Identity Crisis: NATO Wrestles With 21st-Century Security Demands

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When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization convenes in the Romanian capital of Bucharest early this month, the international security alliance will grapple with some of the thorniest issues of its nearly 60-year existence.

What course should the military bloc take in Afghanistan, where U.S. officials are grumbling that their NATO counterparts are carrying an inadequate share of the load? Should the 26-member organization admit three more countries—Croatia, Albania and Macedonia—even though some members contend it’s already too unwieldy? Will a bilateral dispute between Macedonia and Greece over the very name of Macedonia sour the mood of the entire conference? Should NATO extend a Membership Action Plan (the formal path to membership preparation) to Ukraine and Georgia, drawing the wrath of Russia, which vehement opposes any eventual membership for the two former Soviet republics? And speaking of Russia, what about the divisive issue of missile defense?

At a recent symposium at the libertarian CATO Institute in Washington, NATO scholar Stanley Kober said the trickiest issue of all will be Afghanistan—the alliance’s first on-the-ground combat mission outside Europe—where the Taliban is showing increasing signs of resurgence.

“Afghanistan is the severest test in NATO’s history,” Kober said matter-of-factly. “The mission has not been what [member nations] expected. The Taliban, who appeared to have been defeated, have regrouped. NATO forces now find themselves engaging a determined and sustained enemy.”

In a controversial interview published in the Los Angeles Times in January, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly criticized NATO forces as untrained in fighting guerilla forces.

“I’m worried we’re deploying [military advisors] that are not properly trained and I’m worried we have some military forces that don’t know how to do counterinsurgency operations,” Gates said in the interview. “Most of the European forces, NATO forces, are not trained in counterinsurgency; they were trained for the Fulda Gap.”

The Fulda Gap, in Germany, is where Soviet forces were considered most likely to stage an invasion of Western Europe—a reflection of NATO’s longtime association with the Cold War, not with conflicts outside the Euro-Atlantic area. Gates’s comments offended many NATO member countries, whose leaders believe they are taking courageous action in Afghanistan in the face of public disapproval at home.

But U.S. officials have continued to press the issue of whether certain NATO members are shouldering enough of the burden in Afghanistan. Speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations in late February, outgoing U.S. Undersecretary of Political Affairs Nicholas R. Burns, who is also a former ambassador to NATO, was blunt about who should be doing more.

“I think Secretary Gates has been absolutely right to press the point that we need all hands on deck,” Burns said, noting that “in the south and east of the country, which is where 98 percent of the fighting is, we have nine allies of the 26, including the United States. And some of those allies are Estonia and Denmark and Romania and Bulgaria and Canada and Britain and the Netherlands, and they all put their soldiers on the front line, they’ve all taken casualties. But some of our larger continental allies, Italy and Spain and Germany and France, are in the north and west where there’s no fighting or relatively little fighting.”

But those continental allies counter that the reconstruction work in which they’re engaged is just as vital to maintaining overall stability, and that the relative calm in the north and west exists in part because of the presence of their troops—a peace that could be undermined if those troops were relocated.

Currently, about 43,000 NATO troops operate in Afghanistan. According to icasualties.org, which tracks war-related death tolls of coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, 2007 marked the deadliest year for U.S. and other forces in Afghanistan since the war began in 2001—with casualties involving non-U.S. troops steadily on the rise. In 2003, for example, 48 U.S. troops were killed in Afghanistan while just nine troops from other countries died in combat. But in 2007, 117 U.S. troops were killed and 115 soldiers from other countries died.

A spokesman for the German Embassy in Washington, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told The Washington Diplomat that NATO’s European members expect a “lively debate” about each country’s role in Afghanistan. “In the run-up to Bucharest, there is a lively debate on how best to provide security and development in Afghanistan,” the official said. “It is important to know that Germany is living up to its obligations.” He noted that Germany has taken responsibility for the north section of Afghanistan and has authorized up to 3,500 troops through October 13, 2008. (Germany is the third largest provider of foreign troops in Afghanistan.) “The mandate lasts until October 13 and there is no intention to change it until that date.”

But other countries are adjusting their mandates. In mid-March, the government of Canada—which has suffered some of the most casualties alongside the U.S. and Britain—voted to extend its 2,500-strong troop deployment in volatile southern Afghanistan to 2011, but only if more NATO allies back them up. Otherwise, the country will pull out all its troops next February when its current mandate ends. Gates has warned that if more nations don’t step up to the plate to shoulder the burden in Afghanistan, NATO itself could become an obsolete relic that failed to evolve from the Cold War to meet the security demands of the 21st century.

Susan Eisenhower, chairman emeritus at the Eisenhower Institute, said NATO’s role—and possibly its entire mission as a system of collective defense against outside aggressors—may need to evolve in Bucharest and in the coming years to confront changing times. And that type evolution not only involves large-scale challenges such as Afghanistan, but a host of other 21st-century threats. She mentioned recent cyber attacks that crippled Estonia’s government last year as an example of the types of aggression that NATO isn’t prepared to deal with.

“We may see NATO evolve into a much more kind of super partnership for peace, and some kind of much more agile cohesive force might be founded,” Eisenhower said.

“Between cyber attacks and asymmetric warfare, we may have to rethink this thing again,” she added. “We live in a highly complex society that looks nothing like the period we experienced in the Cold War. We should never be afraid of strategic change.”

Headquartered in Brussels, NATO is an outgrowth of the 1948 Treaty of Brussels signed by Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom following World War II. The military alliance later became the Western European Union. However, the European coalition almost immediately realized that only America could provide the military muscle needed to deter the Soviet Union, which prompted negotiation of the North Atlantic Treaty, signed in Washington in April 1949.

The original NATO included the five Treaty of Brussels nations, as well as the United States, Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. In 1952, Greece and Turkey also joined. The membership has since ballooned to 26 countries, with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia the last to be admitted, in 2004.

Only European states are eligible for membership and states that wish to apply need the approval of all the existing members. Those members are now wrestling with just how large is too large, and whether the organization should grant admission to Macedonia, Croatia and Albania, as well as start the admissions process for Ukraine and Georgia (also see March 28, 2008, news column of the Diplomatic Pouch online for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s case for eventual NATO membership).

NATO countries generally look to invite only countries that can bring something to the table, primarily nations that are security providers not just security customers. This is especially important as some European nations are already having trouble meeting their international defense commitments.

According to Jeremy Shapiro, a fellow and research director at the Brookings Institution, applicant nations generally employ a strategy of teamwork in soliciting an invitation to join NATO.

“The tendency in the last few enlargement rounds is for there to be some logrolling,” Shapiro said. “In essence, the countries group together and say they’re a package and then create support for their package.” However, this time Greece is opposing Macedonia’s bid because of a longstanding dispute over the country’s name. Rising out of the ashes of the dying Yugoslavia, the Republic of Macedonia was born only 17 years ago. It is now politically correct to call the country Macedonia in the United States, as the Bush administration did away with the awkward and contrived Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) moniker that had been forced upon the country since 1993.

FYROM, which Macedonians have hated for years, was a concession to Greece, which vehemently opposes the “Republic of Macedonia” name on the grounds they believe it implies territorial ambitions on a historic northern Greek province also called Macedonia. Greece is expected to protest the name issue in Bucharest, possibly jeopardizing Macedonia’s bid.

“Greece supports the enlargement of NATO in the Western Balkans with the invitations to Croatia and Albania, but the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s intransigent stance and its actions of an irredentist and nationalistic logic are unacceptable,” said Dora Bakoyannis, Greece’s foreign minister, in a statement provided to The Washington Diplomat by the Greek Embassy in Washington.

However, Bakoyannis added that she retains hope the Macedonian name issue can be resolved. “Nobody likes vetoes,” she said. “I sincerely hope that there is still time to reach a mutually acceptable, practical solution, to be implemented immediately, within the framework of the U.N. Special Mediator Mr. [Matthew] Nimetz’s efforts, which we support and will continue to support.”

Zoran Jolevski, Macedonia’s ambassador in Washington, told The Diplomat that his country has “completed all of the necessary reforms to have earned an invitation to NATO at the Bucharest Summit.”

“I stress the word ‘earned’ because that is how Macedonia views NATO membership—something to be earned,” he said. “We believe in the shared values of NATO member states and because of that, we have reformed our military, our political system and our economy to meet NATO requirements. In short, we are ready.”

He emphasized that the country’s name should not be an obstacle to membership. “We believe, as do other countries such as the United States, that we have met NATO’s strict criteria for membership,” the ambassador said. “The United States and other countries have already stated as much and for them, and for us, our name is not an issue. Greece is the only country in the world which has an issue with our name and therefore it is a unilateral dispute. It is not part of NATO’s requirements. Unfortunately, our Greek friends have made it an issue.”

Shapiro of the Brookings Institution agreed that Greece’s solitary, vocal opposition is unusual. “You very rarely see a one-member state standing in the way like this,” he said. “I think if the other stars align, the influence of Greece will be overcome.”

But Lawrence S. Kaplan—a history professor specializing in NATO issues at Georgetown University who also spoke at the CATO forum—isn’t so sure.

“You have a history of caveats among many members of the alliance that were overcome,” he said. “But in the case of Macedonia, you’re going to have a continued opposition to Greece and Greece has been very able to make its voice heard.” (Greece currently has some 2,000 troops serving in NATO missions, including Afghanistan and Kosovo.)

As for Romania, the host country, the summit provides an opportunity for it to shine on the world stage. “We are very happy and very honored to host it,” said Adrian Vierita, Romania’s ambassador to the United States, in an interview with The Diplomat. “This summit will be probably the most significant international event ever hosted by us, and it will also be the largest summit in the history of the alliance. For three days, Bucharest will be a kind of capital of the world.”

Vierita—whose predecessor, Sorin Dumitru Ducaru, is now Romania’s ambassador to NATO and has helped the country prepare for the summit—said it is critical that member nations come ready to forge through a host of complicated issues.

“We have to have a very productive and successful event, not only from an organizational view, but we also hope for a robust enlargement,” he said. “We’d like to see more countries invited to join the alliance in the coming years.”

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999