The Monitor's View

NATO rethinks its mission, perhaps too reluctantly

It's past time, and high time, for NATO to reshape itself for the threats of this century, from terrorism to cyberwar. But budget cuts, a difficult war in Afghnistan, and a preoccupation with a debt crisis will make this a hard sell.

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NATO is years overdue for a major review of its purpose. The last time the transatlantic military alliance looked in the mirror was 1999 – before 9/11, before widespread cyberattacks, before Russia veered from the democratic path under Vladimir Putin.

Now the alliance that was formed in 1949 to defend its members from a Soviet-bloc attack is finally getting around to drafting a new “strategic concept” – a new identity card. But did it wait too long? The timing does not work in its favor.

Just when the 28 members from Canada to Turkey are reviewing recommendations that support troop deployment beyond NATO’s geographic borders – think Afghanistan, where all alliance members are involved – that war has entered a gloomy phase. The Marjah offensive is not going as well as hoped, the Kandahar offensive is being delayed, and the summer fighting season is producing more casualties.

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US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is still beating the bushes for 450 NATO forces to train the Afghan Army. And US Gen. Stanley McChrystal has yet to figure out how to replace Canadian and Dutch combat troops that are pulling out this summer.

Out-of-area deployments are expensive in equipment and manpower, yet here comes a debt wave in Europe and the US that’s forcing governments into budget-cutting mode. In Europe, which notoriously underspends on its military, defense is sure to feel the ax.

A leading British think tank recently suggested that the country’s armed forces, aircraft, and vessels will have to be reduced by 20 percent – and that’s a country that takes defense investment very seriously. Now it’s taking deficit reduction seriously. Budget cuts are the perfect incentive to reform NATO and cut back on its hundreds of committees, bloated staff, and overlapping functions – but not to pare back troops and equipment.

Meanwhile, political cracks within and among member states are spreading, multiplied by economic crisis. In Europe, the divide between East and West (new democracies vs. old) of the last decade has now spread north to south (richer democracies vs. poorer, more deeply indebted ones). The German-French axis, which drives European politics, is wobbling. Germany’s coalition government is clashing over budget cuts. Tiny Belgium looks headed for splitsville over language and economic differences.

At times like these, the tendency is for countries to look inward, not outward. Even President Obama has said that in order to be strong abroad, a nation must be strong at home.

But now is also precisely the time to rethink NATO, and recommit. External threats don’t wait. That point is made clear by a NATO-requested group of experts led by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The group released its strategic-concept recommendations on May 17. Now NATO’s secretary-general needs to work them into a draft for consideration at NATO’s coming summit in November in Lisbon.

What’s striking about the recommendations is how familiar they are. The primary purpose remains unchanged from NATO’s founding – guaranteed collective defense of the member democratic states. The threat has changed, from the Soviet Union and its allies to myriad unpredictable, diffuse dangers: terrorism, cyber- attack, interruption of vital supplies (whether on the high seas or through energy pipelines), an Iran with nuclear weapons.

But even these “new” threats no longer feel so new. Indeed, NATO has wrestled with all them, though not been able to meet them all. Its trainers went to Iraq, its forces to Afghanistan, its ships to the horn of Africa to fight piracy.

The “experts” group wisely codifies these challenges, and includes some specific remedies: a missile shield to protect from Iranian ballistic missiles; retaining nuclear arms in Europe as long as nuclear arms exist in the world; acknowledgement that threats can come from far beyond NATO’s borders and that the alliance must be able to react swiftly and sustain a long-range deployment. At the same time the group recommends limiting engagements, recognizing that it’s a regional alliance that can’t solve every problem, everywhere.

One would think that 61 years of preserving the peace for its members as well as a general acknowledgement of 21st-century threats would make such a NATO update a fairly easy sell. It might be, to heads of state. But the public is another matter, and that’s where the true challenge lies. Decades of success breed complacency. Economic crisis means preoccupation. An Afghanistan bog-down erodes support.

The strategic concept presents an opportunity for alliance members to remind their citizens of NATO’s contributions to their security. If they fail to communicate this, the threat from within may well prove more dangerous than the ones from without.

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