NATO’s Future:  Realism Required

Bob Gates NATO Speech

In his speech on revising the NATO Strategic Concept, Defense Secretary Bob Gates termed European reluctance to adequately staff its militaries and shoulder a proportionate share of the operational burden "an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace."

Gates charged the Allies have "underinvested in collective defense for over a decade." He attributed this to "a larger cultural and political trend" of mixed blessing.

One of the triumphs of the last century was the pacification of Europe after ages of ruinous warfare. But, as I’ve said before, I believe we have reached an inflection point, where much of the continent has gone too far in the other direction. The demilitarization of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st. Not only can real or perceived weakness be a temptation to miscalculation and aggression, but, on a more basic level, the resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together to confront shared threats.

But Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich — a West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, and retired colonel whose son was killed fighting in Iraq in 2007 — disagrees.  Not only is European pacifism largely a good thing, he argues, but the United States should get out of NATO entirely.

This pacification of Europe is quite likely to prove irreversible. Yet even if reigniting an affinity for war among the people of, say, Germany and France were possible, why would any sane person even try? Why not allow Europeans to busy themselves with their never-ending European unification project? It keeps them out of mischief.

Washington, however, finds it difficult to accept this extraordinary gift — purchased in part through the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers — of a Europe that has laid down its arms. Instead, successive U.S. administrations have pushed, prodded, cajoled, and browbeaten European democracies to shoulder a heavier share of responsibility for maintaining world order and enforcing liberal norms.


The allies have not proven accommodating. True, NATO has gotten bigger — there were 16 member states 20 years ago, 28 today — but growth has come at the expense of cohesion. Once an organization that possessed considerable capability, NATO today resembles a club that just about anyone can join, including, most recently, such military powerhouses as Albania and Croatia.


The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe — today, as always, a U.S. general — still presides in splendor over NATO’s military headquarters in Belgium. Yet SACEUR wields about as much clout as the president of a decent-sized university. He is not a commander. He is a supplicant. SACEUR’s impressive title, a relic of World War II, is merely an honorific, akin to calling Elvis the King or Bruce the Boss.

Afghanistan provides the most important leading indicator of where Washington’s attempt to nurture a muscle-flexing new NATO is heading; it is the decisive test of whether the alliance can handle large-scale, out-of-area missions. And after eight years, the results have been disappointing. Complaints about the courage and commitment of NATO soldiers have been few. Complaints about their limited numbers and the inadequacy of their kit have been legion. An immense complicating factor has been the tendency of national governments to impose restrictions on where and how their forces are permitted to operate. The result has been dysfunction.

Bacevich’s preferred approach is to recognize this state of affairs as an unchangeable reality and leave the Europeans and NATO to provide a bulwark against Russian aggression: "have the citizens of France and Germany guarantee the territorial integrity of Poland and Lithuania, instead of fruitlessly demanding that Europeans take on responsibilities on the other side of the world that they can’t and won’t."

World Politics Review editor Judah Grunstein doesn’t go that far, but he, too, sees Gates’ vision as unrealistic.

Europeans will never adequately provide for their own defense so long as the moral hazard for not doing so is generously covered by the U.S.

Another reason it’s unrealistic is that, despite the "forward defense" consensus among Western strategic planners, and notwithstanding the fact that NATO’s next Strategic Concept is likely to extend the alliance’s out-of-theater role for another 10 years, this is a posture that will exist on paper only. Politically speaking, Europe is finished with the kind of nation-building/counterinsurgency intervention represented by Afghanistan. In fact, the only way that European opinion was sold on the Afghanistan war was because it was passed off as the kind of humanitarian, peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilization mission that Europeans are comfortable with.

If nothing else, Bacevich and Grunstein are right about the prospects of a sizable increase in European burden sharing.  Of the Allies with the financial wherewithal to field and equip militarily significant forces, only the Brits have a political culture that would plausibly support an expanded role absent some urgent new threat.  And even the UK is, to say the least, weary from the fights in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, while Americans can exhort Europeans to do more, the response is likely to be roughly what it’s been for the last three decades or so.

That said, the Allies have been reasonably enthusiastic about certain types of missions.   As Gates himself noted, all one must do is "consider the types of missions undertaken by NATO over the last two decades – from Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Kosovo, to counter-terrorism in the Mediterranean and counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden, to the massive, multi-faceted stability, reconstruction, and counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan."    Only the last of these has generated significant resistance in Europe.   And, interestingly, the first three were carried out with the Americans kicking and screaming and the Europeans shouldering the lion’s share of the load.

The new Strategic Concept must not only consider the likely threats that the Alliance will face and how it might best restructure to cope with them but also what missions it can reasonably be expected to perform. Just because taking on another Afghanistan-style mission is unlikely, doesn’t mean that the Alliance can’t take on counter-piracy, counter-terrorism, anti-proliferation, missile defense, cybersecurity, and other vital roles. 

In other words, let’s focus on what the Europeans will do rather than on what they’re not doing.

Gates’ vision of NATO as an American-style fighting force is unrealistic but following Bacevich’s proposal to morph it into a rump security force would be a waste of a great resource cultivated over decades. 

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. Photo: Getty Images.

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