It hasn’t taken long at all for the Obama administration’s honeymoon with Europe to wear thin. The handling of the global economic crisis was the first breach. And directly on the heels of the G20 summit will come NATO’s 60th anniversary summit at a time when there is no consensus at all — even within Europe — about what should happen with the beaten-up Atlantic Alliance. Everyone seems to agree, though, that the alliance is in crisis — and maybe even in its death throes. But while the Europeans seem to be thinking about collective security with open minds, the Americans simply repeat the mantra that NATO must be and that more NATO is better than less.

More likely than not, the Atlantic allies will probably make the same mistake they did 20 years ago in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War: Rather than transform or dissolve NATO, they will find new missions and projects for it. But this is likely to make the situation even worse, overburdening an organization that is already buckling under the weight of responsibilities it was never envisioned to shoulder.


America’s long-standing preference for NATO as the transatlantic institution of choice has several explanations. For one, it had arguably — at least until Afghanistan — a record of success. It helped the West win the Cold War (on the European continent) without firing a shot. NATO’s job, as British Secretary-General Lord Ismay famously put it in 1967, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” But rather than close up shop with mission accomplished in the early 1990s, the 1949-founded pact sought to find a new purpose.

NATO led the humanitarian interventions in Bosnia in 1995 and against Milosevic’s Serbia in 1999. That same year, on NATO’s 50th anniversary, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland became the first former Warsaw Pact countries to join, over Russia’s stiff objections. In the years to follow the Baltic states, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania also joined.

The September 11, 2001, attacks enlisted NATO in the Bush administration’s war on terror. The terrorist attacks on the United States prompted the first-ever invocation of Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. According to the clause in NATO’s founding document, an armed attack against one member is considered an attack against all members, and the allies will come to the aid of one other. Although the United States and Great Britain circumvented NATO to topple the Taliban government in late 2001, NATO took its operations outside of Europe for the first time two years later in the form of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Today the NATO-led force includes 50,000 troops from 40 countries, including all 27 of the NATO allies.

Given the East-West stalemate, it was possible during the postwar decades for NATO allies to work together in the name of collective defense, despite the many differences of opinion within the pact. Leaving aside the question of the nature of the Soviet threat — archives in Moscow turned up no plans for an invasion — the United States and the Western Europeans concurred that the Soviet Union was the enemy. Although the United States set the agenda and the Western Europeans were effectively junior partners, the principle of collective decision-making was formally respected. And since it never came to a shooting war, Article 5 was never tested. Thus, on the surface at least, relative harmony prevailed, and NATO emerged victorious.

Moreover, in the aftermath of the Cold War there were no obvious alternatives to keep the United States and Europe close once American troops withdrew and the nuclear umbrella became irrelevant. Creating something anew was beyond the imagination of Washington’s foreign policymakers at the time. There had been discussion of replacing the institutions of the East-West conflict with a collective pan-European security architecture that would include Russia. Western Europeans and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev took seriously the option of entirely revamping the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), but they never followed up. Lastly, because it was and would remain primarily a military organization, NATO was one institution that the United States, with its nuclear arsenal and vast military superiority, would be certain to continue to dominate.

Yet by transforming the alliance into an agency for addressing international crises of all kinds, NATO’s advocates have only called greater attention to its inadequacy for the 21st century. NATO’s new “comprehensive approach” to security endows it with a catch-all mandate that changes as new threats or missions arise, and has grown to include responsibilities that go far beyond the exercise of military force. But while its mandate has changed, its tools and thinking have not.

Mission to Afghanistan

There’s no better example than NATO’s flagship mission in Afghanistan, where the alliance has taken on civilian, policing, and humanitarian duties that it can’t possibly carry out. Most of the European NATO member states in Afghanistan argue that stability will come only through a strategy that combines education, rule-of-law programs, economic aid, and infrastructure projects. They underscore that the purpose of the international mission is to facilitate a handover to the Afghans and to create conditions for reconstruction. Germany and Spain point out, for example, that Afghan poppy production — and Afghanistan’s recent bumper crops — can’t be checked by bombing campaigns. Airstrikes on poor Afghan farmers could well backfire, costing the force even more goodwill. But counter-narcotics is, as of October 2008, another category that has been added to NATO’s to-do list. Even in training Afghanistan’s armed forces NATO has proven overwhelmed. But as much discord as there is in the alliance over strategy, there is consensus that the Afghanistan mission is make-or-break for NATO. At the moment, the latter appears the more likely outcome.

The war in Afghanistan is only the most egregious example of NATO’s dilemma. Whether it is cyberwar, peacekeeping, international terrorism, or energy security, Atlanticists invoke NATO as the go-to institution, overburdening it yet further with new responsibilities beyond its capacities. According to the Dutch political scientist Peter van Ham in the March issue of Internationale Politik, “NATO’s instruments have become blunt and outdated in the light of today’s non-traditional security challenges and techniques.” Yet, he notes, contrary to expectations its portfolio has only expanded: “Whereas not too long ago the main question was how the European Union could use NATO’s military tools…the debate is now how should NATO draw upon the resources of the European Union, the United Nations, the World Bank, as well as non-governmental organizations.” But this hasn’t caused U.S. foreign policymakers to consider new fora or mechanisms to address the new threats. Nor have the Europeans been particularly enterprising or ingenuous with new ideas. For them, the comfortable path of least resistance is to put these complex challenges in NATO’s hands one after another. In this way, they appear to have addressed the problems rather than actually doing so.

Moreover, it’s questionable whether this new NATO is still a transatlantic institution worthy of the label. Despite its multilateral structure, NATO has become a clearing house for U.S.-led “coalitions of the willing,” which alliance members — and non-members as well — can join on a case-by-case basis. For all intents and purposes, it’s a group of like-minded democracies that Washington can call upon à la carte for duty in American-led missions. The Europeans bear none of the roles and responsibilities even of junior partner as in the past, but rather serve as occasional helpers, as was the case in the invasion and pacification of Afghanistan. The more of them in the alliance, the larger the possible constellation for these pick-up coalitions. This is one reason that the Americans above all push for NATO’s expansion.

And since the mandate of the umbrella organization is no longer restricted to Europe or collective security, there is talk of opening up membership to the likes of Israel, Australia, and Japan. Those that opt not to be on board for a given mission are simply left behind. As van Ham argues: “NATO offers the United States the useful stamp of multilateral legitimacy without really imposing too many limits on America’s foreign policy.” Even when the major European countries participate in a NATO mission, this new kind of coalition is devoid of the unity and coherence that the old NATO had. Indeed, differences within the coalition on the ground in Afghanistan are so great that U.S., German, and Dutch units pursue different strategies in their respective sectors. This is a far cry for the “all for one and one for all” ethos that originally united the Atlantic alliance.

Not Up to the Task

Is NATO is up to the job of keeping the peace in the North Atlantic area, its original raison d’etre? Today, the threats to European security are strikingly different from those of the Cold War years. They include ethnic conflict on Europe’s frontiers, mass migration and refugee flows, nuclear proliferation, and transnational terrorism. Particularly in Europe, many experts see security challenges in global warming, international trafficking, resource scarcity, and failing states. A recent EU study concluded that increased tensions over falling water supplies in the Middle East will affect the continent’s energy security and economic interests. Likewise, global warming will exacerbate poverty and spur mass migration from Africa.

Neither NATO’s instruments nor its framework are right for these kinds of problems. The Bush administration saw NATO’s role exclusively as part of the war on terrorism, so its overall inadequacies did not attract much attention. The August 2008 conflict in Georgia, however, underscored that there are still threats to Europe’s security within and on its borders that the continent’s powers will have to address with instruments other than pure force.

Certainly, Russia feels deeply threatened by the alliance’s expansion eastward, which it has consistently protested since the early 1990s. Moscow perceives as hostile the advance to its borders of a foreign military alliance that was designed to resist the Soviet Union and that still today sees Russia as a competitor. Although not solely accountable for Russia’s authoritarian turn, NATO’s expansion into East Central Europe — contrary to U.S. and German promises to Gorbachev in 1989 — has expedited the aggressive nationalism and assertiveness of Putin-era Russia. It has fueled a new arms race and aggravated a security threat in Europe that has far-reaching implications for the Europeans.

Likewise, the further eastward enlargement of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia, which Obama specifically advocated in his July 2008 Berlin address, won’t engender greater security — neither for Western Europe nor for Georgia and Ukraine. Ukrainians themselves are so divided over NATO membership that the fragile country might split into eastern and western sectors over the question. Admitting Georgia could draw NATO into a direct confrontation with Russia. The alliance wouldn’t likely risk war with Russia over Georgia’s breakaway enclaves in the Caucasus. The Georgians should have no illusions: They have already paid a high price for the false sense of security that American advisors gave to them prior to the recent conflict.

Thinking Beyond NATO

Thus, what to do with NATO in the 21st century? One option is to do away with the Atlantic Alliance all together. But it’s naïve to think this could be done without having something ready to take its place. The Balkan wars of the 1990s showed that there are times when military force is necessary, even in Europe. Were the European Union’s security and defense policies more advanced and effective, they could carry much of the weight that NATO now does. The Europeans think in a much more constructive way about security, but they admit that they lack the hardware to carry out sophisticated military missions. Even if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified this year — a prerequisite for serious EU security policies — the European Union will still need to prove that it can act effectively in the face of crisis.

Another option is the creation of a European collective security pact, something Russia had proposed. This kind of security arrangement would govern relations between Russia and the Euro-Atlantic community. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indicated that the new pact would attempt to build on the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, as a kind of “Helsinki Plus” agreement with new guidelines for inter-state relations. Like Helsinki, it would be a “process” with different areas of focus, one of them certainly arms control. But beyond a few isolated remarks, the Russians haven’t fleshed out this vision, and it may well be nothing more than a propaganda ploy. Whatever the case, Russia is at least thinking in the right direction.

Then there is the proposal to open NATO to Russia. The Russians favored this option throughout the 1990s and even during Putin’s first term in office. Russia was considerably weaker then than it is now, and Russian membership could have been brokered largely on the West’s terms. But the West subsequently spurned Russia. The conditions would now be much different and probably unacceptable to most, if not all, NATO countries. Today, for example, Russia would likely ask for something like “deputy” status to the United States in NATO leadership. This would be unacceptable to NATO, and likewise NATO’s conditions would most probably be unacceptable to Russia.

Yet another option is to resuscitate the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and turn it into a real pan-European security organization. This was one of the ideas back in 1990, when the OSCE (then the CSCE) was still connected with the spirit of the Helsinki process. This is no longer the case. Through neglect and infighting, the OSCE has fallen into tragic disrepair. Russia, above all, has used it as a platform to obstruct election monitoring and other small missions. Moscow’s actions in the OSCE are the best argument against including it in a pan-European body in which it Russia has a real voice. But, be that as it may, any collective European security venture has to include Russia or it isn’t worthy of the label.

If NATO remains functional, it must make real concessions to Russia and revert to its original raison d’être, namely collective security in the Euro-Atlantic space. NATO must be clear about what it can and can’t do, rather than becoming a global policeman for all kinds of crises. Certainly, its responsibilities should be confined to military tasks, like providing security so that civilian organizations like the UN, the OSCE, and NGOs can go about their business on the ground in post-conflict areas.

If NATO goes, then the Americans, the Europeans, and the Russians have to come up with something new. This is what they failed to do 20 years ago. They are still paying the price today.

Paul Hockenos is the editor of the global edition of Internationale Politik and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. His most recent book is Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany.

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