Crossing the Great Divides

NATO defense ministers

As the Vietnam War was beginning to split American society asunder, Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffmann icily observed that when it came to strategic thinking, we Americans expected others to reason as we did or be in need of being brought up to our level.

Was this sheer arrogance at work? Perhaps. But more likely the critique represented huge cultural divides still at play.

Three immediate examples come to mind. Last week, former Pakistani national security adviser and Ambassador to the United States Mahmud Durrani visited Washington to speak at a number of leading think tanks and to consult with senior members of the Obama administration. Durrani provided a highly objective assessment that contrasted the radically different perceptions and expectations between Washington and Islamabad over the fight against extremism.

In Washington, a prevailing critical view was that Pakistan wasn’t doing enough in battling the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida; constantly asking for more aid; and doing little to damp down growing anti-Americanism. In Islamabad, Durrani argued Pakistanis believed another U.S. withdrawal from the region was likely if not inevitable; that given the resources America had poured into Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan was being grossly shortchanged; and that America didn’t understand the price Pakistan had and was paying in this war. The tragedy is that both sets of views reflect valid concerns.

Last week, I circulated an article on NATO and its future arguing that while the alliance was at a critical juncture and faced very divisive differences over the nature of the threat, Afghanistan and how far the alliance must extend its reach both geographically and beyond purely military dangers to broader security challenges posed by energy, economic crises, terror, cyberattack and even climate change, with care NATO could survive and endure for a considerable period.

Of course, NATO advocates warmed to this argument. However, a number of former very senior NATO officials including four-star officers saw NATO as a paper tiger and urged that the United States consider leaving it or downgrading its importance.

Much of this reaction came out of Afghanistan where these officials saw NATO far from pulling its weight. The ISAF — the International Security and Assistance Force that NATO leads — was described by one four-star general as “I Saw Americans Fighting.”

Of course NATO officials argue that on a proportional basis, NATO is carrying out its share even though proportionality is often in the eyes of the beholder.

Finally, the Group of 20 is firmly divided on how to cope with the economic crises and growing debt and deficits. The United States is alone in believing that economic stimulation and more spending are essential before deficits can be brought under control as growth kicks in. Europeans are united in an opposite course of action: Control spending first as a prerequisite for economic growth.

The ensuing press release, of course, ducked these huge divisions and quoted platitudes rather than real prescriptive actions. As a result, both sides of the Atlantic will embark on different policy choices in the hope that somehow growth and equilibrium will return.

These examples, of course, combine both perceptual and policy differences.These differences should focus our attention. Needed are the means and mechanisms to specify and assess these differences. Based on that assessment, ideally more effective or appropriate action could follow — with an emphasis on “could.”

Take Pakistan. A strategic U.S.-Pakistan dialogue has been put in place. The next session occurs this month in Pakistan. It would be enormously helpful if both sides could identify in advance what each sees as the most important roadblocks and problems and solutions. Unfortunately, complete candor and objectivity often suffer in these larger meetings. So perhaps a heads of state one on one dialogue might cut to the bottom line.

Regarding NATO, candor, too, is needed. Often, NATO headquarters in Brussels prefers diplomatic niceties and courtesy to harder hitting give and take. And with 29 member states at the table, giving each equal slots of time to make their case is neither simple nor straightforward. But that is exactly what must be done.

Regarding the G-20, as neither proponents of spend first nor cut first can decisively prove in advance the merits of their arguments, the only viable option is to wait and see who is correct. Clearly, there are some dilemmas and differences that only time can resolve.

The key takeaway isn’t that there will be no divides or major differences on many issues. Rather, identifying and understanding those differences are essential steps in finding workable solutions to very tough, complicated and in some cases intractable issues.

Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo credit: Getty Images.

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