NATO: We had to destroy the Alliance in order to save it?

In the LA Times today Andrew Bacevich has an op-ed ‘How do we save NATO? We quit‘. I admire Bacevich, read his stuff carefully, and respect his judgment but I think he is wrong about this and I hope the idea does not catch on. As Jay Hudson, the student who forwarded me the link says:

Slightly(!) isolationist in outlook it also pushes the untruth that the US is the majority bill payer of NATO.  As a single nation, yes the US provides the biggest single contribution to the NATO budget, but since he is arguing about Europe as a whole is sorta falls apart.  The US provides about 25%, while Germany provides around 20%, followed by the UK (15%) and France (8%).  With France rejoining NATO I would expect her share to rise slightly, as she has been participating is some budgets and not others.  Also ignores or gives the wrong impression that for NATO operations, the nations pay for their own forces (costs fall where they lie) and the US is not paying for NATO to be in Afghanistan.

I’d add that the only genuinely strategic reason most European politicians perceive for the participation of countries like the UK, Canada, Holland, Denmark in Iraq and/or Afghanistan is their belief in the importance of their relationship with the United States. If you ask strategists here in the UK what is at stake, above all, in Afghanistan they’d answer the cohesiveness and meaning of NATO. Moreover when you consider the impact of participating in American-led expeditionary operations on the faltering domestic counter-radicalization efforts of many European countries (which is the real source of threat right now, not the Russians) it isn’t as though this is a cost-free decision. If America is fed up with its friends and wants to go it alone there are lots of Europeans who would happily agree. Personally, I think that the division of the West in this way is a strategic disaster which will leave all of us weakened and more imperilled in the long run. Yes, let’s have a real discussion, let’s exchange some ‘home-truths’ about respective strategic interests and freedom of manoeuvre. But not as a prelude to break-up but rather towards greater unity of purpose.

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0 thoughts on “NATO: We had to destroy the Alliance in order to save it?

  1. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    I, too, like and admire most of Bacevich’s work. However, a little context might be in order. He is a cautious conservative, in the vein of Reinhold Niebuhr, but one who is comfortable with ideas more closely associated with the Left (e.g. American exceptionalism is a bad thing; runaway consumerism is the root of all of the current problems in economic and foreign policy, etc.) He is the example of an anti-neocon, for sure. On top of that, his son was killed in Iraq in 2007. So, a fan of ‘entangling alliances’ he is not.

  2. patporter says:

    Nice post David. I’m an agnostic about NATO but see your point about basic interests.

    Besides that, I’m wary of the idea that NATO’s credibility must depend upon the outcome in Afghanistan. Surely a defence of Europe and the North Atlantic ‘community’, facilitated by an alliance, remains a legitimate and necessary goal regardless of what happens in NATO’s expeditionary adventures.

    It seems like blackmail to suggest, as some do, that we must stay in Afghanistan to prevent NATO collapsing. Precisely which members of NATO would actually withdraw in the event of defeat over there?

  3. Mike Snow says:

    I would submit an alternative proposal & suggest we establish NATO II with the Eastern Europeans & Turkey. What made NATO work so well was the threat of an enemy. The success of the alliance eliminated the threat to the current European NATO members in the west. But the former Iron Curtain countries & the Baltic countries certainly still feel a significant threat & so are willing to commit resources needed to contain the Russians.

    Maybe NATO continues in some form, but I think it is unrealistic to expect the Western Europeans to have the commitment that was there before.

  4. NATO is an obsolete relic that is neither timely nor effective in conducting military operations. As Mike notes, without a real threat to face, this alliance is just not a 21st century model under which we can operate. Any sane review of operations in Afghanistan reveal the very real faults in this organization. And if you say, well, what is the alternative, I would point to the coaltion operations that worked in Iraq between 2003-2005 (I will leave out the rest of the time because I’m not convinced anyone other than the Brits and maybe Canadians did anything).

    We didn’t need NATO to do Iraq. We created a separate line of organization in Afghanistan so we could get things done there. Let Europe have NATO and if we need – when we need – allies for a military operation, we’ll create a joint headquarters with a US commander in charge just like we always do. Bacevich is right.

  5. ArabiaFelix says:

    I agree with Mike, disbanding NATO would be a horrible idea but I certainly can’t see it continuing in its current form: since the fall of the Soviet Bloc it has struggled to find a purpose, and now it maybe time to look to new shores for new members (whether this be in Eastern Europe or some of our other European ‘neighbours’) and to accept its new role as provider of rapid reaction forces as opposed to a strategic bulwark against communism.

    It certainly would have little benefit in the future as merely warehouse for forces which the EU would commandeer in the event of it flexing its own military muscle (as in the Berlin Plus agreement), affording it little relevance outside of Europe.

  6. Anshul Rana says:

    Every organisation has a goal. NATO’s has been to present a counter force to the Russian influence-however outdated it may sound. As the NATO leaders meet and discuss the changing world they clearly will have to relook the founding principles of the organisation itself. NATO needs to prove that as an organisation it actually does matter and mere lip service is not going to change things. The mullahs of Taliban are a larger threat to Europe than to the US. European troops need to take part in active military operations in Afhghanistan rather than just see their American friends fight.
    NATO can’t still be seeing Russia as enemy no. 1. It needs to stop its expansionary policy and put an immediate freeze on making new members to gain Russia’s confidence. Russia is an important player in the Afghanistan crisis and their help will matter. It is neither in the NATO’s or Russian interest to see the mullah’s gain power in Kabul.
    NATO served its purpose during the cold war. Now it needs to change its goal, if that does not happen then might as well take up Bacevich’s suggestion and disband NATO

  7. planet of the apes says:

    Anshul – Exactly how are the mullahs of the Taliban a threat to Europe? It seems to me that any European engagement in Muslim countries merely increases the chances of angry domestic Muslims attacking European targets. Instead of allowing large-scale immigration and fighting ill-defined wars abroad, perhaps they should shore up their domestic problems first. And that includes becoming a viable military force capable of multiple interesting missions (fighting pirates, humanitarian/military missions in non-Muslim areas, fending off Russia) instead of following America with negligible token propaganda forces.

  8. Jeff M. says:

    Bacevich definitely goes too far. As a former NATO hand I’d make several points to counter his approach. First, to get out of NATO now would be the ultimate insult to the few NATO countries that have signed on for US-led missions. Unless the US is willing to create brand new bilateral defence deals with countries such as Poland, they will pull their support without thinking twice. Many countries participating in Afghanistan/Iraq who are NATO members or prospective members do so only because they think the US will support them against the Russian Bear. If the US gets out of NATO, no more help on this issue is likely to be forthcoming. Poland will move into the French camp and that would be a disaster for both the US and UK. Second, it is bloody expensive to move US forces out of Germany (similar to the UK’s problem of leaving Osnabruck), and there is little motivation to do so. Even under Rumsfeld, no one at EUCOM had any desire to move to Poland or Romania. Plus the base in Ramstein would have remained in place. So is Bacevich arguing for EUCOM (and by default AFRICOM) to move stateside, or to an eastern european country once the US leaves NATO? It seems much better to keep the current system in place, whether there is a Russian threat or not, or whether the Balkans is a mess or not. Third, the idea about NATO’s credibility at stake is absolute hogwash. NATO’s direct participation in AFghanistan is merely about providing a headquarters for ISAF, plus an excuse for a number of countries to participate forces. For instance, if NATO was to go away, I’m sure countries such as Holland would leave as well. Afghanistan is a disaster pure and simple, and NATO has virtually no say in how this fight will be prosecuted. Can one truly say that the NATO SECGEN has any influence in Kabul, in comparison to any US official of much lower rank? This is a difficult one because of the way the US command structure works. Had this been a EUCOM operation, there is no doubt it would have worked a lot better with regards the NATO allies. As this is a CENTCOM mission, with EUCOM supporting, the NATO allies have very little influence at all. How failure in AFghanistan can be perceived as a NATO failure seems a bit of a stretch. The fact of the matter is NATO has been undergoing an identity crisis since 9/11 (and at that time it was still recovering from the post-1991 identity crisis), and it still has no clue where it wants to go, and how they can match their resources to the numerous tasks they have set themselves. Fortunately for NATO there is no question they are more relevant than their EU counterparts, so at least from a bureaucratic perspective they are in the clear, unlike before 9/11 when everyone at NATO HQ was panicking over their EU competition. Fourthly, as odd as this may sound, the breakdown of NATO would likely see tensions flare between Greece and Turkey. Such a crisis would make Afghanistan pale by comparison. Having personally witnessed Greek and Turkish generals being physically restrained from striking one another, during a NATO general officers conference no less, as well as several similar instances, I’d have to say that a US presence is a necessary one. Whatever its limitations, NATO still serves a number of useful purposes. Just because European countries are not coughing up 100,000 troops (which in the case of Afghanistan they would not be able to supply anyway — short of kowtowing to Moscow–or pay for) I see little reason for NATO to be cast aside. For NATO to actually work in Afghanistan (which is to say not necessarily win in Afghanistan but to operate more efficiently and in greater strength) would necessitate giving the Alliance some real say in decision-making. This is something Washington is unable to let them do. The recent Afghanistan ‘surge’ is a perfect case in point. The new strategy was devised in Washington and only afterwards was it given to the Europeans as a fait accompli. No discussion. Merely this is the way forward, even if we ourselves haven;t figured out how adding these new troops will change anything. It is quite amazing really. They’ve added the troops prior to setting the benchmarks they hope to achieve with those troops. If I was teaching a class on how to do strategy, they’d receive a fail. Not that there are any good options in the ‘AFPAK’ case. Likewise, the US expands the war to Pakistan which is a policy NATO cannot reach consensus on, but NATO has to deal with the consequences of. There are many ways to make NATO work better, but that would entail Washington learning to operate within an Alliance system. And the notion of we don;t like NATO so therefore we are leaving is utterly ludicrous. That is certainly not the responsible option.

  9. Anshul Rana says:

    Hi Planet of the Apes
    Just imagine that the mullahs come to power in Afghanistan. This will give Al qaeda a free hand. The system that is now almost broken will be up and running again. It has never been difficul for qaeda to find its recruits in Europe (ex: London, Spain, Hamburg)….The sleeper cells will start getting their finances and that will be a major threat to Europe. Thats why Europe should be careful of its view of Afghanistan

  10. Anshul Rana says:

    Hi Jeff,
    Interesting read but here are some points to ponder on.
    If an organisation outruns its goals what do you do with it?
    I am sure that you will agree that European countries hardly need the US now to save them from the ‘Russian Bear’. Infact this same scary bear is allowing France and Germany to take military aid via its territory to Afghanistan, US has been allowed non-military aid. All this to help soldiers of an organisation that wants to fights its influence. I like this Russian Bear my friend.

    The dynamics of world politics have changed rapidly and drastically. There is no longer a war between Russia or US- cold or hot. There is hardly any need fr NATO to maintain eyeball to eyeball contact wih Russia, which you will agree has hardly happened in the last few years.
    If NATO still has in its mind to fight communism then i think it need to change focus and look at China(who’s economic might will probably blur NATO’s focus).
    So if the main goal of the NATO is redundant what does NATO stand for apart from showing solidarity between US and Some European countries.
    You have argued that NATO needs to stay but I want to ask you, stay and do what?

    NATO needs a relook at its goal.
    By your own admission almost all the NATO countries in Afghanistan want to move out. Anyways their troops are not part of active operations by which I mean fighting Taliban. They are involved in policing and humanitarian effort. So in this scenario, regardless of the fact whether CENTCOM or EUCOM (I beleive CENTCOM is better equipped with its experience in Iraq ) run the show why should US ask Europe what needs to be done in Af-PAK? From day one NATO partners apart from Britain have shown their reluctance to be there. Infact it seems they are there to provide some lip service to the long time friendship with US. So why should they be part of this strategy untill and unless they are in it seriously and to stay?

    Shockingly Iran …a sworn enemy of the US has pledged that it will do all that it can to help control drug trafficking and terror in Afghanistan. And Barack Obama didnt have to beg the Iranians like he did to his European friends who managed to dig in and provide a ‘massive’ 5000 troops …out of which 3000 are on temporary duty till the elections in Afghanistan.
    The question is about relevance here. Why is it taking so long for Europe to realise that the war in Af-Pak is not just another power game. It has become a fight against terror that i’m afraid to say does not diffrentiate between European or American blood. The faster NATO realises that terror is now its enemy no 1 the better it is for all the parties involved.

    1. Members send teams to Afghanistan in hope that US will save them from the Russian bear
    2. Nato has no say in the war on afghanistan

  11. Thomas Jackson says:

    NATO has been dead since the USSR collapsed. Its time to bury it and end the comedy. Europe has shown it would rather party than defend itself while it prepares to hand itself over to Islam.

    We should honor their wishes.

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