NATO’s Dead, Long Live NATO

A final thought on this weekend’s NATO summit. In his WPR Briefing on the subject, Soeren Kern had this to say:

Obama put a brave face on the paltry results by saying they werea “strong down payment on the future of our mission in Afghanistan andthe future of NATO.” But
by providing only modest assistance incomparison to Obama’s 21,000-troop surge, NATO as an alliance hasessentially failed in Afghanistan. Indeed, the mission in Afghanistanis becoming increasingly Americanized: By the end of 2009, nearlytwo-thirds of the estimated 95,000 permanent foreign military personnelin Afghanistan will be American.

Not only do I think that’s right, I think that the future of NATO lies in accepting its failure in Afghanistan and moving on from it.

That means that the real battle for the alliance’s credibility lies not in the summit and Obama’s calls for troop increases, but rather in the alliance’s updated strategic vision that will now be formulated. The idea of NATO as a deployable nation-building force grew out of the 1999 summit and the alliance’s experiences in Kosovo, where NATO was the only way around a Russian UNSC veto.

After an initial urge to justify the Afghanistan mission with the Article 5 security guarantee was rebuffed by the U.S., the transnational terrorist threat was grafted onto the previous nation-building vision. The result is the emerging consensus among Western strategic planners that stabilizing failed states is the best way to address the terrorist threat.

I would argue that this hybrid vision of nation-building as national security is misguided on a strictly national level. But it is wildly misguided on a NATO-wide level, if for no other reason than that the alliance’s failure to implement it effectively in Afghanistan demonstrates that it is not a realistic objective. That, in turn, is compounded by the context of obligation that the alliance structure places around such an ambitious and ultimately unaccomplishable mission.

Instead of basing the alliance’s future on what it has historically done worst, we should base it on what it has historically done best, namely deterring attacks on European member states. In the current context in Europe, that would allow for a significantly scaled-down alliance, thereby freeing up capacity for individual states to engage in multilateral nation-building missions as they see fit.

That doesn’t mean an end to trans-Atlantic multilateralism outside of Europe. It just means it would need to find other auspices, and probably less-ambitious missions, in order to succeed.

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