In his address yesterday to the Atlantic Council, NATO Supreme Allied Commander outlined a wish list of reforms he hopes the Alliance will take in the years to come to ensure the institution’s continued relevance in the 21st century.

General John Bantz Craddock suggested a number of technical reforms the Alliance could take to operate more effectively, but he warned that without stronger leadership, a long-term view of the future, and a more equal balance between the national and Alliance interest that NATO would be at risk of irrelevance.

Fortunately for the NATO alliance, the tension between national and allied interests is not a new phenomenon. Unfortunately for NATO, the organization’s transformation for security missions out of area such as Afghanistan increases the tension between these two fundamental interests, casting doubt on the Alliance’s ability to achieve its stated ambitions.

Throughout history, alliances have been troubled by managing the competition provincial interests and those of the group. Despite its legendary status as the most successful alliance in world history, NATO has not been immune to these tensions. France’s withdrawal from the integrated command structure in 1966, tensions over Alliance nuclear policy, and disputes between the U.S. and Europe over burden sharing have long served as critical areas where national and allied interests came into conflict. However, despite NATO’s persistent internal conflicts during the Cold War, the Alliance remained firm at its most critical moments because the member nations shared a fundamental assessment of the Soviet threat and each ally recognized that excessive free riding would jeopardize NATO’s essential deterrent capability.

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO’s transformation from a defensive alliance to a security alliance has worsened the tension between national and allied interests. As NATO has gone out of area and engaged in operations to tackle security challenges, national capitals have shown varying degrees of enthusiasm and participation in the missions. While the Balkans certainly displayed moments of stress and strain for the Alliance – notably U.S. frustration with having to select bombing targets by committee – the more rigorous and dangerous operations in Afghanistan have revealed the NATO’s greatest tension between competing national and allied interests.

NATO has declared over and over again that failure is not an option in Afghanistan. Yet NATO is doing just enough in Afghanistan to fail spectacularly if current trends continue. The war in Afghanistan is increasingly unpopular, both in Europe and in North America. For nations with challenging political environments or fragile governing coalitions to preserve, the interest of political survival dictates minimal contributions not to run afoul of popular opinion. For nations in severe financial distress, with limited armed forces incapable of long-term deployments, or growing concerns about Russian aggression, the national interest of keeping the troops at home trumps the Alliance interest of achieving stated goals in Afghanistan and preserving a theoretical concept of burden sharing.

Unlike the monolithic Soviet state whose harsh enforcement of Moscow’s hegemony in Central and Eastern Europe focused the minds, NATO is unable to identify the overriding alliance interest in the murky, complex mission of stabilizing and reconstructing Afghanistan. Many allies feel they were sold a false bill of goods about the nature of the Afghan mission or only chose to participate to show minimal solidarity with the U.S. at a time of severe strain in U.S.-European relations. Still other allies do not believe that NATO’s failure to pacify a notoriously restive land would doom the Alliance but would perhaps instead force it back to the more traditional defensive role they would prefer it assume.

As NATO engages in operations outside the European or trans-Atlantic theater and continues to transform to tackle security challenges that do not equally impact all allies, the tension between national and allied interests will worsen. General Craddock has correctly identified an important historical characteristic of alliances that will severely test NATO as it continues to transform. The challenge for the new military and civilian leadership of NATO and its members will be to either lead the allies to a stronger re-equilibrium of national and allied interests to ensure the relevance of the Alliance or else scale down its ambitions to meet the limited interests it garners in too many Allied capitals.

Jeff Lightfoot is assistant director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.  

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