NATO is heading for the exits in Afghanistan, even though the mission of rehabilitating the very country that spawned 9/11 is far from accomplished. That’s not the only sign that the venerable alliance is in the midst of a major retrenchment, if not a large-scale retreat. In Syria, NATO has remained doggedly uninvolved, even though Syria’s inferno is scorching NATO member Turkey and has spawned chemical-weapons attacks. In Mali, NATO allowed France to go it alone. In the increasingly-contested Arctic, which borders five NATO members, NATO has backed away from earlier commitments to play a direct role in securing the oil-rich region. And all across the alliance, governments are cutting their defense budgets and gutting their militaries.
The irony is that not long ago, NATO was poised to become what President George W. Bush called “an expeditionary alliance” capable of exporting stability to the world’s trouble spots. Indeed, in the decade after the 9/11 attacks, NATO deployed aircraft to North America as part of its Article V all-for-one commitments, marched into Afghanistan, formed the basis of an international armada to intercept WMDs, combatted piracy off the Horn of Africa, transported African Union peacekeepers, trained Iraqi soldiers, delivered equipment to Central Asia, prevented a Bosnia-style (or if you prefer, Syria-style) bloodletting in Libya, and assisted Estonia after crippling cyber-attacks. Some observers saw in these post-Cold War missions the outlines of a global NATO on call to intervene where the UN can’t or won’t.
But today, NATO is more interested in offloading missions than shouldering new ones. As NATO’s will tapers and its resources shrink, NATO’s global reach and role will follow a similar trajectory. Where that trajectory ultimately leads NATO—back to focusing on deterrence or into irrelevance—remains to be seen.
The signs are not good. NATO’s big idea post-Afghanistan is actually a collection of small ideas. NATO calls it “Smart Defense.” Under Smart Defense, the alliance designates a member to take the lead in shepherding others toward a function-related goal like improving logistics, enhancing ISR, expanding force-protection capability or clearing mines—not exactly stuff for the history books. Just compare Smart Defense with earlier NATO efforts: In1999, NATO pledged to make “full use of every opportunity to build an undivided continent,” underscoring its commitment to that goal by adding Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In 2002, the alliance committed to the fight against terrorism and WMDs—and invited seven new members into the fold. The headlines from NATO’s 2008 summit included formal membership invitations to Croatia and Albania, plus endorsement of an alliance-wide missile defense.
In short, Smart Defense is a low-risk, low-yield program for a NATO with lowered sights and lowered expectations.
Yet another indication that NATO’s role and relevance are shrinking can be found in the storylines from Afghanistan and Libya.
In Libya, without the United States in the lead, NATO was found woefully lacking in munitions, targeting and jamming capabilities, mid-air refueling planes, reconnaissance platforms, drones, and command-and-control assets—just about everything needed to conduct a 21st-century air war. Moreover, after toppling Qaddafi from 20,000 feet, NATO steered clear of the post-Qaddafi mess on the ground, taking a markedly different approach than in Bosnia, Kosovo or Afghanistan.
Given what happened in Afghanistan, perhaps it’s easy to understand why the alliance limited its role in Libya and averted its gaze from Syria. If NATO’s withdrawal is ignominious—what word better describes the spectacle of the richest, most technologically advanced, most powerful countries on earth being outlasted and outwitted by a ragtag collection of tribes and clans?—then most of what transpired during its decade-plus mission in Afghanistan is downright disheartening. It would be laughable had the stakes not been so high.
After all, Italy didn’t allow its fighter-bombers in Afghanistan to carry bombs. Germany required its troops to shout warnings to enemy forces—in three languages—before opening fire. Certain allies invoked what NATO euphemistically calls “caveats” to steer clear of Afghanistan’s restive regions. Most NATO members had to hitch a ride with the U.S. Air Force or rent Soviet-era transports to deploy.
Just as disappointing, NATO’s military commanders had to beg for more troops to support the Afghanistan mission. In fact, the United States contributed 71 percent of the force, and non-NATO members Australia, Georgia and Sweden had more troops deployed than Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal—all founding members of the alliance.
It pays to recall that Afghanistan was an Article V operation—the first in NATO’s history—but the gravity of that was apparently lost on some allies.
NATO is an alliance, meaning its members are supposed to be on the same team. That was called into question yet again by the recent transatlantic surveillance flap, which spawned angry charges from European politicians that the United States was spying on its allies—charges that were sternly rebuffed by countercharges from U.S. intelligence officials that European intelligence agencies were actually doing the snooping and then sharing the intel with their American counterparts. The episode served only to splinter the alliance and weaken intelligence gathering on both sides of the Atlantic by revealing the existence and methods of ongoing operations.
NATO’s inability to deploy and fight once deployed is largely a function of insufficient defense spending going back many years.
As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has noted, NATO’s European armies “have been chronically starved for adequate funding for a long time.” For instance, during the 1999 Kosovo War—long before the era of austerity ushered in by the Great Recession—just 10 percent of NATO’s European combat aircraft were capable of precision bombing. Total European defense spending shrunk by 15 percent in the decade after 9/11, meaning Europe’s deficit of will perversely coincides with the first and only time the alliance has invoked Article V.
Europe’s defense capabilities are shrinking accordingly: Britain is cutting troop strength by 10 percent and retiring 40 percent of its main battle tanks. France is cutting 34,000 military personnel over the next five years.Italy is cutting 10,000 troops and cancelling orders for warships and fighter aircraft. Germany is reducing civilian and military numbers by 90,000 and slashing its fighter-bomber fleet.
NATO’s defense cuts today might make sense if peace were breaking out on NATO’s borderlands. But we know the very opposite to be true.
Iran’s nuclear-weapons program continues apace. Terrorist networks like al-Qaeda are expanding their influence in Syria, Iraq and North Africa—NATO’s European doorstep. The Arab Spring has triggered a cycle of re-revolution in strategic countries like Egypt. And as NATO declaws itself, Russia—in the midst of a 65-percent increase in military spending, with plans to deploy 2,300 new tanks, 600 new warplanes, 400 new ICBMs and 28 new submarines in the next decade—is making claims in the Arctic and carrying out provocative maneuvers and weapons deployments in areas bordering NATO states.
Some observers argue that NATO’s far-flung post-Cold War missions are evidence that NATO overreached and outlived its raison d’être. President Reagan was never in that camp. In 1992, with the Cold War won, Reagan called on NATO to “reinvent itself to deal with the kind of inhumane situations we now see,” pointing to the alliance as “an antidote to chaos.” Ever the visionary, Reagan recognized that by evolving, NATO could play a stabilizing role beyond its membership footprint. In Bosnia, Kosovo, across Eastern Europe, and in the niche roles key allies played from Africa to the Gulf of Aden to Central Asia, NATO proved its worth in the post-Cold War world. Indeed, despite its flaws, the post-Cold War NATO served as a readymade structure where Washington could build coalitions of the willing, a vital bridge to global hotspots, a force-multiplier for U.S. power.
NATO can still do that. However, if there is no will and no money for the alliance to become an antidote to global chaos, then NATO should jettison dreams of evolving into an expeditionary alliance, return to a more static, Cold War-style mission, and focus on defending NATO’s territory and deterring NATO’s would-be foes (e.g., Russia in the Arctic and Eastern Europe, Iran and other missile-armed rogues capable of threatening the North Atlantic area, jihadist groups operating in areas bordering the Mediterranean). Toward that end, there are several strategic items NATO can address:
• Preventing miscalculation and deterring war. After focusing on low-intensity counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan for a decade, the allies may have lost their deterrent edge, which makes NATO’s recent announcement of “major live exercises on a regular basis, with a broader scope and covering the full range of alliance missions” so important. This month, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania will host NATO’s largest live-fire, high-end military exercise in eight years. The size, scale and location of the maneuvers—stretching across two former Soviet republics and a former Soviet satellite—send a clear message about NATO’s commitment to Eastern Europe.
• Making missile defense credible. To mollify Moscow, the Obama administration unilaterally scrapped the Bush administration’s missile-defense plans for Europe—plans that had been approved by NATO. Instead of planting a permanent ground-based defense in Poland and radars in the Czech Republic, the Obama administration proposed deploying missile-defense warships to the Mediterranean and temporary, land-based variants of the sea-based system in Eastern Europe. But this watered-down version of missile defense gained nothing from Moscow, fractured relations within NATO and provided less protection from Iran’s growing arsenal.
• Reaching the 2-percent threshold. Two years ago, just five NATO members met the alliance’s standard of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. NATO’s latest financial report indicates only three meet that standard today. The United States should lead an alliance-wide effort to help each member develop an action plan to lift their defense budgets to the 2-percent standard by a date certain. Washington should lead by example by reversing sequestration’sdisastrous cuts.
• Reviving Article V. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty is the backbone of the alliance, committing all members to the defense of a member that has been attacked. Yet Norwegian Minister of Defense Espen Barth Eide warns that “Article V is not in good shape” and worries about NATO’s ability “to deliver if something happens in the transatlantic theater of a more classical type of aggression”—and understandably so given NATO’s weakening defenses and weakening resolve in certain episodes in Afghanistan. If NATO’s members do not take Article V seriously, neither will NATO’s enemies.