Foreign Policy Research Institute

“A nation must think before it acts.” —Robert Strausz-Hupé
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NATO at Sixty—Time for Reassessments

David T. Jones

NATO will never win the “best dressed” award among alliances. It is always in disarray.

Now numbering 26 members, NATO, which turns 60 on April 4, is flailing in its efforts to address the Afghanistan nettle that, having been grasped, has turned bloody and painful. Likewise, it is groping for a formula to address prospective new applicants: who to admit to membership and under what conditions. Both are existential challenges raising fundamental questions about NATO’s future.

At age 60 most individuals have established a history such that we may reasonably make judgments and projections for the future. Institutions are not so predictable. All too often they are created for a specific purpose and then either evolve into something unimagined by their creators (the UN comes to mind) or molder into irrelevancy (European monarchies). However, occasionally an organizational construct (such as the vintage 1789 United States of America) grows substantially beyond the parameters of its founders both geographically and in political power—until in the U.S. it hit the wall of its internal contradictions juxtaposing state rights and federal authority. The result for the U.S.—the Civil War—was catastrophic; however, it reconstituted the organization at the “four score and ten” mark, prompting continued viability.

Thus also is the state of play for NATO. Although Lord Ismay, the first NATO Secretary General, cynically observed that NATO’s rationale was to “keep the Soviets out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” the concept was classic realpolitik: self defense. The end of World War II juxtaposed an exhausted, devastated Europe against surging Soviet power poised to march to the English Channel. In short order, Moscow installed communist dictatorships in territory occupied by the Red Army. In 1948 it overthrew the democratic Czechoslovakian government. With minds focused by the prospect of hanging, in April 1949 Europeans and the U.S. created NATO as a combat/security alliance against invasion by Soviets and their satraps. Originally constituted at 12 nations, the Alliance added Greece and Turkey in 1952, West Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982.

Although there were endless high-minded political discussions, NATO’s essential motivation was fear: fear that deterrence—ultimately nuclear deterrence—would fail; fear that the Alliance would have to fight outnumbered and win with conventional forces; fear that miscalculation in Moscow would prompt an attack that resulted in either a charred zone for much of Europe or their capitulation, ratifying Soviet domination; and Europeans’ fear that the U.S. might abandon them rather than face the prospect of nuclear devastation in North America.

Thus for 40 years, the remnants of the “greatest generation,” increasingly reinforced by their “boomer” successors, struggled against “better Red than Dead” appeasers and relentless Soviet pressure epitomized by the Berlin Wall; brutal repression of popular uprisings in East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia; and subtle appeals to neutral/leftwing supporters throughout the Alliance. It was, in the phrase coined by U.S. Ambassador to NATO Robert Strausz-Hupe, a “protracted conflict.”

The most complex and nuanced of these Soviet ploys involved the more than a decade long dance regarding reciprocal Soviet and NATO modernization and deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles (INF). The effort to counter Soviet deployment of SS-20 missiles and coincidentally cope with sophisticated, Moscow-inspired peace movement activists determined to prevent reciprocal U.S. deployments was simultaneously the most stressful and ultimately the most triumphant period of the Alliance. Ultimately, a “dual track” policy, juxtaposing INF deployments with proposals to negotiate arms control arrangements, resulted in agreement to eliminate all such systems. That not a missile was launched nor a shot fired demonstrated what could be accomplished with clear objectives and steadfast leadership. Moscow’s goal with its SS-20 deployments was never military dominance, but rather political intimidation. Europeans were forced to choose between either supporting countervailing U.S. deployments (and the political costs of massive “peace” demonstrations) or accepting Soviet nuclear (as well as conventional force) superiority in the European theater. The Alliance’s counter strategy emphasized bilateral U.S. negotiations with the Soviets combined with intensive coordination/briefing for all Allies both at NATO and within their capitals. This strategy succeeded; NATO won “the last battle of the Cold War.”

Within two years of the signing of the INF Treaty (December 8, 1987), the Berlin Wall had been torn down, and, by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had collapsed. The Alliance’s cohesion and refusal to bend to 40 years of intimidation had doubtless been a factor in the USSR’s demise—accelerated to be sure by the USSR’s internal socioeconomic and political contradictions. But for NATO, termination of the Cold War ended its seminal mission and prompted the still enduring question of “what next?”

End of the Beginning or Beginning of the End?

That the puzzle of NATO’s future has persisted for more than a quarter of the Alliance’s existence is an illustration of its complexity. Frequently touted as the most successful alliance in history, the problem of exactly how to use a 20th century construct in the 21st century has resulted in a policy characterized by fits and starts.

An Insurance Policy. How much flood insurance do you need in the Sahara desert? Do you need fire insurance when your home is concrete rather than straw? Likewise, one must ask, how much defense is enough for post-Cold War NATO?

In the years immediately following the USSR’s collapse, a “go slow” approach toward defense restructuring reflected understandable caution. Having been on guard at the Fulda Gap for 40 years, there was a sigh of relief—but also an undertone of disbelief. Could it really be over, without Armageddon? Nevertheless, without much delay the Allies declared a “peace dividend” resulting in significant force reductions and withdrawals from Europe. Countries such as Canada that had dutifully provided a combat brigade and air units withdrew them. The United States, whose force levels in Europe approximated 300,000, switched several combat divisions to Saudi Arabia for the 1991 Desert Storm riposte to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait; these units largely returned to the U.S. after the victory, and withdrawals have left U.S. force levels in Europe at 85,000.

At the same time, force composition has changed. Armed forces throughout Europe have largely moved from draftee-driven forces to all-volunteer professional armies. These are man-for-man more expensive, but also commensurately smaller and avoid disrupting the lives of young males in peacetime. In real terms, however, it means that NATO has less military capability and even that reduced capability is often not at the same technical level as employed by modernized U.S. combat forces.

Nevertheless, the insurance policy rationale is enjoying renewed credence with the development of a resurgent, and perhaps revanchist, Russia. NATO felt shivers in August 2008 when Russian armor and artillery crushed Georgian armed forces as if they were swatting flies. However, as noted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in October, Russian forces are barely a “shadow” of their Soviet analogues of 20 years ago either in numbers or relative capability. While Russia surely has the military capability to dominate the remnants of its “near abroad,” notably Georgia, the Baltics, and parts of Ukraine, it does not appear to have the demographic depth or industrial capacity to mount the military challenge that it posed during the Cold War.

And given the obvious European reluctance to rearm in order to counter marginal threats to countries that are emotionally, if not geographically, far away, NATO is unlikely to expand armed forces. There may be a straw annex to its concrete house, but NATO will not be expanding its insurance coverage.

Membership Bloat. NATO expansion has always been controversial. Will new members strengthen the Alliance’s unity and enhance its military capability? Or will they be sources of vulnerability and exacerbate the bureaucratic difficulties associated with the requirement for “consensus” (unanimity) in decision making? Will new members draw the Alliance into domestic or bilateral disputes as the endless Greek-Turk infighting has done? Complicating these questions were those posed by restructuring the fragment states of the former USSR and Yugoslavia.

The post-Cold War era prompted the basic issue of managing relations with Russia. Were arrangements possible that would enhance security on the entire European continent? Would Moscow’s irritation over NATO membership for former Warsaw Pact allies and anger over membership for elements of the former USSR internalize into a “don’t get mad, get even” foreign policy when “get even” became an option?

Despite demurs and cautionary notes, the corporate NATO decision was that denying membership to former Warsaw Pact members and even breakaway USSR republics would be more likely to generate insecurity that could damage the prospects for democracy in “left out in the cold” states. Thus in 1999, there were three additions (Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland); in 2004, seven more (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). A variety of countries are in the equivalent of halfway houses, including Albania and Croatia, which are reportedly expected to become members this year; debate over extending Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plans (MAPs) scarred the 2008 NATO ministerial. Waiting also in the wings are Bosnia/Herzegovina and Montenegro—hypothesized for MAP offers in 2009.

But perhaps we should say “halt.”

We must seriously ask whether we have outstripped our resources, both militarily and politically. During the Cold War, a conventional defense of European allies supplemented by nuclear deterrence was possible. The political commitment, given the alternative of Soviet communist domination, was strong. In contrast, the military defense of new NATO members is barely conceivable, and the willingness by “old” NATO members to sacrifice for “newbies” does not bear close examination. But a military defense of a state such as Georgia (just look at the map) is not feasible. Nor can one claim that Europeans are willing to “die for Tbilisi.” The destruction of a democracy, even one as flawed as Georgia, would be regrettable but not prompt a rush for its liberation.

It is the same for Ukraine, much of which was part of Russia for over 300 years, prior to independence. National unity is fragile; currently a majority of the population opposes NATO membership—and ethnic Russians dominate the eastern portion of the country, including the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. Would NATO resist a Moscow-sponsored/incited breakaway of Ukraine (east)?

This is a period for consolidation and “digestion” for the Alliance. Managing a 26-nation, consensus-requiring organization demands lowest-common-denominator decisions even on ostensibly easy issues. The new NATO is a work in progress; it cannot afford a politico-military defeat that crushes one of its members with no adequate Alliance response possible. For the time being, NATO should take a slow-motion approach, leaving prospective candidates in the “intensified dialogue” category and not extend MAPs.

Mission Creep. Because an organization can do “x,” it comes to believe that it can do “x + y,” and because it doesn’t totally bungle “x + y,” it believes it can do “x + y + z.” This development is the organizational equivalent of the “Peter Principle” in which (arguably) individuals becomes less competent at each expansion of the jobs they attempt to do. The solution advanced for the potential victim of the Peter Principle is to decide to stay at a level of competence—and have the self awareness to appreciate that the next “bridge” is a bridge too far.

Afghanistan is a bridge too far for NATO. NATO barely got across the Serbia/Bosnia/Kosovo chasm intact. Addressing security issues in the shard states of former Yugoslavia was really a politico-military task for European neighbors and should not have required U.S./NATO participation. But the NATO efforts, first in Serbia/Bosnia and then with an air war against Serbia over Kosovo, put tremendous, albeit little publicized, stress on NATO’s military command. It was endurable primarily because it was bloodless (for NATO members) and short (although popular support was eroding with each civilian-killing NATO bombing error).

Still, former Yugoslavia was at least in Europe and Afghanistan is…not. Retrospectively, probably most Europeans don’t have any idea how NATO ended up fighting a guerrilla war/nation-building exercise in a country many couldn’t locate on a map. Emotionally, it appears to have been a sympathy reaction to 9/11 and Washington’s commitment to remove Afghanistan’s Taliban government, which was providing state support for al Qaeda terrorists. Moreover, as the U.S. had quickly eliminated the Taliban, a NATO force appeared more the equivalent of a peacekeeping good deed than a serious military endeavor. But instead the Afghanistan exercise has become nasty, brutish, and long.

Any sympathy for Washington among NATO nations has evaporated; the Obama phenomena is likely to prove ephemeral. The Afghan government’s feckless incompetence and narco-state levels of corruption have eroded support even among those who appreciate the human rights horrors attendant to Taliban rule. Our tin-cup begging for further NATO force commitments has been the political equivalent of attempting to induce recalcitrant mules to carry heavy burdens up a steep mountain. And the protocols limiting military action by many NATO contingents are the combat equivalent of a sports team in Belgium saying it will only play on sunny days.

The results of this recalcitrance are quietly being addressed. The separate U.S. and NATO commands are being combined; U.S. forces (reflecting the Iraq drawdown) are headed up, with projected totals of 50,000. With few exceptions (British, Canadians, Dutch), NATO forces will end by doing nothing beyond garrison/humanitarian service in quieter areas: defend yourself, but don’t attack. We don’t know if this approach will succeed, but the NATO option has played out.

The lesson to be learned is that NATO is not an “out of area” alliance. Aggression, terrorism, piracy, and human rights debacles need be addressed, but NATO is not the hammer for these nails. The United States needs to be more discerning about using this stiletto to chop wood. A “coalition of the willing” is a tarnished term, but NATO is verging on becoming a coalition of the unwilling.