NATO a Permanent Alliance: Outlook for the Future

At the end of the day, there are two basic requirements for NATO to be perceived as important enough for the member states to ensure its survival. Put most simply, the United States must be convinced that political and military cooperation with the European allies makes an important net contribution to US interests. On the other side of the coin, Europeans must believe that contributing to international security efforts alongside the United States will produce influence for Europe over US decisions that affect their security. These are the fundamental terms for continuation of a vital, productive transatlantic bargain.

In fact, the twenty-first century NATO is not “your father’s NATO.” It has prospered by adapting to new international conditions, including political changes inside the alliance itself. It will have to continue the process of change in order to ensure its “permanence.”

Expansion of membership in the alliance has brought with it not only predictions of deadlock among a larger number of allies but also proposals for adding supranational aspects to the alliance’s decision-making process. Following the divisive debate over aid to Turkey, the US Senate passed a resolution in May 2003 suggesting the United States look for ways to enable NATO to act without a full consensus and to suspend difficult members from alliance decision making. Proponents argued that a NATO that had grown to 26 members and was likely to have more in the future might have an increasingly difficult time reaching a meaningful consensus.

As superficially attractive as such proposals might appear, neither is likely or desirable.
NATO is an alliance of sovereign states based on cooperation, not supranational integration. The requirement for consensus has been constructively bent in the past, for example when the Netherlands took footnotes to language about NATO nuclear policy in the 1980s, Greece abstained constructively (not supporting but not blocking) on NATO’s attack on Serbian forces in Kosovo, and when, in the 2003 Turkish case, the decision was moved to the Defense Planning Committee to avoid a French veto in the North Atlantic Council.

It seems quite unlikely that the NATO members—least of all the United States— will want the alliance to become a supranational body rather than a cooperative framework among sovereign states. In such a case, the consensus process clearly will need to be flexed from time to time, as it has been in the past, but it seems unlikely to be “fixed.”

One important “flexing” of NATO’s consensus procedure could be to ensure that NATO commanders are delegated sufficient authority to run a military operation without frequent resort to the North Atlantic Council for detailed guidance, as was the case in the air war against Serbia over Kosovo. If there is a compelling case for NATO to act, effective diplomacy and leadership on both sides of the Atlantic in most cases will produce a consensus or at least a situation where no country will veto.

Perhaps a good example in this regard was provided by the initial refusal of six allies to provide military officers to staff NATO’s training facility in Iraq but their willingness to allow the operation to go ahead with officers provided by the other allies. On the question of suspending troublesome members, simply considering such a procedure would be divisive in the extreme and not worth the trouble. If NATO is not able to function in the future because of the obstinacy of one or more members then the alliance would be in danger of slipping toward irrelevance.

Chances are, if the United States and the European allies continue to see transatlantic security cooperation as in their interest, they will find ways to compromise on difficult issues and to move ahead, using ad hoc coalition approaches when absolutely necessary to get around opposition to making an operation a formal NATO mission. Respect for the sovereign decisions of member states has, of course, been the underlying problem with NATO’s operation of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. ISAF’s effectiveness was handicapped by the fact that some countries were unwilling to allow their troops to operate in parts of Afghanistan and in circumstances that would put them at greater risk. It is well understood that political realities and historical experiences have determined the approaches that nations have taken to this issue. The eventual evaluation of NATO’s performance in Afghanistan will undoubtedly reflect such problems, even if the long run produces a relatively successful outcome. Assessing the mission’s effectiveness will become part of the process of adapting the alliance to future security challenges.

Will the NATO members continue to find NATO cooperation to their advantage, even with a difficult experience in Afghanistan? Only time will tell. However, history suggests that, in spite of their differences, the United States and Europe will try to keep their act together. And today, NATO remains an important part of the script for that routine. Dealing with the threats posed by terrorism and managing most other aspects of transatlantic relations demand more effective transatlantic cooperation in political, economic, financial, and social as well as military aspects of the relationship.

The bottom line, therefore, is that the transatlantic bargain will survive Afghanistan. The alliance has already shown its resilience during the early twenty-first century when decisions by the Bush administration put alliance cooperation under severe pressure.

The bargain will survive in part because the security of the member states cannot be ensured through national measures alone. It will survive because the member states will continue to recognize that imperfect cooperation serves their interests better than no cooperation at all. NATO will be adapted to meet new challenges. And the value foundation of the transatlantic bargain will persist, in spite of differences over specific issues and shifting patterns of member state interests.

It will survive in part because the bargain is not just NATO. In fact, recent trends suggest that there is much more creative thought and political momentum behind enhancing transatlantic cooperation rather than diminishing it. As Lawrence S. Kaplan has observed, “The transatlantic bargain still resonates in the twenty-first century.” As a result, this bargain in the hearts and minds of the member states has become as close as one could imagine to being a “permanent alliance.”

Stan Sloan is the founding Director of the Atlantic Community Initiative. This article is adapted from his forthcoming book, Permanent Alliance? NATO and the Transatlantic Bargain from Truman to Obama (Continuum Books, 2010).

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