The return of unilateralism — Obama edition

The return of unilateralism — Obama edition

By Christian Brose

Yesterday, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer had a thoughtful op-ed about Afghanistan. Here’s how he frames the problem:

[A]n honest assessment of Afghanistan must conclude that we are not where we might have hoped to be by now. While the country’s north and west are largely at peace and improving, the south and east are riven by insurgency, drugs and ineffective government. Afghans are increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in building up their country. And the populations in countries that have contributed troops to the NATO-led mission are wondering how long this operation must last — and how many young men and women we will lose carrying it out.

He goes on to list five lessons the alliance should learn if it is to succeed — things like encouraging a more responsible Afghan leadership, more cohesive NATO operations, better regional diplomacy, civil-military cooperation, and strategic communications. All of this is right and unarguable. But isn’t the United States learning another, far more sweeping lesson? Here’s a hint: President-elect Obama will add up to 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year, nearly doubling the force we currently have. So isn’t the real lesson that, after several years of pushing our allies to add more resources, more troops, and to lift the restrictions on their ability to operate, the United States is now re-Americanizing the war effort? In short, haven’t we all but admitted that we are losing with NATO, and now we are going to do what’s necessary to win — with or without NATO’s full support? One could be forgiven for calling this unilateralism that dare not speak its name.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I don’t mean to minimize the sacrifice of allies like Canada and the Netherlands that are in the thick of the fight and taking casualties, or that their contribution isn’t needed and valuable. Nor do I mean to suggest that more troops alone will solve all our problems in Afghanistan. John Nagl and Nate Fick explain why in the latest issue of Foreign Policy. That said, what’s interesting about the debate over Afghanistan is how, in the excitement that more attention will be paid and resources devoted to that war, we seem to be glancing over the fact that one of the major decisions of Obama’s first year is the return of a more unilateral approach in Afghanistan.

Though I wasn’t in government at the time, my sense is that the unilateral impulse in Bush’s first term was adopted less out of a concern for ideology than effectiveness. The administration had seen what a mess coalition fighting was in Kosovo, how we’d only barely won, and fairly or not, it resolved that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan would not be hamstrung by coalition cat-herding. The push to multilateralize the war came later. NATO was invited in, and a patient, persistent, good faith effort was made in Bush’s second term to win as an alliance — to get more troops, new rules of engagement, better coordination, and greater committments of resources from our allies. This was a valiant attempt to make multilateralism effective, but the new U.S. committment to Afghanistan seems to imply that it didn’t fully work, and that we’ll take it mostly from here, thank you. Considering what Secretary Gates has already said publicly about the problems of NATO’s war effort, I have a feeling he’d agree if he were being less diplomatic.

Maybe Obama’s hope is that, by nearly doubling the U.S. force in Afghanistan, we will effectively shame Europe into stepping up with us. Maybe Obama will be able to turn Europe’s goodwill toward his presidency into real will power to fight and win a tough, costly war. Maybe. But something tells me that NATO’s performace in Afghanistan these past several years better reflects the perceived national interests, domestic public opinion, and limited capabilities of our allies, more than it does their unwillingness to work with an unpopular American president.

This could have big implications for NATO. A major hope of the Bush presidency — not all of it, to be sure, but much of it — was that NATO could be transformed into an expeditionary alliance, that it could move beyond Europe to tackle global challenges. The acid test is Afghanistan. If NATO can’t be relevant there, where it matters most, then what? And if NATO’s contribution in Afghanistan is now deemed inadequate, as the new policy would imply, this would seem to suggest that our hopes of NATO, and thus Europe, becoming a real global power — hard, soft, smart, etc. — won’t fully be borne out. This doesn’t mean the United States should spurn NATO’s help. It might just mean that the primary mission now for NATO as an institution is simply to add greater international legitimacy to what is becoming a more unilateral exercise of American power.

This could become the future role for NATO writ large, and it’s not an insignificant one. No one should cheer or revel in Europe’s limitations. The United States needs partners, and we can’t do everything alone. Still, if NATO’s imprimatur helps to maintain domestic and international support for the United States, more or less on its own, addressing global security problems that desperately need to be solved, then so be it. This is a valuable role for NATO and thus Europe to play, but it’s not the one many of us hoped it would.