NATO must “find a political voice or collapse,” says Times of London defense editor Michael Evans.  “It has become so multi-tasked, so desperate to get involved in everything from cyber warfare to anti-piracy and missile defence, let alone a hugely draining and complex campaign in Afghanistan, that it has lost its way.”

In Afghanistan, for example, it has 50,000 troops throughout the country, but where is its political voice? Is Nato now just a troop-providing alliance that takes the flak when things go wrong and sacrifices its men and women without having a real say on the way forward for the country? This is one reason why the campaign there faces stalemate. Even in military terms, the alliance is not acting as a cohesive force in Afghanistan; individual member states present the US commander of its International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) with a kaleidoscope of national caveats that limit military action. There are even divisions between the US and Britain, the two biggest troop contributors, over strategy and tactics in the south, not a good omen for the arrival of 20,000 more US troops next year.

This is a rather odd charge, frankly.  It’s technically true that NATO doesn’t act as a diplomatic forum in Afghanistan but its member states certainly are taking an active voice in its political future.  Moreover, the ISAF commander most certainly liaises with the political leadership of Afghanistan, as does the CENTCOM commander.  While it’s fair to criticize the lack of unity of command in this operation, it’s not entirely clear why NATO per se needs to have that role. 

As to political divisions and disagreements over tactics, we have those within the United States and even within the Bush administration. Why wouldn’t there be differences between the US and the UK?

In places where the Alliance is engaged politically, Evans argues, “the consequences have been disastrous.”

Its enlargement programme, under which it has expanded in all directions, taking in the Balkans, the Baltic states and Eastern and Central Europe, has been promoted, particularly by the US, as a crusade for spreading democracy and security. In many ways, this has worked: the Balkans are more stable and the former Soviet satellites embraced reform and leapt with gratitude into the European family.

Yes . . . that certainly sounds disastrous. . . .

Times have changed, however. Russia is once again a force to be reckoned with, thanks to oil and gas reserves and Vladimir Putin’s muscular foreign policy stance. Now Georgia and Ukraine stand at the open door, and it is too much for Nato to handle. The foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels on December 2 was a perfect example of the dilemma facing the 26 members. They were supposed to have seriously considered offering both former Soviet republics entry into the membership action plan (MAP), which would have led them to become embedded in Nato’s training and reform programme.

The foreign ministers came up with a fudge that allowed Georgia and Ukraine to believe they were still loved without upsetting Moscow. The issue, however, has not gone away. The alliance is divided between those committed to the open-door policy – Washington being the most prominent – and newer arrivals, including Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic nations, who are worried about the way that Moscow is going, particularly after the mini-war in Georgia in August, and want Nato to focus more on its traditional role of territorial defence. Quite like old Cold War times.

Again, this is an incredibly complicated issue.  There are divisions within the United States.  Divisions within both of our major political parties, even.  Goodness, divisions even within the Atlantic Council.  

Most Atlanticists agree that bringing Georgia and Ukraine into the institutions of the West, notably NATO and the EU, will be beneficial.  There are legitimate questions as to whether these states are yet “ready,” a concept about which there is also disagreement.

And, yes, adding states that a Great Power considers to be within its sphere of influence to a military alliance that said Great Power considers hostile to its interests is a step to be taken with caution.  Lo and behold:  the Alliance is being cautious!  That member states have the ability to veto major moves and therefore slow down the impulses of the more gung ho is a feature, not a bug.

Evans is, right, though, in his conclusion:

As Nato approaches its 60th anniversary, there will be no better time for it to come up with a new strategic concept that will transform it into a politically potent body capable of playing a part on the world stage. If not, the celebrations next year will merely cover up divisions that could lead the alliance to fall apart.

Even during the darkest days of the Cold War, when standing together as one was demanded by the threat of nuclear annihilation, NATO’s members constantly clashed on issues ranging from troop commitments to missile deployment to missile defense.  It’s hardly surprising, then, that there’s a lack of consensus on responding to threats that are more amorphous and less urgent.

But, yes, it’s high time to rethink NATO’s mission.  Even with Russia’s reemergence as a military competitor, we’re not returning to the Cold War standoff.  No one seriously thinks Russian tanks will be rolling into Poland or the Czech Republic — much less crossing the Fulda Gap.   To survive as a meaningful Alliance, then, it needs to be more than a collective defense mechanism.   At the same time, though, domestic political constraints seemingly make it impossible to act as a cohesive expeditionary force. So, something will have to give.  Either NATO’s ambitions must be more modest or its operating rules must be less stringent.  Or perhaps both.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.