The Lost Alliance: NATO in Chicago

2012 NATO Summit in Chicago logo

A ship is adrift in a foggy sea. The crew are in their bunks, the officers argue about their mortgages, and the captain has left.

The captain has left because the United States no longer believes NATO can contribute significantly against any serious global strategic challenges. An occasional bit player, yes: a partner with the will and capability to contribute significantly, no.

The officers don’t care because this generation of European leaders no longer thinks strategically. They are lulled by a cloudy security environment, divided by national priorities, and buried under the stream of short term concerns. (Of which the pending meltdown of the eurozone admittedly is an existential challenge.)

And the crew are in their bunks because European NATO cannot deploy more than 5 percent of the 1.7 million European troops costing over $260 billion annually. Even Europe’s limited Libyan operation only happened because the United States provided the electronic jamming, air defense suppression, 80 percent of the fuel, and most of the crucial surveillance, airborne refuelling and precision bombs.

NATO–or more specifically European NATO–has been overwhelmed by globalization. The problem is not external challenges but the inability of the European allies to adapt coherently to a globalizing security environment. The result is a lost alliance: unable to orient itself, unable to look forward, unable to specify vital strategic interests beyond basic platitudes, unable to agree which future threats to focus on, and unable to generate military forces capable of adressing them. Instead, NATO has gone into denial and fiddles with details.

And thus Chicago. None of the three big Summit baskets–Afghanistan, future capabilities, and strengthened partnerships–are strategic. Difficult and important, yes; but strategic, no. The two truly strategic concerns that the summit adressed were both kept at the margins: extended US nuclear deterrence for European NATO and cybersecurity. But these are largely US driven and funded, and with less than 200 ageing gravity bombs remaining in Europe compared to over 2,000 Russian theatre nukes, including the ongoing deployment of latest generation Iskander missiles, the poor state of NATO’s nuclear deterrence overshadows the Summit’s TMD commitment. Apart from this all we got was a substrategic agenda for a substrategic alliance.

Afghanistan is urgent and difficult, but no longer strategic. First because we have lost Afghanistan. The ISAF social engineering effort was doomed from the outset and we no longer have the will or money to prop up this illusion. Second because Afghanistan no longer matters. The only serious reason why we invaded Afghanistan–to break a sanctuary from which existential terrorist attacks could be mounted against us–has been overtaken by events. The nascent US global decapitation program of the last decade has surged beyond belief and is now replacing the need for never-ending stabilization and reconstruction campaigns. A refocussed US intelligence community, the massive growth in US global special forces capabilities, and US technological revolutions in global robot sensor systems (of which the headline-grabbing UAV’s are less remarkable than the minute Continuous Clandestine Tagging, Tracking and Locating systems-) provides the United States with an increasingly potent capability to take out terrorist networks anywhere in the world. For better or worse, and largely unremarked, decapitation and barriers are replacing root causes, human security, and COIN. The potency and significance of this global shadow war is such that it warrants adding a sixth wing to the Pentagon. It has also emerged largely independently of NATO.

What remains regarding Afghanistan are operational challenges: preventing the retreat from becoming a rout and trying to prevent what we leave behind from becoming too embarrassing too quickly. Daunting tasks, but strategically marginal.

The second Chicago agenda item,future capabilities, is strategic but cannot be achieved with the present European mindset. Transforming European Dumb Defense into Smart Defense is crucial to meet future challenges and bring Europe back as a serious part of the Alliance. But without an explicit Alliance agreement on what sort of aggregate military capability NATO needs there will be no strategic results, just a patchwork of pooling and sharing programs. Sadly, there is currently no other way. Adressing the first-order issues now would probably split the Alliance, and so we do what we can. Laudable but not strategic.

The third agenda item, NATO’s partnerships, is substrategic for three reasons.

First is the two countries that are strategic but where we cannot expect strategic results. Russia is a serious and growing strategic challenge but a dubious partner that regularly talks and walks in an outrageously hostile manner. Pakistan is a ticking strategic disaster which only a diplomat could still describe as a partner. Neither will yield any breakthroughs soon and though transit is important it is not strategic.

Second are countries that could be strategic partners but are too important for NATO. Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand can make noticeable global contributions, but as long as NATO has no clear global strategy their potential in NATO is hobbled. Nor does the US — which has a global vision — need NATO to partner with them, as the bilateral basing and cooperation agreements with Australia illustrate. Nor is it clear why the US would want to burden its global arrangements by involving bickering NATO.

Third are the substrategic European partnerships. EU-NATO could be strategic if the EU was a strategic actor or could deliver anything other than dialogues. But after so many years, so much effort, and so few results no one bothers to believe anymore. Finally there are the little partners. Armenia, Finland, Kyrghyzstan, Sweden and more are convenient and useful but not strategic. They cannot bicker like Members, they must try twice as hard just to get a back seat and they offer degrees of diplomatic, military, and territorial support. A mixed bag, often competent and useful, but strategic they are not.

And that was Chicago. Big progress on secondary issues with a lot of embarrassed elephants in the room and headlines that were more interested in the protests than on the Summit. It’s not funny because in the coming decades the Atlantic community will need NATO. And the lost Europeans will need it the most.

Tomas Ries is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group, and is a senior lecturer at the National Defence College Sweden. This piece is part of a series of New Atlanticist pieces on NATO’s 2012 Chicago Summit.

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