Five heretical questions about NATO
The Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a one-day conference on "NATO at 60" last week, and I participated in a panel discussion with Charles Kupchan of Georgetown/CFR, Ole Waever of the University of Copenhagen, and James Goldgeier of George Washington University, and I thought each of the other participants had lots of smart things to ...
The Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a one-day conference on "NATO at 60" last week, and I participated in a panel discussion with Charles Kupchan of Georgetown/CFR, Ole Waever of the University of Copenhagen, and James Goldgeier of George Washington University, and I thought each of the other participants had lots of smart things to say. (I especially liked Waever's metaphor for NATO as an Old Master painting -- a valuable masterpiece that you'd want to protect but not something you could duplicate, even if you wanted to).
The Council on Foreign Relations sponsored a one-day conference on "NATO at 60" last week, and I participated in a panel discussion with Charles Kupchan of Georgetown/CFR, Ole Waever of the University of Copenhagen, and James Goldgeier of George Washington University, and I thought each of the other participants had lots of smart things to say. (I especially liked Waever’s metaphor for NATO as an Old Master painting — a valuable masterpiece that you’d want to protect but not something you could duplicate, even if you wanted to).
Charlie, Ole and I published a little book on NATO about ten years ago, and I used part of my time on the panel to revisit my earlier arguments and assess what I got right and what I got wrong back then. (Short answer: I was right that the disappearance of the Soviet threat and several other structural forces were gradually pulling NATO apart, but I underestimated U.S. willingness to continue subsidizing its allies’ security and understated European willingness to continue deferring to U.S. leadership).
I ended my remarks with five "heretical questions," and thought I’d share them with you.
First, how will generational and demographic change affect NATO in the future? (It was not exactly a youngish crowd at the meeting). If you’re 20 years old today, you were born the year the Berlin Wall came down. You were twelve years old when George W. Bush became President, which means you came of age in a period when the U.S. image in much of Europe sank to new lows. The various Berlin crises, "Flexible Response," the Euromissiles controversy, MBFR talks, and all the other familiar landmarks of NATO’s glorious past are ancient (and largely irrelevant) history to the next generation. Is an alliance led by the United States really the only world that young Europeans can or will imagine? What about Americans who trace their ancestry to Asia, India, or Latin America, and whose famiy ties or economic interests lie elsewhere?
Second, why does anyone think that Europe is going to do more to provide for collective defense? The alliance has been arguing about "burden-sharing" since its inception, and we have both well-developed theories and sixty years of history demonstrating why the United States still bears most of the burden while Europe tends to "free-ride." A continent with a larger population and combined GDP than America, and with over a million men and women under arms, still can’t assemble the wherewithal to put 60,000 troops in the field and sustain them for any reasonable length of time. I’m not picking on them, mind you, because it’s not obvious to me that Europe needs a lot more capability in order to be secure, especially with Uncle Sam devoting a much higher share of its GDP to defense. But given that NATO’s European members have a declining and aging populations and face no imminent external military threats, does anyone seriously believe that they are going to take on a more equal share of the collective burden?
Third, over the next ten to twenty years (at least), America’s strategic attention is likely to be focused on the Middle East, Central Asia, and East Asia. In light of these priorities, what is the basis for close strategic cooperation between Europe and America? (Note that several NATO allies have already declared that they will be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in the next year or so, just as the United States is ramping up). If the United States were one day to decide to make a greater effort to contain China (not a certainty, of course, but hardly a far-fetched possibility), would Europe join in that mission? What would be its interest in doing so? Wouldn’t it be more likely to seek good relations with Washington and Beijing, and cultivate profitable economic ties with both sides?
Fourth, and following from the third point, why do so many people think that NATO can or should strive for common positions on literally dozens of contentious international issues? For example, a recent joint study by the RAND Corporation and the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Germany calls for major diplomatic efforts to "harmonize" positions across a whole range of problems, including terrorism, WMD, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Central Asia, the reform of Bretton Woods institutions, energy security, global poverty, and a whole lot more. But is there any reason to expect NATO to do this? If not, what is that point of making this level of agreement on that many issues the benchmark of alliance cohesion? Might we be better off picking the two or three most important issues confronting NATO’s members, working hard to reach agreement on them, and agreeing to disagree on the others?
Fifth and last, is there are a point one can now foresee when NATO might actually end, or at least be recognized as essentially irrelevant? Back in 1998, I compared NATO to Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey: it appeared youthful and vigorous, continually holding meetings, exercises, summits, and subsequently managing to fight minor wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan (albeit without much actual coordination), but in reality, the alliance was growing old and tired. Perhaps that’s why the titles of so many recent studies of NATO use the prefix "Re-," as in "Renewing the Atlantic Partnership," "Revitalizing the Transatlantic Security Partnership," or "Alliance Reborn." If so many smart people think NATO badly needs repair, isn’t that rather revealing?
There’s no need for an acrimonious divorce — and I don’t actually expect NATO to formally dissolve — but it is hard to see it as America’s core alliance network going forward. Perhaps NATO at 70 will be enjoying a quiet and well-deserved retirement. Still alive and kicking, but like most retirees, a lot less active.
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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