NATO’s Many Challenges

I had the privilege of attending the Young Atlanticist Summit, sponsored by The Atlantic Council, during the NATO Summit last week in Chicago. It was a fascinating experience, getting to hear NATO officials discuss their plans with an oftentimes skeptical crowd. NATO tried to sell the summit as a watershed moment for the alliance – announcing new milestones in missile defense, “Smart” defense and the war in Afghanistan. But the impression it made was quite the opposite: the alliance appeared to be in strategic drift, unsure of how to proceed with dramatically curtailed resources.

Probably the biggest accomplishment NATO announced at the summit was the “interim operational capability” of its fledgling ballistic missile defense system. In English, it means that NATO now has the capacity to defend itself from a missile attack.

The big problem, however, with a missile defense capability is that Russia hates the idea. “We need to communicate to Russia that missile defense is not aimed at them,” Ellen Tauscher, special envoy for strategic stability and missile defense at the State Department, told a panel. Tauscher has a sharp eye for these things: she served in the Obama administration during the New START negotiations and still has missile defense issues at the top of her portfolio. The challenge, Tauscher noted, is that Russia still thinks missile defense is aimed its way.

That poses a serious challenge for NATO’s missile defense plans. The idea behind the system is to secure Europe from attack by Iran or some other hostile power. It’s not meant to pose a strategic threat to Russia – that is, it’s not designed to counter Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Moscow, however, has never believed that, and has responded to NATO’s expansion of its missile defense capabilities by packing Kaliningrad, a tiny sliver of land it owns nestled between Poland and Lithuania, with its own battery of missiles to threaten this new system.

NATO must work past this impasse with Russia if it wants missile defense to secure Europe, rather than destabilize it.

Smart Defense is another concept that many NATO officials discussed at length last week. The concept is based on the “pooling and sharing” of resources, as well as specialization: some countries share weapons and facilities, and others choose to specialize in narrow types of warfare. Officials underscored how European countries could save a substantial amount of money by reducing redundancy.

However, the concept is shot full of holes. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen admitted in his opening remarks that NATO has yet to find solutions for some of the problems that can arise from this pooling-and-sharing strategy, like how to resolve a dispute if only one country wants to use equipment shared with another. During the Libyan campaign, both Germany and Turkey refused to participate in the bombing mission – as a consequence, the U.S. had to provide aerial refueling aircraft for European aircraft to fly their missions.

Without addressing some very basic shortcomings in Smart Defense, NATO runs the risk of only ever being able to take action with the unwavering, unanimous consent and participation of each of the 28 member states – a virtual impossibility.

Lastly, there was much happy talk on Afghanistan. I asked a senior official in an off-the-record session how they plan to pay for Afghanistan’s security forces, which amounts to billions of dollars a year in subsidies, for at least a decade. The recent Strategic Partnership Agreement brokered at the beginning of May obligates the U.S. and NATO to fund Afghanistan’s military, but it does not specify how. Whoever is president in 2013 will have to ask Congress for funding every year – and the same is true for each NATO member state.

The official responded, rather glibly, that they planned for that. That was it. The official didn’t say what that plan was, or how they intended to convince two dozen countries with shrinking federal budgets to spend a huge amount of money on a country they had already withdrawn from. It was stunning to see a senior figure so publicly engage in magical thinking about such a critical issue.

NATO has played a hugely important role in the world – first as a bulwark against Soviet aggression in Europe and later in assisting the Eastern bloc transition to more open societies. In the 21st century, NATO has played a huge role in coordinating interventions in Afghanistan and Libya – one reason many protestors took to the streets of Chicago to protest the summit.

In the post-Afghanistan world, however, NATO seems adrift. Its budgets are shrinking – even the U.S. is facing steep defense cuts over the next few years. But NATO’s ambitions are bigger than ever, with new forms of collaborating, a thirst for more “cheap” interventions outside of Europe, and grand ideas of building a missile shield. The lofty goals on display in Chicago are bound to come crashing into the reality of a greatly reduced budget sooner or later. The big question after the summit is: how long can NATO’s self-delusions last?

Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group, and used to work as a civilian cultural advisor for the US Army. This blog originally appeared in PBS Need to Know.

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