By Harlan Ullman
A recent half-day conference at a major Washington, D.C. think tank on “ the budget and U.S. defense strategy” was most telling for what was dramatically omitted from a wide-ranging discussion. Not until the final question had NATO been once mentioned. And when the questioner asked about the future of NATO, the distinguished panel including a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense had little to say, a stunning confirmation that America’s traditional transatlantic bond with Europe was in trouble.
NATO has been the centerpiece for the defense of the West since its establishment on April 4th, 1949 in Washington, D.C. A military alliance to counter the military threat posed by the Soviet Union, the original membership of twelve grew to seventeen over time. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union led to a major expansion of the alliance east with the accession of former Soviet satellites to the current twenty-eight members.
Ironically, the demise of the Soviet Union posed a potentially existential dilemma for NATO: how to sustain a military alliance when the military threat for which it was created to counter had disappeared? NATO turned to expansion of membership and “out of area” roles for its raison d’etre. Indeed, no less a NATO advocate than former Senator Richard Lugar could argue in the 1990’s, “out of area or out of business.” Out of area meant that Western security had to be more broadly based than on the direct defense of Europe from a military attack.
NATO was engaged in the Balkans since the 1990’s. After the September 11th attacks on America, for the first time in its history Article V, the linchpin of the alliance — “an attack against one was an attack against all” —-was invoked. Meant to deter the Soviet Union, the alliance found itself at war in far away Afghanistan, something the alliance’s founding fathers would have deemed impossible or insane. Interestingly, Brussels, NATO’s headquarters, is closer geographically to Kabul than it is to Washington!
With the pivot of Barack Obama’s administration to Asia, the reduction of American forces in Europe and what could be a downgrading of the European Command, NATO and Europe have become lesser priorities. Perhaps the last hurrah was the Libyan intervention. NATO’s European member states have likewise turned inwards to focus on economic and financial crises and problems. Given these realities, the ironclad rule of obtaining “consensus,” meaning unanimous agreement by all NATO members prior to taking action that guarantees a surfeit of gridlock and cuts to its collective defense capability and spending, the question of whether the alliance is relevant or has become a relic remains untouched and unanswered. NATO continues to avoid confronting this fundamental contradiction head-on.
Hence, NATO RIP is a good starting point for discussion. RIP has other meanings. Empowered with strategic thinking, creativity and energy, RIP can become shorthand for “Rejuvenation, Insurance and Protection.” Unfortunately, this White House has largely ignored NATO along with the opportunity to rejuvenate the alliance for the 21st century. One hopes this dismissal is not irreversible.
The basic argument for NATO is so obvious it is often ignored. Western security depends on cohesion and solidarity of like-minded states to use collective power for the common good. There are no major military threats to the alliance. Dangers are to individuals and their well-being whether through acts of terror or manmade and natural disruptions and not to the survival of the state. Retaining a viable NATO then is important if only as an insurance policy. But insurance policies are not without expense.
NATO’s purpose must be recast from a predominately military to a broader political-military alliance in which the amount of defense spending is far less important than maintaining and sustaining alliance cohesion and the ability of the various militaries to operate together. Decades ago, Lord Ismay remarked quite pointedly that NATO was about keeping the Germans down, the Americans in and the Russians out. Today, NATO is about keeping Europe safe, America in, Russia with and danger out.
Unfortunately, aside from occasional lip service, NATO has few strong advocates outside certain east European members still neuralgic about Russia. One is British Chief of Defense Staff, General Sir David Richards who has directed UK forces to establish closer ties with NATO. On this side of the Atlantic, the NATO cupboard is nearly bare.
Secretary of State-designate John Kerry and Secretary of Defense-designate Chuck Hagel fully appreciate the vital importance of NATO. The test will be providing necessary incentives to sustain and rejuvenate this most critical foundation for Western security. Convincing President Obama of this priority and slowing the pivot to Asia is a good first step.
Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business and Senior Advisor at Washington DC’s Atlantic Council.