VIEW: NATO must be saved —Christoph Bertram
The alliance can claim important achievements over the past 15 years: it helped to stabilise Europe as it enlarged to 26 members, almost double the Cold War number; it kept the Balkan conflict under control; it even accepted a role in extra-European security contingencies such as Afghanistan
Whoever thought that NATO — that most successful expression of transatlantic solidarity — had found new cohesion after the divisive Iraq crisis should visit the alliance’s headquarters. True, the Istanbul summit in late June produced a veneer of harmony, and NATO headquarters is, as usual, busying itself with frequent meetings of now 26 national delegations, innumerable committees, and the mountains of printed paper it churns out. Something essential, however, is missing: NATO’s spirit. Many, if not most, of the members no longer recognise NATO as central to their national interest.
As one high official puts it, the organisation is like the old and bruised car one keeps for as long as it functions but will dump when repairs get too costly. There is still some use to be had from the old vehicle: it leads some 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, assures a fragile security in Kosovo, and may, as was decided by NATO in June, be helpful in training Iraqi forces. NATO is still nice to have around. But, with the exception of those who have only just joined, few governments on either side of the Atlantic seem to fear major disaster if it gently faded away.
That, not the falling-out among major allies over the Iraq War, is the cause for the deep crisis the modern world’s oldest and most successful alliance now finds itself in. The policy differences over America’s Iraq adventure exacerbated the crisis, but also obscured its true cause.
This explains why neither the US, nor its opponents or supporters in Europe, ever sought a thorough discussion of the operation in the NATO Council before, during, or after the Iraq war — they realised their views were already too far apart to be reconciled. That is also why the modest efforts now being undertaken by the alliance to assist America in trying to stabilise Iraq will not stitch NATO back together again.
To be sure, the US administration has now asked all of NATO for help, in marked contrast to its haughty claim only two years ago that NATO as such no longer mattered; not membership in the alliance, but a particular military mission, would henceforth define the coalition. Yet, for most of the allies, this new approach is merely tactical, a sign of Yankee pragmatism when the situation demands it, not of a change of heart on the part of the Bush administration to rebuild NATO as the central plank of the transatlantic partnership.
Nor do European governments display any such urge. Summit communiqués have become modest if wordy affairs. Even where members have committed themselves to a joint operation, as in Afghanistan, NATO’s able new Secretary General, former Dutch foreign minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has to plead for a few helicopters here, a few hundred men there, like the manager of an impoverished football association trying to put together a team.
NATO’s crisis of confidence and cohesion stems from the Cold War’s end, not from the turbulences of the Iraq War. The alliance can claim important achievements over the past 15 years: it helped to stabilise Europe as it enlarged to 26 members, almost double the Cold War number; it kept the Balkan conflict under control; it even accepted a role in extra-European security contingencies such as Afghanistan. But NATO has failed the most important test, namely to ensure that its members continue to see its success as essential to their interests.
That they no longer do so is deeply disturbing. It reflects less on the shortcomings of the organisation than on the shortsightedness of its members. True, their security from military attack is currently no longer at stake. But NATO is more than just a defence pact.
Like no other institution, NATO embodies Atlantic cohesion, something that remains essential for any Western effort to promote a degree of international order. NATO links Europe to the world’s most powerful country and uniquely ties the United States to a common procedure of consultation and cooperation. Moreover, it is the only organisation capable of generating international military operations for the many stability-building tasks that lie ahead.
European governments, therefore, are crazy not to support NATO. To watch it wither is at best frivolous, at worst dangerous. Instead of blaming the Bush administration and hoping for a change of government in the US, European members need to make NATO their own concern again. This does not imply kowtowing to every American view and whim or foregoing efforts to strengthen European defence cooperation. It does mean undertaking to make NATO again the place where both sides of the Atlantic develop a common approach to the dangers of this world.
Unfortunately, most European governments merely shrug their shoulders when the issue is raised. That dangerous indifference is the most serious sign of NATO’s crisis. —DT-PS
Christoph Bertram is Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin