Beyond Afghanistan, a weakened NATO can still write its own future

As the NATO summit in Chicago wraps up, it’s clear that NATO is in a tough spot, navigating a tenuous transition in Afghanistan as a prolonged euro crisis slashes its capability. NATO must look closer to home to restore its credibility in areas our citizens agree are high priorities.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
From left to right, French President François Hollande, President Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, during the NATO Summit in Chicago May 20. Op-ed contributor and former US Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker warns: 'Without a strong transatlantic community, [authoritarian capitalism and Islamist extremism] will shape the 21st century, while those of us who shaped the 20th century merely muddle through.'

When the dust settles from this week’s NATO summit in Chicago, and in the quiet of our own thoughts, we need to ask ourselves what NATO, or the United States and Europe more broadly, should actually do from here. 

To be sure, NATO is managing the best it can in bad circumstances. It has grown fatigued in Afghanistan far sooner than needed to achieve success – and so it will embark on an inevitable but tenuous transition there.

Europe is consumed by a financial crisis and nearly everyone is slashing defense budgets – hence the focus on “smart defense” projects. Many allies lack the means or the will (or both) to take on hard military operations, so it’s good that partners such as Sweden and Qatar fill the gap.

And no one in Europe is enthusiastic about missile defenses to ward off potential strikes from Iran. But alliance members will go along if the Russians remain calm and the US pays – which it will, at least initially.

But the NATO that so dramatically transformed itself after the cold war is running out of gas. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, NATO began conducting “out-of-area” military operations as opposed to concentrating on deterrence. Now we’ve lost public support and are closing down operations. The alliance added new members from Central Europe – but that’s no longer on the table as Russian assertiveness and the prolonged euro crisis have taken away all appetite for open doors.

In the last two decades, NATO has transformed its defense forces from heavy and static to more nimble and deployable, but now those capabilities are being slashed. The only post-cold-war trend still at work in the alliance is partnering with other countries. Even that’s a bitter-sweet development, as partners are now doing what some allies refuse to do – fight.

Back in 2010, NATO’s Lisbon summit set out a “strategic concept” for the future. This, however, turned out to be a compendium of all the things NATO should do, without real priorities and commitment of resources. By prioritizing everything, we prioritized nothing.

So what to do?

One of NATO’s great secretary generals, Lord Robertson, said that “NATO’s credibility is its capability.” Today, when NATO’s capability is rapidly being reduced, we increasingly face a credibility gap. We have high ambitions, but don’t back them up with resources, leadership, and commitment. Restoring NATO’s credibility is arguably the most important task for the alliance at the moment.

One approach is for NATO to look closer to home. If publics are skeptical about far-off engagements such as Afghanistan – and if allies are slashing their capabilities to conduct such operations anyway – we should perhaps look at what we can accomplish with great credibility, and what our citizens will agree are high priorities.

This might include a renewed emphasis on planning and exercises for our collective defense – the core mission of NATO as summed up in Article 5 of its treaty. We should couple that with a broad understanding of what can actually threaten allied territory today: not just conventional militaries or nuclear weapons, but terrorism, infrastructure attacks, energy disruptions, and cyber attacks.

Tackling these issues with real resources and commitment is something NATO is capable of achieving if it wishes, and is more directly tied to the immediate well-being of citizens in the alliance.

Another approach is to look at successes within Europe, rather than failings. Here, the prospering Nordic-Baltic region of Europe offers lessons for the wider transatlantic community, shows a recent study from the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

Most of these countries belong to NATO or the European Union, or both. They show that by managing their own issues well – economic growth, deficit reduction, energy security, closer integration, neighborly relations with Russia – the region is able to contribute disproportionately to common endeavors, whether Libya, Afghanistan, or an inclusive, free Europe.

Turning our attention more toward home – cleaning it up and defending it – helps set a forward agenda for NATO and the European Union. Fixing our deficit and debt crises is actually a security measure, as is genuine energy diversification. Supporting freedom and security in Eastern Europe strengthens our defense, as does finding a consensus on how to deal with Russia. And deepening European integration will provide a more reliable partner for the United States.

In today’s shrinking world, we see the rise of new powers, resource competition, and the threat of authoritarian capitalism and Islamist extremism. Without a strong transatlantic community, those are the forces that will shape the 21st century, while those of us who shaped the 20th century merely muddle through.

But with a realistic agenda and steady determination, the transatlantic community can still write its own future. 

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

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