Canadian defense minister Peter MacKay argues that NATO faces an existential crisis in Afghanistan and it’s time for “a frank discussion” about the future of the alliance. 

Luke Baker reports for Reuters:

“We need to have a frank discussion about the future of NATO,” MacKay told the Royal Institute of International Affairs, known as Chatham House, while underlining that Canada, a founder member, remained committed to the organization.  “The U.S. re-emphasis on the mission in Afghanistan — with the commitment of more troops, more development, more diplomacy — has brought a predictable sigh of relief from some around the alliance,” he said, suggesting some members saw it as a chance to sit back and say ‘it’s okay, the Americans will handle it’. As the United States says, its contribution is designed to reinforce, not to replace … We all need to maintain our collective effort so that we maximize the official contribution from the United States,” he said.


In the past, criticism like MacKay’s has been a veiled reference to the need for Germany, France and other major NATO states to step up contributions, bringing them into line with those made by Britain, Italy, Canada and the United States.  MacKay did not name names, however, merely saying that unless there was a more unified, coordinated response across the alliance, the 8-year operation in Afghanistan risked failure.

“Afghanistan tests the ability of the alliance to execute its most basic mission in the 21st century and in a global context,” he said.  “If NATO cannot deter or defeat the real physical threat facing alliance members, and indeed contribute to the building of security for the larger international community, then we have to ask ourselves, what is NATO for?”

That is indeed the question.  

Aside from the fact that this is NATO’s first significant out-of-area operation and that the alliance has therefore put its credibility on the line by undertaking the mission, though, I disagree with the consensus view — indeed, likely the consensus view of the Atlantic Council leadership —  that “winning” in Afghanistan is a make-or-break matter. 

Countries routinely go to war, fail to achieve the objectives they sought, and withdraw without permanent damage to their prestige.  The United States, certainly, has done it more than once and appears set to do so again in Iraq.  Why should alliances be any different?  Clearly, most members of the alliance don’t see failure in Afghanistan as an existential crisis to their own country’s security; why, then, is it an existential crisis for the alliance?

It may well be that the answer to MacKay’s question is something narrower than the mission undertaken in Afghanistan. Maybe NATO, as presently constituted, simply isn’t the proper vehicle for sustained out-of-area operations.  Beyond that, it’s not clear at this juncture whether it’s still mostly a military alliance at all; perhaps its major role is as a diplomatic venue or as a “club” to which emerging democracies can aspire.

Regardless, MacKay is absolutely right:  It’s long past time to have that discussion.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.