The Multilateralist

Does NATO need a crisis?

The Afghan conflict may be in a critical stage, but NATO’s energy and attention is dissipating fast. The Netherlands—long one of the alliance’s stalwarts—has pulled out. Canada, another star performer, is getting set to pack up as well. From other quarters, and particularly eastern Europe, there is grumbling that the costs of the operation are ...

The Afghan conflict may be in a critical stage, but NATO’s energy and attention is dissipating fast. The Netherlands—long one of the alliance’s stalwarts—has pulled out. Canada, another star performer, is getting set to pack up as well. From other quarters, and particularly eastern Europe, there is grumbling that the costs of the operation are sapping members’ ability to modernize their militaries. NATO’s Secretary General still chides member states to stay the course, but it’s clear that he’s only delaying the inevitable.

All this is happening as NATO’s next summit approaches and as the alliance tries to finalize a new strategic concept. Since the Cold War ended, NATO has almost always had a major challenge on its plate: first, it was expansion to central and eastern Europe. Tamping down conflict in Croatia and Bosnia and debating expansion occupied the alliance during the early 1990s. By late 1998, the focus had turned to Kosovo. And after 9/11, the alliance shifted to Afghanistan. As key alliance members scale down their involvement in that conflict and as the transition to Afghan control begins next year, the alliance may face a strange and unsettling phenomenon: relative inactivity. Of course there will always be drills and exercises and summits and conferences. But post-Afghanistan, NATO may have no animating mission and no major architectural change in the works.

Speaking with NATO officials, one senses nervousness about this prospect. The idea of becoming a strategic backstop that exists just in case is not appealing to an organization that’s now accustomed to being in the thick of things. It’s almost as if these officials fear that the organization will topple over if it’s not moving somewhere fast. There are already a couple of ideas floating out there for new roles:

Become a global police force: NATO could seek to regularize the role it has played in Afghanistan as a global stabilization force. The U.S. is probably keenest on this idea, since it expects to play an active international role in any case and would welcome the alliance’s force-multiplying and legitimacy-enhancing effects. But Afghanistan has been a traumatic experience for many alliance members, and there’s not much appetite for seeking out new dragons to slay.

Embrace the bear: Expansion has already taken the alliance past the frontiers of the old Soviet Union. Why not now bring Russia in as a way of hammering the nail in the Cold War’s coffin? Georgetown professor Charles Kupchan made the case recently:  

[T]he West is making a historic mistake in treating Russia as a strategic pariah. As made clear by the settlements after the Napoleonic Wars and World War II — in contrast to the one that followed World War I — including former adversaries in a postwar order is critical to the consolidation of great-power peace. Anchoring Russia in an enlarged Euro-Atlantic order, therefore, should be an urgent priority for NATO today.

Become an alliance of democracies: During the last presidential campaign, John McCain mooted the idea of a global League of Democracies. For those inclined in this direction, NATO has always seemed like a natural starting point. Why not offer membership to Japan, Australia, South Africa, etc. and become an active force for democratization around the world? America’s current ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, co-authored an essay urging just this course a couple years ago.

The alternative — and probably the most likely course — is for the alliance to lick its wounds, weather the current round of defense cuts and consolidation, and wait for another opportunity to be useful. Events well outside the alliance’s control put it on its current path and they will almost certainly help it select a new one. 

 Twitter: @multilateralist

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