Longstanding challenges shouldn't obscure NATO's progress
WASHINGTON -- Two years into the Obama administration, initially high expectations about the future of the transatlantic relationship have given way to growing pessimism. NATO is part of this narrative. There is a widespread consensus that the Nov. 19-20 NATO Lisbon Summit will leave many issues unresolved. Among other things, the shadow of Afghanistan is expected to hang over the meeting. NATO is indeed facing daunting challenges. It has yet to solve convincingly the question that has bedeviled it since the end of the Cold War: how to remain relevant in a world in which not just Europe, but the West as a whole, seem set to become less central to global developments. This longstanding challenge, however, should not obscure the progress that has been made. In fact, upon careful consideration, the Lisbon Summit will likely present a mixed bag of achievements and open questions. First, the summit will deliver a new “strategic concept” for the alliance, representing a mission statement for the next ten years. The previous strategic document dates to 1999. Since then, the alliance has been confronted with 9/11, a divisive war in Iraq, and an ensuing “transatlantic crisis” during which respected observers declared NATO to be “nearly dead” while others proclaimed the “end of the West.”
The new strategic concept will be a compromise, frequently papering over differences among the allies. It is nonetheless significant that NATO has been able to reach such a compromise without apparent internal strain. In the latest version, allies will agree that NATO’s foundation remains the security of its members. Not only have Europeans and Americans made military conflict among them unthinkable, they have also expanded this area of almost inherent peace so that it now includes most of Central and Eastern Europe and is in the process of incorporating the Balkans. In 1999, this initiative had only just begun and its outcome was far from certain. Transatlantic allies also agree that the definition of Western security in the globalizing world of the 21st century has broadened. It now includes unconventional threats such as terrorist and cyber attacks. This means that NATO must also address threats originating from outside the Euroatlantic area, which is why NATO should be equipped to intervene beyond its borders, although the exact characteristics of NATO as an expeditionary alliance remain debatable.
This leads to Afghanistan. It is difficult to present Afghanistan as a success story at this point. But is the transatlantic relationship the problem? Until recently, it was common to hear that NATO’s very survival was at stake in Afghanistan, but nobody really believes that now. NATO will survive even if the mission does not achieve all of its objectives; much will depend on how these objectives are defined. While it is true that Europeans were less convinced of the need of a large-scale military enterprise, most of them did participate in the surge. They are now focused on a transition strategy to return sovereignty to the Afghans. But this is true also for the United States, where polls suggest that a growing numbers of Americans would like to see the mission in Afghanistan brought to an end. The U.S. government is debating whether a massive military presence in Afghanistan is sustainable and makes strategic sense given al-Qaeda’s transnational presence.
Afghanistan will hold several lessons for NATO, but the key point is a larger one on the limits of military-backed nation-building and asymmetric warfare. One area in which the transatlantic allies seem interested in working together is missile defense. In Lisbon, NATO leaders are expected to endorse the Obama administration’s “flexible adaptive approach,” and make ballistic missile defense for all of NATO a common mission. While assuaging Turkey’s concerns in this regard, there are also attempts to get Russia involved. It is significant that a NATO-Russia Council will be held in Lisbon to discuss possible Western-Russian joint efforts in missile defense as well as critical areas of existing cooperation such as Afghanistan and Iran. A challenge for NATO is actually to build on the recent U.S.-Russian rapprochement to overcome existing difficulties in relations within Europe. Russian and Western approaches to European security do remain different, but there is a growing recognition that Europe will never be secure until Russia becomes a stakeholder in its stability.
If only for opportunistic reasons, Moscow seems to agree — the economic crisis has dramatically revealed the degree of Russia’s interdependence with the West. The economy is indeed among the greatest current challenges for NATO. Massive defense budget cuts in several NATO countries pose a problem for the alliance as it moves forward. The opportunity side of this equation is to finally approve a serious internal reform of the organization. Austerity also revives the debate on the relationship between power-sharing and burden-sharing, this time at the global level. One element of progress made in the past few years is NATO’s approach to partnerships. While the “global NATO” vision has lost appeal, the idea of NATO as the hub of a network of security relations has gained support. Some NATO officials have called it, emphatically, “a new era of partnerships.” More modestly, partnerships seem to offer a practical way for NATO to remain relevant, and possibly even a leader, in a world that is more pluralistic.
Emiliano Alessandri is Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Mediterranean Policy Program in Washington.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.