Home The Washington Diplomat April 2009

As NATO Toasts 60 Years,Bloc Faces Sobering Tests

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As NATO nations gear up for the organization’s 60th anniversary summit, continuing troubles with Afghanistan and Russia are threatening to cast a big pall over the party.

The international security bloc’s 26 member nations meet April 3 and 4 in Kehl, Germany, and in Strasbourg, France, locations symbolically chosen because they straddle the border between the two countries.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer will chair the event, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will host the meetings. The overall affair is sure to have its share of festive moments, along with the usual NATO business. For example, the group expects to adopt a Declaration on Alliance Security, which will “further articulate and strengthen the Alliance’s vision of its role in meeting the evolving challenges of the 21st century and maintaining the ability to perform the full range of its missions.”

Outside the diplomatic declarations though, some concrete action has already taken place, with France announcing its return as a full-fledged member after pulling out of NATO’s military command in 1966, and the bloc resuming formal ties with Russia, a relationship that had been suspended after Moscow’s brief war with Georgia last summer.

And as usual, the summit will entertain the idea of expansion. This time Albania and Croatia have applications pending. NATO has approved their memberships, though parliamentary ratification procedures could cause a delay. But expansion isn’t likely to be much of a focus this time around. There’s no real talk of admitting Georgia and Ukraine after last year’s testy membership debate, and a lingering veto by NATO member Greece makes it unlikely that Macedonia will receive an invitation to join any time soon.

Beyond the routine housekeeping, ceremonial toasts and affirmations of achievements, a more grim reality is likely to take center stage at the 60th anniversary summit.

“NATO is not in good shape because of two reasons: Afghanistan and Russia,” said Michael Mandelbaum, the Christian A. Herter professor and director of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

It’s no secret the Obama administration is leaning hard on NATO to shoulder more of the load in Afghanistan. The American president has committed an extra 17,000 U.S. troops to fight a resurgent Taliban in the notoriously difficult battleground. He hopes NATO will do the same. But the member countries are already balking at the extra workload.

NATO officially took charge of the international operation in Afghanistan in mid-2006, but there is no question that it is still very much a U.S.-led operation. The United States is handling the overwhelming majority of the combat operations, with significant help from British and Canadian troops in the volatile southern part of the country (along with contingents from the Netherlands and Denmark). The numbers reveal the same story: Nearly half the 62,000 soldiers currently contributing to NATO’s flagship mission in Afghanistan are American, and the Obama troop surge means that at least five out of eight foreign soldiers in Afghanistan would be American.

Meanwhile, American sentiment toward U.S. involvement in the war is roughly split. A recent CBS-New York Times poll showed that about half of Americans want U.S. troop levels there to remain the same or increase, while the other half want a reduction.

“There is going to be absolutely no substitution for American leadership — we all know that and I think the administration can accept that,” said Sally McNamara, a European affairs expert at the Heritage Foundation. “What really matters is, is the alliance going to at least follow that leadership or are they going to continue to hide or be resentful?”

The mission in Afghanistan — NATO’s first outside of Europe — is the biggest test of NATO’s effectiveness in a post-Cold War world. And as far as McNamara and other critics are concerned, the European members aren’t passing the grade. Most NATO countries are reluctant to commit a significant number of troops, and those with troops on the ground have imposed restrictions on how they can be used, and how much danger they can face.

German troops for example can only be used in a non-combat role in the relatively peaceful north. During a speech last fall, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that kind of effort is not helping get the job done. “Despite the best intentions of allied governments and militaries, and despite having more than 2 million men and women in uniform among NATO’s European members, the alliance nonetheless struggles to scrape together a few thousand more troops and a few dozen helicopters for our commanders in Afghanistan,” he lamented.

Beyond the looming threat posed by the Taliban, presidential elections in August are certain to exacerbate the security situation. NATO has asked for an additional 4,000 troops to help Afghanistan weather the election campaign this summer, though so far there is no sign they will come from Europe.

McNamara, a native of England, didn’t mince words when describing the European contribution to Afghanistan. “They’ve done an absolutely, appallingly shocking job,” she complained. “They have not been stepping up to the plate. When they talk about reconstruction, they mean they want to build schools and hospitals in 100 percent safety. Well, this is a war zone.”

McNamara of the conservative Heritage Foundation also took a swipe at the early diplomacy of the Obama administration. “Everyone said President Bush’s primary failings was public diplomacy. Well, this administration doesn’t have a lot to brag about so far in terms of the ways it’s dealt with European allies so far, either.”

But Barnett Rubin, director of studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, said American criticism of NATO’s alleged unwillingness to share a proportionate amount of the load in Afghanistan isn’t completely fair. He said part of the problem is that the United States, going back to the Bush administration’s invasion in 2001, has been inconsistent in stating its objectives for the country — initially touting a full-fledged democratic transformation and more recently downgrading expectations to achieve a vaguely defined stability.

“Before we start blaming our allies, we should start here in the United States and try to — as a coherent policy — define our objectives,” he said at a Council on Foreign Relations symposium in February. “What are the objectives for which we are fighting? What are the resources? What are other objectives that we wish to accomplish by non-military means?” he asked. “Currently, we don’t have either clear enough goals or enough of a plan to have that discussion.”

Indeed, many experts now say the United States should abandon grandiose ambitions of nation building and concentrate on limited military gains. And as the reality of what can be accomplished sets in, European reluctance to commit troops to a country notoriously resilient to foreign occupation can be seen in a more practical light.

At the same Council on Foreign Relations symposium, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, a former U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, said NATO can overcome some of the skepticism by conveying that success in Afghanistan is important to the entire world, not just the trans-Atlantic community.

“We need the support of the neighbors,” she said. “We need the support of Pakistan. We need also the support of Iran. We need the support of the bigger circle. We need the support of Russia. We need the support of China. And so this effort has to be seen as a global effort.

“It cannot be just a Western effort because any of the countries mentioned has enough clout and influence to make things much more complicated if it doesn’t feel that it’s — what is being done in Afghanistan is part of that broader effort.”

To that end, Obama appointed Richard Holbrooke as the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the administration is already moving ahead with its own strategy in the absence of a European troop surge. On top of the extra U.S. troops Obama is sending (which are reportedly intended to help reduce the controversial airstrikes and raids that have inflicted growing civilian casualties), the president is significantly boosting the number of civilian experts in the war-torn country. There’s also been talk of reaching out to moderate elements of the Taliban as part of a major review the administration is conducting on its Afghan policy.

In addition, Holbrooke has said the United States will make a major push to improve the recruitment and training of police officers to stabilize the country and rid it of extremist insurgents — which in turn opens up an important window for European involvement. In fact, instead of asking for more troops, U.S. officials are more likely to ask NATO members to shoulder more of the financial and police-training burdens in Afghanistan. Polish Foreign Minister Rados_aw Sikorski called it an opportunity for EU nations to step up to the plate. “If you can’t give troops, at least give money,” he said. A major international donor’s conference at the end of March at The Hague could also help expand the coffers of one of the poorest countries in the world.

But then there is the problem of Russia, which in a sense is another existential test for NATO, an alliance formed 60 years ago to counter Soviet influence. Today, it plays a delicate balancing act with a Russian leadership suspicious of NATO expansion right next door.

McNamara said Americans — under both Presidents Bush and Obama — have acted naively in relations with Russia. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently traveled to Moscow and presented Russian officials with a “reset” button that, though bungled in translation, provided a nice photo-op that seemed to suggest a chill in frosty U.S.-Russian relations.

But just a short time later, the Russians announced they would dramatically revamp their aging military in large part because of what Russia views as NATO encroachment on its borders and U.S. threats to its energy supplies. It was just the latest move in a growing competition for influence in the former Soviet bloc neighborhood. Earlier this year, the impoverished Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan got billions of dollars in aid from Russia and, right afterward, ordered the closure of a U.S. base used to support the war in nearby Afghanistan. Last year, Russia successfully lobbied to keep Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO, at least for now, and this year, Moscow has set its sights on the NATO-supported missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland.

“They are pushing back,” said Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins. “Opposition to the United States has become the default position for the Russians.”

But Russia says it is simply responding to unwarranted provocations in its backyard. “Russian foreign policy is not about fear. It is about fairness,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently said, referring to a hefty EU aid and trade package given to the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Belarus.

Lavrov has urged a new, legally binding security pact in Europe to replace what it says are outdated arms control treaties from the Cold War to curb unilateral NATO actions.

But EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana rebuffed the offer, saying that the existing structure, whereby the United States is the key guarantor of European security “was a very intelligent setup.”

Still, it doesn’t appear that either side wants a return to Cold War-era hostilities. Russia has begun to allow NATO supplies to pass through its territory en route to U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, and indicated it would be receptive to additional help as the United States raises its troop levels. And the Obama administration has signaled a willingness to reconsider missile defense plans in exchange for cooperation on Iran and Afghanistan.

“We have quite a number of areas where we have fundamental differences of opinion,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said last month. At the same time, “Russia is a global player. Not talking to them is not an option.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 8, 2014