in the Arctic.

Some argue that this mission creep is evidence that NATO has outlived its usefulness, if not its raison d'être. But from Kuwait to Kosovo to Kandahar, the post-Cold War NATO has played an important role as a readymade structure where Washington can build coalitions of the willing. These alliances within the alliance helped the U.S. liberate Kuwait, defend Saudi Arabia, wage war and keep peace in the Balkans, take down the medieval Taliban and topple Saddam Hussein’s regime.

The problem for today’s NATO is not in taking on new missions, but rather in carrying them out effectively. And that’s what NATO should focus on during its Strasbourg-Kehl summit. NATO’s leaders need look no further than the North Atlantic Treaty itself for inspiration.

Protecting the Home Turf

Promising to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples” and “to unite their efforts for collective defense,” the treaty reminds us that NATO exists, above all, to defend its members from external threat.

The Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Balts and the rest of the orphans left behind by the Cold War did not clamor for NATO membership out of a desire to attend conferences in Belgium—and neither do future members Albania, Croatia and Macedonia (if everyone can agree on a name that doesn’t anger Greece and humiliate Macedonia). Rather, they joined and want to join for the very same reasons a handful of West European nations helped found NATO in 1949.

First and foremost, Russia worries them—and understandably so. Moscow’s temper tantrums have grown increasingly violent in recent years, even as its military budget grows in size. A study by the U.S. Joint Forces Command reports that Russia has quadrupled its military budget since 2001, “with increases of over 20 percent per annum over the past several years.”

Second, NATO membership comes with a security guarantee backed by the United States. Without that guarantee, there is no security in Europe, as history has a way of reminding those on the outside looking in, from postwar Poland to Cold War Hungary to post-Cold War Georgia.

Yet astonishingly, NATO didn’t begin drawing up contingency plans for the defense of the three Baltic states (which joined the alliance in 2004) until after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. The reason for the delay? Certain members of the alliance worried that such contingency planning would anger Moscow.

Even after Russia’s battering of Georgia, cyber-bullying of Estonia and blustering over Czech and Polish participation in missile defense, France and Germany are still dithering about Russia’s reaction. As a result, NATO Commander James Craddock is cobbling together a defense of NATO’s northeastern flank without the full participation of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s highest political body.

This presents problems that could hit very close to home for NATO. While the chances of direct confrontation with Moscow are lower today than they were 25 years ago, they are higher than they were five years ago. The perception of weakness and disunity does not help the situation. As Churchill said of his Russian counterparts during an earlier time of testing, “There is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness.”

With cyber-wars, gas wars and real wars buffeting Europe’s borderlands, alliance leaders need to restate what was once clear but has become blurry in recent years—that NATO’s core mission is the defense and security of all its members, not just its oldest or strongest or richest members.

NATO’s newest members will appreciate the reminder, and NATO’s unpredictable neighbor to the East will understand the message.

Pleading for the Fifth

That brings us to the heart and soul of the NATO treaty. 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.”

Regrettably, NATO’s actions of late speak louder than its words. If NATO’s dithering over the Baltics doesn’t prove that, its failure to answer the call in Afghanistan does.

NATO is in Afghanistan because that country spawned an armed attack against a NATO member—the United States—prompting NATO to invoke Article V for the first time in history—on September 12, 2001.

However, NATO’s record in the Balkans made Washington jittery about another “war by committee.” In Kosovo, for example, 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; and after the air war, a British general openly balked at the American commander’s deployment orders.

So the U.S. kept NATO at arms length at the onset of Afghanistan, choosing instead to work with allies that wouldn’t hinder operations. As a NATO publication reported in 2002, “The United States did not have sufficient confidence in the alliance to give it a major role.”

This left some in Europe to conclude that Washington didn’t take Article V seriously. More than seven years later, the feeling’s mutual.

If NATO’s most senior European members did take Article V seriously, Washington wouldn’t have to beg for more troops, and the troops that are in Afghanistan wouldn’t have limits on where they can deploy. The situation is so bad that Defense Secretary Robert Gates worries about NATO devolving into “a two-tiered alliance of those who are willing to fight and those who are not.”

It’s hard to believe, but throughout the war certain NATO members have resisted urgent requests to deploy their troops beyond the safety of northern Afghanistan, invoking what the alliance euphemistically calls “caveats” to avoid combat zones—and thus validating Washington’s initial wariness. Reuters reports that caveats have been used by Germany, Italy and Spain to steer clear of operations in southern Afghanistan. Others have played the caveat card to limit the use of air assets or the deployment of personnel near Pakistan.

But that’s only one example of how cavalierly some NATO members treat Article V, the very cornerstone of their alliance.

In 2004, when there was broad agreement on deploying a NATO rapid-reaction unit to Afghanistan, France balked, Jacques Chirac declaring, “It shouldn’t be used for any old matter.” Kabul and Washington alike took issue with the notion that the security and long-term stability of the very place that incubated al Qaeda was just “any old matter.”

In 2006, Gen. James Jones, at the time NATO commander, reported that alliance members had only contributed 85 percent of the forces they pledged to Afghanistan.

Not much has changed since then. British defense secretary John Hutton recently rebuked his European neighbors for “freeloading.” 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.”

Predictably, the U.S. 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.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the failure of major European nations to send more troops to Afghanistan is the fact that NATO’s European contingent fields some 2.3 million active-duty troops and another 3.04 million reserves. The U.S., by comparison, has 1.4 million troops on active duty and less than a million reserves.

If NATO’s own don’t take the words of Article V seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies. The Strasbourg-Kehl summit should remind NATO’s members of this fundamental truth.

Rebuilding the Common Defense

Words, of course, are not enough. If they were, there would be no need for armies. NATO’s founding fathers understood this. In fact, the North Atlantic Treaty calls on members to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” Most of the alliance is failing at this.

While the U.S. spends about four percent of its GDP on defense—a GDP that is enormous compared to that of other NATO nations—only six of NATO’s 26 current members meet the alliance’s standard of investing two percent of GDP on defense. 

As a consequence, most NATO members have to hitch a ride with the U.S. Air Force or rent Soviet-era transports to deploy troops and equipment to Afghanistan. They lack helicopters to move across the mountainous country. And they “are not trained in counterinsurgency,” in the blunt words of Gates.

This asymmetry of military power was an issue long before Afghanistan. During the 1999 Kosovo War, The Economist reported that only 10 percent of NATO’s European combat aircraft were capable of precision bombing, prompting Gen. Michael Short, who helped plan the Kosovo air campaign, to conclude, “We’ve got an A Team and a B Team now.” 

NATO must find a way to address this persistent problem of under-resourcing—whether through a general-welfare fund to meet shortfalls, report cards to shame the back-markers or some sort of punishment for habitual laggards. Two percent for the common defense is not too much to ask.

For NATO to work, it cannot be a “one for all” public good; it must be an “all for one” alliance.