NATO’s Last Stand

What stood out most in President Barack Obama’s various press conferences I watched today was the divergence between the political theater in the run-up to the NATO summit, and the political substance that underlies it.

On the political theater side, Obama acknowledged the French and German contributions to the war effort, while French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared their full support for Obama’s Afghanistan strategy. On the political substance side, Obama made it clear that France and Germany need to contribute more troops, and Sarkozy and Merkel said, Non, and Nein, respectively.

It’s not that there’s no common ground within the alliance. To begin with, there’s the strategic consensus among American and European military commands on the nature of the terrorist threat and the need for forward defense to combat it — a consensus that’s reinforced now that the Obama administration has embraced an essentially European approach to the war. The fact that Obama has conceded on NATO enlargement and European-based missile defense, and is emphasizing a reset in U.S.-Russia relations, unilaterally removes three further points of contention from the debate.

But the stark military and political divergences confronting the Alliance nevertheless strike me as very difficult to reconcile. Despite armed forces numbering collectively in the area of two million, European military capacity in terms of force projection is limited to roughly 50K. That wasn’t such a problem when NATO’s mission was to defend European soil. But it becomes very problematic now that the strategic focus of Western defense establishments has turned towards the Middle East, Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean region.

This is in some ways a problem that can’t be solved, because much of the alliance is simply dead weight in terms of military capacity. Meanwhile, those countries that can project force face very severe domestic political pressures against doing so. For all of the ambitions among European elites to construct a “Europe as global actor,” Europeans for the most part want a “Europe as super-sized Switzerland,” as Hubert Védrine often formulates it.

In the past week, I’ve read a number of interesting proposals for solving these fundamental differences. Andrew Bacevich suggested that the U.S. withdraw from NATO and leave it to the Europeans. The Polish foreign minister, and Joshcka Fischer before him, suggested inviting Russia into the alliance, to which the Russians promptly responded, No thanks. James Joyner pinned his hopes on NATO’s ability to adapt to new realities and find a new definition for its strategic mission.

I would suggest a combination of all three. Bring a scaled-down NATO back home to Europe, while maintaining U.S. security guarantees –correspondingly scaled down — within the continent. The Article 5 security blanket for Europe still serves U.S. interests, and will continue to do so until it becomes clear what kind of neighbor Russia intends on being. But if the Europeans want to venture abroad, let them do it within the EU defense structure, which can more easily include cooperative partnerships with Russia (some of which are already taking place in primordial, ad hoc ways).

The U.S.-European alliance really only makes geopolitical sense on the European continent. Elsewhere, it runs into insurmountable political, logistical and tactical problems that make it more a burden than a help.

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