As the NATO heads of government prepare to converge on Kehl and Strasbourgh for the Alliance’s 60th anniversary Summit, they’re facing extreme skepticism from some heavy hitters in the security policy community.


Earlier this week, CATO Institute vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Galen Carpenter published a Policy Analysis entitled, “NATO at 60: A Hollow Alliance.”  It’s worth a read in full but here’s a generous excerpt:

Although NATO has added numerous new members during the past decade, most of them possess minuscule military capabilities. Some of them also have murky political systems and contentious relations with neighboring states, including (and most troubling) a nuclear-armed Russia. Thus, NATO’s new members are weak, vulnerable, and provocative — an especially dangerous combination for the United States in its role as NATO’s leader.

There are also growing fissures in the alliance about how to deal with Russia. The older, West European powers tend to favor a cautious, conciliatory policy, whereas the Central and East European countries advocate a more confrontational, hard-line approach. The United States is caught in the middle of that intra-alliance squabble.

Perhaps most worrisome, the defense spending levels and military capabilities of NATO’s principal European members have plunged in recent years. The decay of those military forces has reached the point that American leaders now worry that joint operations with U.S. forces are becoming difficult, if not impossible. The ineffectiveness of the European militaries is apparent in NATO’s stumbling performance in Afghanistan.

NATO has outlived whatever usefulness it had. Superficially, it remains an impressive institution, but it has become a hollow shell — far more a political honor society than a meaningful security organization. Yet, while the alliance exists, it is a vehicle for European countries to free ride on the U.S.military commitment instead of spending adequately on their own defenses and taking responsibility for the security of their own region. American calls for greater burden-sharing are even more futile today than they have been over the past 60 years.

He’s joined today in the op-ed pages of two of the country’s leading papers by similar critiques.

Mark Medish, a Clinton NSC staffer, writes in today’s NYT (“NATO at 60: Save the Champagne“) that the Alliance has outlived its usefulness and “NATO should not be considered too big to fail.”  He contends that, “Even the alliance’s most ardent fans admit that it has been a failure in Afghanistan” and that its very existence creates tension with Moscow.

His proposed solution, however, seems to have been written for April Fools’ Day and published belatedly:

Instead of disbanding or expanding, a better option would be radical re-branding. It is not necessarily too late for this. Re-branding could start with a new name, such as POTATO, which would be far less neuralgic, at least in Moscow.

No doubt, the NATO name creates some issues.  But the Russians aren’t idiots; a NATO by another name would seem just as threatening.

Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army officer and professor at Boston University, takes to the Los Angeles Times (“How Do We Save NATO?  We Quit“) to recommend that President Obama turn his speech into “a valedictory address.”  While giving the Alliance’s creators their due for “a singular example of enlightened statecraft,” Bacevich, too, thinks its work has long been done.

This program of enlarging both NATO’s territorial expanse and its ambitions has now reached an impasse. Through its military punishment of Georgia last year, Russia has signaled it will not tolerate further encroachments into what the Kremlin sees as its legitimate sphere of influence. Meanwhile, through its ineffective performance in Afghanistan — NATO’s most ambitious “out of area” contingency — the alliance has revealed the extent to which its capabilities and its cohesion have eroded.

Present-day NATO is a shadow of what it once was. Calling it a successful alliance today is the equivalent of calling General Motors a successful car company — it privileges nostalgia over self-awareness.

But Bacevich comes to save NATO, not to bury it.

Salvaging NATO requires reorienting the alliance back to its founding purpose: the defense of Europe. This remains a worthy mission. Although Vladimir Putin’s Russia hardly compares with Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union, and although current Russian military capabilities pale in comparison with those of the old Red Army, the fact is that Europe today does face a security threat to its east. Having been subjected (in its own eyes at least) to two decades of Western humiliation, authoritarian Russia is by no means committed to the status quo. Given the opportunity, the Kremlin could well give in to the temptation to do mischief. NATO’s priority must be to ensure that no such opportunity presents itself, which means demonstrating an unquestioned capacity for self-defense.

The difference between 1949 and 2009 is that present-day Europe is more than capable of addressing today’s threat, without American assistance or supervision. Collectively, the Europeans don’t need U.S. troops or dollars, both of which are in short supply anyway and needed elsewhere. Yet as long as the United States sustains the pretense that Europe cannot manage its own affairs, the Europeans will endorse that proposition, letting Americans foot most of the bill. Only if Washington makes it clear that the era of free-riding has ended will Europe grow up.

Of the three, Carpenter’s critique is the hardest for defenders of the Alliance to deal with.  It’s undeniably true that most of the states of Old Europe have allowed their military capabilities to wither.  (See pages 9-11 of his brief for some sobering numbers.) Even the UK, which has always been an exception, is widely considered to have a hollowing force.  Given that the United States, depending on how one calculates such things, spends not only more than all of the other NATO countries but the entire rest of the world combined, one could well argue that the constraints that come with consensus-building aren’t worth the comparatively negligible gain in military might.

Further, if Bacevich is right and the defense of Europe is NATO’s mission, then his recommendations naturally follow.  Why should the United States, faced as it is with crippling debt, finance the defense of a continent whose economic and technological strength is on par with ours?   Then again, if the United States were to leave NATO (an option that is not, so far as I’m aware, under serious discussion among policymakers) it’s not at all clear why the defense of Europe wouldn’t simply devolve to the EU.

Barring some massive new threat, harranguing the Europeans about the need to pick up more of the burden is likely to fall on deaf ears.  And the Afghanistan experience may well be the end of out-of-area operations, at least for a while.

So, then, the question becomes:  What is NATO good for?

Do we derive benefit from the Alliance beyond its, admittedly marginal, remaining collective defense advantages?   

My new colleague Damon Wilson, director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security Program, argues yes.  “Every post-Cold War NATO summit has been accompanied by naysayers questioning the Alliance’s relevance.  Strasbourg-Kehl is no different.  But the reality is that if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.  Many critics forget that NATO is the means through which our militaries develop the standards of interoperability and habits of cooperation to ensure that our forces can work together in the field.  And the North Atlantic Council is a key venue through which we forge strategic consensus on tough security issues with our closest friends.”  

“Furthermore,” he argues, “the Alliance has demonstrated its value by transforming itself as new challenges have arisen.  At the end of the Cold War, NATO was the most effective vehicle in helping to erase past dividing lines, integrating new democracies from Central and Eastern Europe, ensuring that a region which was historically a source of instability became a contributor to security.  After Western nations mustered the political will, NATO proved to be the only institution that could bring an end to violence and genocide in the Balkans.  And as new threats to our security emerged, NATO began to develop its capabilities to defend against WMD or cyberattack.  And while European capabilities leave much room for improvement, Allied forces are able to operate far away from their homeland because the NATO defense planning process has forced Allies to adapt their militaries away from simply territorial defense to expeditionary missions.  It is simply not politically feasible for U.S. forces to undertake a major military operation without partnering with other nations.  NATO makes this easier as can be our permanent coalition of the willing.  Without NATO, Afghanistan would truly be Obama’s war.”

Damon’s right, of course.   Working with our allies is frustrating.  After all, as I’ve argued ad infinitum, NATO consists of 26 members, each of whom are sovereign nation states with unique interests, perspectives, cultures, and resources. 

But NATO is a consensus organization.  Any war we fight within NATO is a war we’d have fought, anyway.   To the extent the Allies bear any of the burden — and the death tolls in Afghanistan belie the notion that they’re not bearing any of it — it’s a blessing.   More than that, though, doing so as part of an established institution provides international legitimacy.  Frequently, as in the Balkans, it also provides a competent force to hand off long-term missions to after our interest in the conflict is has ended.

We have to sit down with our Allies and come to a consensus on what exactly NATO can do and how we will divide up that work.   But we’d be foolish to give up on an institution that has served us so well for six decades.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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