For NATO to enjoy a more effective future, the Alliance’s other leading powers–Poland, Italy, Spain, and Canada—must be offered—and must be willing to earn—more responsibility within the Alliance.
NATO is an alliance of twenty-eight nations of dramatically varying size and capability. To be effective and to sustain a sense of solidarity, each ally needs to perceive the other as contributing to, not only consuming, security. In many respects, the recent Libya operation demonstrated the value of smaller allies. While too many in Washington dismiss the contributions of most of America’s allies, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, and Norway contributed much to the fight. At one point, Nordic allies conducted twenty-five percent of all strike sorties, punching well above their weight. These allies can continue to play an important role by developing niche capabilities and pursuing innovative multinational defense cooperation, as well as continuing to contribute to Alliance operations.
But while many smaller allies more than proved their worth in Libya, some larger, more capable allies such as Poland and Spain either sat out the operation or provided minimal contributions.
Traditionally, the Alliance’s direction has been led informally by the ‘Quad’: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. While NATO is an alliance of sovereign equals, any organization functions well when it has clear leadership. In recent years, Washington opened the door to more ambitious leadership roles for other important and capable allies: Italy, Poland, and Spain. Yet to varying degrees, each of these nations has not lived up to expectations, largely because of insufficient military budgets and political will, as well as limited strategic outlooks.
It is time to abolish the ‘Quad’ and replace it with a more modern if still informal leadership structure for the Alliance that recognizes the important role other leading powers can play in shaping NATO’s future. Such a structure would include Italy, Poland, Spain, and Canada in its ranks, as well as Turkey. But for this structure to work, these allies must recognize that leadership comes with responsibilities to bear an equal share of the burden in Alliance activities.
If NATO is to be effective in a century in which its leading nations represent a smaller share of global political, economic, and military weight, the Alliance needs its potential leading allies to assume a larger burden of responsibility. While Italy and Spain, in particular, are struggling with the impact of the financial crisis, leaders in these capitals along with Warsaw have the capability to play a greater role and thereby strengthen the Alliance overall.
Poland’s absence in the Libya operation was particularly disappointing, considering its important contributions in Afghanistan. Its absence led some to question its potential as the most important Central European member. Similarly, Canada made a major contribution to NATO’s Afghan operations by agreeing to play a lead role in combat in the most dangerous parts of southern Afghanistan; but its decision to withdraw from Alliance flagship projects, such as NATO’s AWACS fleet and Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS), undermines its claim to a larger leadership role with the Alliance.
R. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a board director of the Atlantic Council. Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Council’s International Security Program. This piece is adapted from the Atlantic Council publication “Anchoring the Alliance.”