NATO: Quo Vadis?

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet up on Feb. 10 during the conference. (Photo: Sebastian Zwez, Munich Conference on Security Policy)

For the just concluded Munich security conference, the big question on the discussion menu was whether NATO is going global. The answer is in Afghanistan. If the Afghan adventure goes well it may; if not, then the idea seems a bit far far-fetched. As its name implies, NATO has a geographic perimeter within which to operate. Recently as part of the on going "war on terror," however, NATO has been active well beyond its traditional area of operations. It has established an "out of area" foothold in Afghanistan, the horn of Africa, and Lebanon.

Strategic thinkers such as Ron Asmus, of the German Marshall fund's transatlantic center in Brussels, sees the alliance as a major global force for the future: He writes: "Pain and simple, NATO must become a more global alliance that takes it to places beyond the European heartland and on missions beyond the imaginations of the founding fathers if it hope to remain a relevant alliance" (Financial Times, Feb. 7). Does this imply that in order to stay in the defense game NATO has to become a global cop? The notion of NATO assuming a worldwide "defense" capacity is a very tall order indeed in view of this reality: it cannot even crush a midget military force (compared to its size) known as the Taliban.

In retrospect, the alliance functioned well during the cold war days. It provided an American "nuclear umbrella" to deter the overwhelming amount of Soviet conventional forces poised at the time to move into Western Europe. NATO bridged and bonded Western Europe to the United States by keeping the "Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out" to paraphrase one of its first secretary generals. As both sides were faced with a common "red bear" communist menace, it seemed nothing could separate them.

In the Post cold war era, however, things began to unravel slowly. The Alliance had no big enemy to keep it going. So, Javier Solana, NATO's secretary in the early 1990's, embarked on a full-fledged enlargement of the organization. A "Partnership for Peace" was devised to give candidates for membership the impression that negotiations were being conducted on an even level and in an equitable, dignified manner, and not run from the Pentagon or the State Department. The plan worked. Unlike today where the alliance has to implore its members for more support in Afghanistan, back then the alliance did not even need to recruit new members from the former Soviet bloc space. Post Communist nations lined up at the doorstep of its Brussels' headquarters like an eager bunch of boy scouts.

Furthermore, as NATO began to grow, Europe was busy drafting up its own CFSP, or Common Foreign and Security Policy, which risked overlapping if not out rightly eclipsing the United States' primus inter pares role within NATO. This made the goal of "a bigger and better alliance" under Washington's stewardship and guidance more urgent.

NATO Expands: Former Friends Become Implacable Enemies

So a seduction process was put to work. The first batch of entrants, the central Europeans and Slovenia, were given all kinds of pro forma, razzmatazz reasoning from Washington on the benefits of membership—such as securing their future from hostile enemies further east, meaning Russia. Moscow, once again, was the emerging threat on the scene. Ironically, reminiscent of their time spent in the Warsaw pact, the "new Europeans," just shortly after they joined the alliance, were roused by bugle call into action, and joined in the massive bombing campaign against Milosevic's Serbia—Serbia being the bogeyman of the day. The erstwhile ethnic patchwork of Yugoslavia had been, historically speaking, central Europe's closest ally throughout the 12th century in the Balkan region. Suddenly, in 1999, during the Balkan war, NATO's new members joined in the bombing of an "old Friend." This was perhaps unpalatable in the minds of the new NATO member state's leaders. But then it was part of the price to pay for membership.

Furthermore, central Europeans had learned the bitter lessons of betrayal in Munich in 1938 and Yalta in 1945, when the West sold them out first to the Nazis and then to Stalin. Double-crossed once too often, they were now safely on "right side" of history, or so it seemed. Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest in addition to signing on to the Balkan campaign had to make other concessions as well. In return for the support of American senators in their bid for admittance to the alliance, the three were persuaded to champion democracy and human rights in the Western Hemisphere—above all, in Cuba. Immediately after ratification of the NATO expansion treaty to include central Europe, Prague, and Warsaw began sponsoring denunciations of the Castro regime in front of the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Fast-forwarding to the present, we see the alliance on its Eastern front is in the throes of a tussle between public opinion opposed to the NATO –United States sponsored "son of star wars" missile deal and local leaders who are in favor of rearmament. The plan to station antimissile silos and radars in the "new" NATO members' territories has riled the Russians. It has in addition sparked protest in the Czech Republic. Although hardly comparable in size, it is at least comparable in symbolism to the West German outcry over the deployment of American cruise missiles in the country during the early 1980's, which deeply divided the alliance at the time.

Today, the main division is over its role in Afghanistan. This issue overshadows its functional integrity. At a NATO meeting in Seville, this week, defense ministers will examine the possibility of a troop surge, or the sending of more soldiers to Afghanistan, to deal with the fierce Taliban resistance. But from which member state the additional fighting force will come from remains unclear. Members such as France are very reluctant to send more and establish a permanent military presence in such a violate zone. The only certitude it seems is this: NATO's relevance in the world is being increasingly questioned.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Michael Werbowski.