NATO’s Center of Gravity:  Political Will

NATO’s Center of Gravity:  Political Will

Whether you call it alliance solidarity, unity, or cohesion, NATO needs political will to overcome the external and internal forces threatening its success in Afghanistan and ultimate survival. A consensus of transatlantic elites will not be sufficient for the Alliance to overcome the economic crisis, military conflicts, and internal friction it is currently facing. The center of gravity of NATO is the political will of its people and NATO needs to do a better job strengthening it.

In a salient presentation at the Atlantic Council, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral James Stavridis, revealed a promising strategy for final and lasting victory in Afghanistan. The key to this strategy is the idea that the Afghan people are the center of gravity in this conflict. With all due respect to the admiral, he is absolutely correct, but still missing a decisive element.  

The Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz identified the center of gravity as, “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends” and “the point against which all our energies should be directed.” While useful in offensive terms, Clausewitz  failed to remind us to protect our own (defensive) center of gravity from the enemy’s attack. 

Thus, while Stavridis identified the offensive center of gravity of this conflict (depriving the al Qaeda/Taliban alliance of the support of the Afghan people), NATO also needs to protect its own center of gravity (the support of the people of the Alliance). If NATO loses the political will of the people in its member states, it will not be able to execute SACEUR’s strategy and never have the time to gain the lasting support of the Afghan people.  

The 3/11 Madrid bombings are an example that the enemy does not need to invade a NATO member or occupy a national capital to influence public opinion and produce regime change. 

Clausewitz also warned us of the significance of the center of gravity in alliances. “The fighting forces of each belligerent – whether a single state or an alliance of states – have a certain unity and therefore some cohesion. Where there is cohesion, the analogy of the center of gravity can be applied.” Clausewitz specifically pointed out that the center of gravity, “among alliances, it lies in the community of interests.” The cohesion of NATO is threatened not only by terrorists, but also by poor policy decisions that weaken its community of interests. 

Under the leadership of Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO has made it a priority to build the political will within its members through public diplomacy. The report by his Group of Experts highlighted the need for improvement in this area. “NATO populations should be reminded that the Alliance serves their interests through the security it provides.” While such emphasis is a step forward, is it sufficient? Is NATO truly investing the same attention and resources to the defensive center of gravity (the people of NATO) as it is to the offensive center of gravity (the Afghan people)? 

It is not enough to focus on educating leaders in national capitals. All of NATO’s members are democracies and thus it is essential to also invest time and effort in taking NATO’s message to the public at large. Until the Alliance does a better job informing the general electorate within its members of the value of NATO, it will condemn itself to the rise of leaders and governments who will choose parochial interests instead of the benefits of the transatlantic partnership. 

Public diplomacy is not an option in an alliance of democracies, it is essential. Key alliance decisions are made, sanctioned, and funded by national legislatures that pay far more attention to public opinion than to strategy seminars. NATO needs to make its public as well informed as possible about the tangible risks to each voter’s welfare and the Alliance’s contributions to their protection and prosperity.  

An uninformed public may tolerate providing the resources for a vaguely benign international organization and military force in normal economic times. But in times of economic crisis, voters will not support national leaders who are perceived to be wasting scarce national resources outside their borders. Voters are even more averse to sacrificing the lives of their children and neighbors to conflicts that appear distant and non-threatening. 

NATO did not do this well during the Cold War either, but back then it had three factors that helped the Alliance overcome and persevere. One was the status of its leaders. Voters were willing to follow transatlantic visionaries such as de Gaulle, Adenauer, and Truman to build a partnership unprecedented in human history. The current leaders of NATO do not lack talent. In fact, NATO is fortunate to have men of the caliber and vision of Rasmussen and Stavridis. But such leaders lack the status and visibility to reach the vast electorate within NATO. Unlike their predecessors, who faced bleaker circumstances with the courage to define their times, the current generation of national leaders barely keeps NATO on their to-do list. As in the past, only national leaders have the power and responsibility to communicate to the public the value of NATO to their national security. 

Another factor was that for the European allies, the proximity of the threat during the Cold War did a lot of the job of public diplomacy. The people of the Western democracies could clearly see walls built by the enemy to imprison their own people and the threat of tank divisions stationed along their borders. Now the political leaders of Europe are experiencing part of the challenges faced by U.S. and Canadian leaders who each election had to justify the investment of troops and treasure overseas to protect the security of their voters at home.  

The weakness of NATO public diplomacy during the Cold War was also helped by timely blunders by its external threat. Through the Berlin Blockade, the violence against the Hungarian Uprising, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the invasion of Afghanistan, martial law in Poland and many other actions, NATO’s enemy periodically reminded the people of the Alliance of what NATO was protecting them from and did so with greater volume and clarity than any Strategic Concept (whether secret or public). This factor seems linked to the element of proximity, because the voters of the Alliance appear uninformed or uninterested in the real and current threats faced today by people farther away, in places such as Georgia. 

The end of the Cold War has removed the Soviet threat and made it harder for the Alliance to inform the public about other threats to their welfare and NATO’s role in their protection. As described in the Group of Experts report, “although NATO is busier than it has ever been, its value is less obvious to many than in the past.” The job of building political will within NATO may be harder today, but it is also more necessary. 

Gen. David Petreus is beginning to win the conflict in Iraq because he understands that “the human terrain is the decisive terrain.” If NATO starts to lose the battle for the political will of its people, it will slowly fade into a hollow alliance, comprised primarily of bureaucrats and few warriors. It will then, in time, follow the WEU into the dustbin of history. If we allow that to happen, all of us will be poorer for it and in greater peril.  

Jorge Benitez is the Director of NATOSource and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. Photo credit: Getty Images.


Image: nato-legal-terrorism.jpg