A New Mission for NATO
The new war against terrorism has focused America's attention on the value of an old alliance - the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). At the same time, the war raises fresh questions about NATO's future role and the degree of its members' collective will.
Just 24 hours after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, NATO allies offered to invoke their mutual defense clause for the first time in the alliance's 52-year history. That clause, Article 5 of the 1949 Washington Treaty, says that "an armed attack against one shall be considered an attack against all" and that each member will assist the country under attack with "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force." Other treaty articles commit members to assist each other more broadly to bolster their collective defense - a pledge that potentially extends to key areas such as intelligence sharing or action against terrorist groups' finances.
NATO's Sept. 12 declaration was significant in several respects. It added immediate weight to President Bush's declaration of war against terrorism, defined the core of a growing political coalition, and underscored that terrorists had assaulted not only American cities but also a set of shared values. More important, it showed that NATO is becoming a two-way street in which America and Europehelp defend each other.
NATO's action may have puzzled some Americans. How is NATO, that Cold War bulwark against Soviet expansion, relevant to terrorism? Even NATO's founders would never have guessed that Article 5 would be invoked for the first time in response to an attack that originated east of the Urals, targeted the United States rather than Europe, and was launched by terrorists rather than a state.
NATO was created to ensure Europe's security - as it was once said, to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. But its reorientation toward terrorism and other new missions and threats has been under way for nearly a decade. The evolution began in the final years of the first Bush administration. It accelerated under President Bill Clinton, who made NATO's adaptation to the post-Cold War era both a top foreign policy priority and a signature New Democrat initiative.
Clinton believed that the United States and its allies had a unique opportunity to help create a peaceful, democratic, unified Europe for the first time in history. He launched the NATO enlargement process as part of a broader strategy to achieve that goal. But he also believed that NATO's mission had to evolve as well. He wanted the alliance to build a cooperative relationship with Russia and to reorient itself to new threats even as it maintained its core mission of collective defense. To Clinton, NATO enlargement was both the means to overcome Europe's Cold War divide and the beginning of a broader U.S.-European partnership against ethnic conflict, terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and other new threats.
This process culminated at the alliance's 50th anniversary summit in Washington in the spring of 1999. Three new members - Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary - took their seats at NATO's table. The alliance issued a sweeping new strategic concept that identified terrorism as a new threat the alliance must be willing to confront in the future. And NATO launched several initiatives to retool its conventional forces and enhance its efforts against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and other new threats. While some conservatives criticized Clinton's policy at the time, the events of Sept. 11 have underscored that his vision was correct.
The new war on terrorism raises a series of questions about NATO's future role and relevance.
1. Will NATO follow through with its rhetoric and recognize terrorism as a threat that requires a united response? Although the Sept. 12 declaration suggests it will, some European officials have grumbled to reporters that NATO invoked Article 5 too quickly. They suggest that counterterrorism is a job for the police, not the military, and note that at the 1999 summit European allies resisted U.S.efforts to explicitly name counterterrorism as a NATO mission.
This is dangerous talk. To be sure, part of the war against terrorism - such as combating money laundering and ensuring police cooperation - will take place outside of NATO. But there is a clear military component to the war against terrorism. Failure by NATO or its members to back a collective response to terror would empty Article 5 of much of its meaning and call NATO's value into question.
Thankfully, these backtracking Europeans are a minority. European support for the United States, both within and outside of NATO, has been extraordinary. In particular, the bold leadership of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the willingness of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to shoulder new military responsibilities can breathe new life into NATO's European element. And their leadership raises the possibility of revitalizing the transatlantic relationship in a way that goes beyond terrorism. But for that revitalization to occur, our allies must first be willing to use NATO to strengthen our common defenses against this new challenge, with tactics that include spending more money on their own militaries.
2. Will NATO adapt its anti-terrorism capabilities or create new ones that can be used later in this prolonged struggle? NATO brings important strengths to the war against terrorism: interoperability of forces, joint training, and compatible communications and logistics. At the same time, terrorism has not been a top NATO priority nor has it received much high-level political attention. Making it one will require political will and money. The alliance urgently needs to identify its vulnerabilities and quickly bring new capabilities on-line.
NATO is a flexible alliance; it is not necessary for each ally to contribute to the war on terrorism in the same way. There is a wide range of potential contributions: lending political support, providing special forces units to work with ours, joining "coalitions of the willing" on the ground, granting access to military facilities and overflight privileges, sharing intelligence, or cracking down on terrorist safe houses and financial activity. NATO could not exist without this flexibility.
Spurred on by the invocation of Article 5, NATO and individual NATO members already have agreed to make these very contributions. NATO also has sent airborne early warning aircraft (AWACS) fromEurope to the United States to replace American aircraft being transferred to Asia. And NATO deployed its standing naval forces to the eastern Mediterranean. Now - especially given that terrorists blur the line between the criminal and combatant - NATO also needs to do more to coordinate with civilian security agencies, especially in sharing intelligence, and to increase security at its own military facilities.
3. How will NATO define future missions and priorities in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks? Enlargement was expected to be the main topic at the NATO summit in Prague next year. That agenda undoubtedly will be revisited. The alliance's enlargement remains critical to achieving the goal of a unified Europe allied with the United States. We have a unique opportunity to lock in democracy and peace in Europe so that we can refocus our resources on new challenges elsewhere. And the dramatic comments in early October by Russian President Vladimir Putin, showing greater acceptance of NATO and its enlargement, now make it even more likely enlargement will move ahead. Yet at Prague, NATO must also find the right balance of new members and missions.
Alliance members agree that it makes no sense for NATO to intervene in far-flung conflicts, such as those in East Timor or Sierra Leone, which have only limited implications for the transatlantic area. But they also accept the propriety of NATO missions such as those in the Balkans - which lie withinEurope but beyond the alliance's borders. The question now is how to respond to threats to the collective interest that arise from beyond the transatlantic area.
The events of Sept. 11 demonstrated that dire threats to the area's peace and security can originate from anywhere in the world. NATO's original raison d'etre was collective self-defense in the event of an attack on a member's territory. That is the situation the United States is in today. The consensus that NATO can act "out of area" only within Europe must be revisited.
Nothing in NATO's charter bars collective action against a threat from afar. Moreover, members retain the sovereign right to work outside the treaty to jointly protect their security. It is entirely consistent with the alliance's founding purpose for NATO to work outside of the transatlantic area to protect its members and their core security interests.
That's not to say that NATO should coordinate every military action by any of its members anywhere in the world. Nor should NATO abandon the transatlantic area as its main theater of operations. No one is suggesting that the alliance should simply re-target from the Fulda Gap to the Khyber Pass.Rather, our European allies need to continue revamping their militaries, for example by enhancing their airlift capabilities, so that they can contribute fully when more distant threats arise.
The United States, as the alliance's leader, needs to ensure that NATO continues on its path of transformation, which has made thealliance one of the pivotal institutions of the post-Cold War world. In the coming months, the Bush administration needs to work with our allies to ensure that NATO fulfills its Sept. 12 pledge, adopts an explicit program to confront the terrorist threat, and readies itself to defend its members against attack, regardless of the sources of those attacks. If it leads this effort, the administration should and will have the support of both Republicans and Democrats.
Ronald Asmus served as deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs during the Clintonadministration. Antony Blinken served as senior director for European affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. Jeremy Rosner served as special adviser to the president and secretary of state for NATO enlargement.