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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.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / June 16, 2010

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.

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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.

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.