The High Stakes NATO Summit

Back in February, the Foreign Policy Association’s Curt Ricci wondered whether Afghanistan would turn out to be the giant-slayer that brought down both the Warsaw Pact and NATO in the space of a generation. At the time, Robert Gates was busy browbeating the alliance to poney up more troops for the Afghanistan mission:

NATO is a collective security agreement, a military alliance. The members have signed up with certain obligations in this regard. But if it were to become the case that some allies are not prepared to fulfill their military obligations, while others continue to do so, I think that that is a very dangerous situation for the future of the alliance.

There’s a lot at stake when the NATO summit kicks off in Bucharest tomorrow. According to Le Monde, the diplomatic mise-en-scene for a French offer of additional troops has already been carefully scripted. But the offer will be contingent on a reinforcement of the humanitarian effort there, as well as certain quid pro quos regarding EU defense. And Jeffrey Dexter, also with the FPA, suggested that if France is not joined by some other country in adding troops, the NATO crisis, both military and political, will deepen. (Turkey might be a surprise candidate here, but don’t hold your breath.)

Even France’s contribution, which was bitterly debated in the Parliament today, demonstrates the problems that Afghanistan raises for the alliance, as according to a poll released today, 68% of the French public opposes the move. That points to a broader divergence between American and European opinion about both the strategic threats the West faces and the most effective way to deal with them.

So while force generation for ISAF will be front and center, as the CSIS’ Julianne Smith and Michael Williams point out in this monograph (.pdf), Afghanistan is as much a symptom of NATO’s problems as the cause. A coherent line towards Russia, in particular, has been painfully difficult to formulate. According to the Kremlin, Bush and Putin will sign the broad outlines of a strategic roadmap, including the missile defense issue, at their April 6th meeting following the summit. That should go a long way to easing tensions, but Bush has made it clear that there is no quid pro quo for Ukraine and Georgia’s NATO application, and Russia is unlikely to drop its objections, so it’s hard to see where the resolution lies. That doesn’t amount to a Russian veto so much as a reality that Europe’s interests, if not its loyalties, are divided.

Maybe NATO will find a way to squeeze water from a stone in Bucharest to save the Afghanistan mission. Or alternatively, maybe NATO will simply fail in Afghanistan with little lasting damage to the alliance. But maybe what ails the alliance isn’t the war in Afghanistan, but the march of history. The lasting legacy of the Bush administration will almost certainly be the way in which it accelerated the passing of America’s unipolar moment. The NATO alliance already struggled once to make the transition from its Cold War origins to post-Cold War realities. I wonder if it will be able to make that kind of leap a second time.

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