Kenneth Weisbrode, a fellow at the European University Institute, argues in a U.S. News essay that the return of France to NATO’s military command offers an opportunity to clarify the institution’s missions but is otherwise no great panacea.

For one thing, he contends, “Despite the great inconvenience de Gaulle’s decision caused for some, it did no serious harm to NATO or to France’s most important relationships with the allies.”  Indeed, “Its permanent delegate to the North Atlantic Council rarely was treated any differently from his counterparts—and certainly not like an outcast.” Similarly, the symbolic return “doesn’t mean any automatic boost for NATO’s effectiveness. It will probably be followed by business as usual.”

Still, the Alliance is at a crossroads and any noteworthy occasion presents an opportunity to take stock.

It is remarkable but also not surprising that, nearly two decades since the demise of the Warsaw Pact, NATO is confused over its raison d’être. On the one hand, it provides its Central and Eastern European members with an insurance policy against a revanchist or revisionist Russia. On the other hand, it promotes itself as the guarantor of Euro-Atlantic stability, and seeks in principle to cultivate a partnership with Russia in underwriting it. It also serves as the world’s peacekeeper or peacemaker of last resort, first in the Balkans, now in Afghanistan and possibly elsewhere in the future.

Few experts claim that NATO can survive in its present form as a political and military alliance with so much simultaneously on its plate. It need not cut back radically, however. Rather, it must put forth an overarching strategy—as opposed to a mere set of policies—that gives logic, credibility and life to its necessary operational commitments.

Weisbrode believes that “Rather than alternating between being an existential safeguard and a global expeditionary force, NATO must reassert its primary role as defender of the North Atlantic area, broadly defined. This would make both of the former missions more credible and effective.” This would mean cutting back on out-of-area operations like Afghanistan.  “It is not clear how they contribute to the defense of the alliance or deter future attacks upon it, particularly if some members oppose them.”

This, according to Weisbrode, is the natural consequence of “Ending the theoretical distinction between membership in the alliance and in its military organization” an would be “an important step forward.”

It’s certainly true that NATO’s current mission set is confusing and even contradictory.  Expanding right up to Russia’s borders may increase the sense of security of Eastern Europe and add to the vision of a “Europe whole, united and free.” At the same time, though, it makes Western Europe less safe by antagonizing Russia.

But, frankly, a post-Cold War NATO that exists solely to provide a mutual security pact between Western Europe and North America against an attack on Western Europe might as well go out of business.  There is simply no credible threat of an invasion of Germany, France, the UK or any other Cold War-era Alliance member now or in an imaginable future.

On the other hand, there are forces of instability — terrorism and nuclear proliferation most obviously — that do threaten the security of NATO member states.  It simply makes sense to have a preexisting staff and working relationship to allow us to respond in unison rather than as an ad hoc “coalition of the willing.”

The problem, however, is that such missions can not realistically be conducted under the rules of the NATO Charter, which were written around a smaller Alliance and a specific, unifying threat.   There will be problems for which a unified military response — or threat of same — will be desirable but which not all member states will be willing or able to participate.   Something less than unanamity will be necessary in such circumstances.

That said, I fully endorse Weisbrode’s view that NATO must remain first and foremost a military alliance.  Issues like expansion should be made with that in mind.  If the other member states are not, in fact, going to consider an attack on an aspiring member (say, Georgia) as “an attack on all” and respond accordingly, then they should not be added “the Club.”

Despite hand-wringing to the contrary, NATO can weather falling short of its goals in Afghanistan.  It could not, however, survive in any form worth having after failing to come to the defense of an Alliance member who was attacked. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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