NATO: Out of Area, Not Out of Business

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NATO has been called the most durable, long-lasting, and highly institutionalized alliance in history. Child of the Cold War, it was born in 1949 to tie Western Europe, the US and Canada together to face an emerging Soviet threat. It added Greece and Turkey in 1952, and the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955. German entry into NATO signaled its return to the international system and the real as well as symbolic healing of the Western European wounds caused by World War II -- at the same time as it sharpened the divisions with Russia and Eastern Europe, who responded by creating the Warsaw Pact.

NATO's central objective was to deter the overwhelmingly superior Soviet-bloc conventional forces from attacking the vulnerable and inviting territories to the west. It adopted the doctrine of collective defense against a possible Soviet probe, and article 5 of its charter committed all its members to come to the aid of any member suffering external aggression. In reality, the guarantee of defense and the brunt of deterrence were carried by the US nuclear shield and the "trip-wire" American forces stationed in Germany.

During its first decades, the United States played the dominant role in funding, and agenda setting, of the Atlantic Alliance, much to the chagrin of France's Charles de Gaulle, who grew increasingly uneasy with American dominance and the US-UK "special relationship,"and questioned America's commitment to use nuclear weapons to defend Western Europe against Soviet invasion. That led to development of the independent French nuclear deterrent, and to French withdrawal from the integrated NATO military command while staying an alliance member.

From the outset, NATO's purpose was strictly defensive: to "contain" the Soviet bloc, specifically forbidding "out of area" operations by NATO troops. In an era of balanced nuclear terror and managed tension, NATO and the Warsaw Pact held their ground given the paralyzing threat of mutual nuclear annihilation. Over the next four decades, having added post-Franco-Spain to its ranks in 1982, NATO successfully blocked any Soviet temptation to invade Western Europe. The implosion of the Soviet Union and its dependencies in Eastern Europe vindicated George Kennan's prescient prophecy that an effectively contained Soviet Union would "mellow from within."

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, a number of analysts on both sides of the Atlantic rushed to prepare eloquent obituaries for the Western Alliance. Others searched the horizon for new threats that were bound to fill the vacuum of a post-communist transition in Eurasia. A smaller group argued that NATO's major purpose had always been and would continue to be an institutional bridge linking the two pillars of democracy on both sides of the Atlantic. They believed that a drifting apart of Western Europe from the United States would have dangerous repercussions for the cohesiveness and stability of the post-Cold War international system that was beginning to emerge.

For a brief period in the 1990s the world's attention shifted to the Balkans and the wars of succession leading to the dismembering of the former Yugoslavia. NATO thinking, in an effort to adjust to new circumstances, shifted toward a change of mission from "collective defense" to "collective security" that justified "out of area" engagements in the alliance's near periphery. As a result of this shift, NATO carried out extensive military operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo (including bombing Milosevic's Serbia) and an initial stabilizing presence in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. This was a foretaste of the kinds of instability that could result from fragile or failed states, presaging current situations in Darfur, Somalia, Afghanistan, and perhaps soon in Pakistan and elsewhere in Central Asia.

Concurrently, the new "asymmetric threats" of international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, illegal immigration, energy scarcity and environmental degradation rose in importance in the eyes of strategic planners on both sides of the Atlantic. Copying the European Union, NATO began a rapid enlargement (from 16 to the current 28) by inviting former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Czech Republic and former Soviet Republics such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to join the alliance. Needless to say, Russia is unhappy with what it probably considers a new form of "containment," especially in light of potential admission of Ukraine and Georgia.

After 9/11 NATO went through yet one more existential adventure. For the first time in its history NATO members unanimously invoked article 5 of the alliance charter, declaring that the attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon was an attack on them all. But the Bush administration, operating on a strictly unilateralist agenda, did not embrace its NATO allies' offer. Instead, following the initially successful uprooting of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the controversial decision was made to invade Iraq to accomplish "regime change" and eliminate Saddam Hussein.. American unilateralism polarized Euro-Atlantic relations by separating skeptical Germany and France from Britain and the newly democratic East European states that symbolically rushed to join President Bush's "coalition of the willing."

Gradually after the 2004 rupture, and accelerating after the election of Barack Obama, the two pillars of Atlantic democracy are beginning again to coalesce on shared views. The NATO mission in Afghanistan and its planned European augmentation seems to be legitimizing "out of area" activities based on collective security instead of collective defense. For decades the US has complained about "burdensharing," feeling that the Europeans were not contributing enough manpower, equipment and defense expenditures proportionate to their financial capabilities. For their part, the European members of the alliance have consistently called for greater consultation and a genuine share in alliance decision-making. In this light, French President Nicolas Sarkozy's decision to rejoin the NATO military structures is doubly significant.

Sixty years on, the North Atlantic Alliance is far from the pungent declaration of its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, that NATO's goal was to "keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." Much is made onboth sides of the Atlantic of the shared history and values that bind the Western democracies together. Yet, as Richard Betts of Columbia University pointed out in a recent article in The National Interest, that is but one of the three competing NATO personalities - the others being "the enforcer, the pacifier of conflicts beyond the region's borders," and "the residual function of an anti-Russia alliance."

It is these latter two that still pose divisive questions for the alliance members: How to define NATO's collective security interests in the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central and Southwest Asia? Given the current economic and financial conditions, how to spread "burden sharing" more equitably among members whose populations are suffering economically and whose governments are afraid of running out of money? How to deal with the prickly Russian Medvedev/Putin regime, of whose shadow Eastern Europe is still fearful, and on whose energy resources all Europe depends?

Ever agile, Russia seeks to exploit these differences by calling for a new "European security architecture" to replace the "Cold War relics," by asserting its sphere of influence in the "near abroad", and by playing an ambiguous role with Iran. But at the same time, it is extending cooperation with the NATO's Afghan mission. And its call for renewed negotiations on nuclear weapons was echoed enthusiastically by the Obama Administration.

Redefining NATO roles in light of "collective security" will prove most fruitful, for that allows identification of common interests and joint actions that go far beyond the military to embrace environmental, economic, health, and energy issues. Here the institutional framework established by the Atlantic Alliance and other international organizations ranging from the G-20 to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change provide forums not only for discussion, but also for hammering out concerted action.

This emerging role for NATO was underscored by the declaration issued after this month's 60th anniversary summit in Strasbourg, emphasizing that NATO "nations and the world are facing new, increasingly global threats." and that members' "security is increasingly tied to that of other regions." It called for increased cooperation with other international actors "to improve our ability to deliver a comprehensive approach to meeting these new challenges."

In some cases, such as combating piracy off the Horn of Africa or the Taliban in Afghanistan, this newly defined role is apparent. It has yet to be seen in other troubled regions, such as Pakistan, which could clearly benefit from coordinated attention and action. And it could underpin any true Middle East settlement with joint guarantees of a true two-state solution.

Theodore Couloumbis is vice president of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and professor emeritus at the University of Athens, Greece; Bill Ahlstrom is an executive at a US multinational; Gary Weaver is professor at American University’s School of International Service; these views are their own.
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