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Stephen M. Walt

Time to Get Real on NATO

Guest post by Sean Kay Recently in Washington, D.C., a group of experts met as part of an ongoing review to develop a new "strategic concept" for the NATO allies to approve at a heads-of-state summit to be held in late 2010.  Key speeches were presented by the NATO Secretary General Fogh Rassmussen, Secretary of ...

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary General of NATO, speaks during a seminar on NATO's New Strategic Concept held at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, in Washington, DC, February 23, 2010. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also addressed the conference on the organization's future strategy. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Guest post by Sean Kay

Recently in Washington, D.C., a group of experts met as part of an ongoing review to develop a new "strategic concept" for the NATO allies to approve at a heads-of-state summit to be held in late 2010.  Key speeches were presented by the NATO Secretary General Fogh Rassmussen, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.  The result, however, has been an exercise in NATO "group think" with little relevance to real strategic thinking about America and its core national security interes.

This NATO review process is failing to account for three fundamental contradictions.

First, NATO Secretary General Rassmussen stated that:  "We must face new challenges. Terrorism, proliferation, cyber security or even climate change will oblige us to seek new ways of operating. And in a time of financial and budget constraints, we need to maximize our efficiency within limited resources."  However, all of these issues are challenges far better suited for the European Union (EU) and a special US-EU relationship to manage rather than NATO.

Second, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted that:  "This Alliance has endured because of the skill of our diplomats, the strength of our soldiers, and – most importantly – the power of its founding principles."  Yet, one of NATO’s core founding principles was to create a circumstance in which Europe could stand on its own two feet.  This is, effectively, NATO’s last unfulfilled mission after the Cold War and it is now hindered by an institutional framework allowing Europeans to free-ride on American security provision.

Third, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated:  "The demilitarization of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st."  The demilitarization of Europe, however, means that NATO has succeeded in its fundamental mission – that Europe no longer fights wars is a good thing.  Moreover, Europe has no incentive to contribute to global security missions so long as America takes the lead.  Europe has every incentive to free-ride on American power and NATO perpetuates that.

Secretary Gates did provide his audience with a dose of realism, noting that:  "Right now, the alliance faces very serious, long-term, systemic problems." What he fails to appreciate, however, is that these problems are not going to be solved by berating European allies for pursuing obvious benefit to their national interests.  Rather, the solution is to change the strategic dynamic by beginning to reduce American military commitments overseas and realigning – including cutting – defense spending to reflect new security realities.

Recently, Secretary of State Clinton testified to Congress that:  We have to address this deficit and the debt of the U.S. as a matter of national security, not only as a matter of economics."  Indeed, the most serious threat to America’s geostrategic position in the world is its $12 trillion national debt.  Yet, the United States has increased its commitment to Afghanistan, seems unlikely to be able to disengage from Iraq anytime soon, faces a growing confrontation with Iran, and is simultaneously increasing its defense spending.  Meanwhile, the American public is in its most isolationist mood in decades.  It is in this context that NATO’s "group of experts" seeks to add missions to the alliance, rather than rethink the role of the alliance itself.

The Department of Defense recently published its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) which states rightly that the United States must "increasingly cooperate with key allies and partners if it is to sustain peace and security" (interestingly in a December 2009 draft version of the QDR, the language read "rely" on key allies).  Yet the QDR and the new defense budget both show a United States seeking to hold onto a primacy in global security that is no longer sustainable.  The QDR notes that the US seeks to prevent and deter conflict by:  "Extending a global defense posture comprised of joint, ready forces forward stationed and rotationally deployed to prevail across all domains, prepositioned equipment and overseas facilities, and international agreements."  This is not a strategy that reflects wise prioritization by a country $12 trillion in debt.

The QDR typically emphasizes NATO as part of this global presence – and understandably points to Afghanistan as an essential component of this global partnership in a transformed alliance.  While it is increasingly said that Afghanistan is a crucial test for NATO – the reality is that NATO has already failed in Afghanistan.  In his assessment from summer 2009, General Stanley McChrystal noted that the operational culture of the NATO mission in Afghanistan would have to be fundamentally transformed.  This critical step, however, is not happening.  While the Europeans are contributing, there is nothing inherent in the ISAF command structure that requires it to be a NATO-engaged coalition.  In fact, Brussels currently has very little to do with operations in Afghanistan and Europeans might contribute more if their reputation in Afghanistan was more closely linked to the future of the European Union.

A strategic concept for NATO need not be very complicated.  There are basically two missions left for the alliance.

First, NATO should be kept as a reserve capacity built around the traditional Article 5 mission of territorial collective defense as a hedge against future geopolitical rivalry at the global or regional level.  This, however, need not require costly new initiatives to keep NATO busy, but rather should be seen as a reserve fund of alliance power – political in nature with operational doctrines available on the shelf.  NATO should continue its process of reaching out to engage Russia and abandon its provocative and self-defeating discussion of further enlargement or "global NATO" operations which are not realistic or sustainable but which create strategic costs in the US-Russian relationship.

Second, NATO’s staff should be given a clear mandate to work themselves out of a job – with their final mission being to hand over full lead responsibility for regional security to the European Union.  The most fundamental missions of NATO are achieved – Europe is integrated, whole, and free.  The challenge now is to ensure that this is sustained via the European Union.  By jealously hanging onto an irrelevant dominance over European security policy, the United States hinders effective EU security integration and ironically damages America’s own interests.  If the United States can’t hand over lead authority in Europe where can it?

Before committing to a strategic concept driven by NATO groupthink, President Obama should convene a policy review that brings into the process a broader range of strategic thinking than a self-motivated Washington-Brussels network which habitually seeks new missions, new budgets, and continues to drain the United States of scarce resources.  Europe is not yet capable of standing alone – and these strategic shifts will not happen overnight.  However, they certainly will never happen if the United States does not make the building of the European Union, not NATO, its primary strategic goal in the transatlantic security architecture.  A fundamental and lasting alignment of the transatlantic security dynamic can be a vital legacy for President Obama – but it will require a much greater application of realism to the role of NATO than is currently being considered.

Sean Kay is Chair, International Studies and Professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.  He is also a Mershon Associate at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies and Non-Resident Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute in Washington, D.C.  He is the author of NATO and the Future of European Security and Global Security in the Twenty-first Century:  The Quest for Power and the Search for Peace.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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