Is NATO Relevant?
Yesterday's NATO Beyond Afghanistan conference was a depressing day for fans of the most successful military alliance in history.
Yesterday’s gathering of scholars and policymakers, most of them Atlanticists from way back, were mostly at a loss for how to reignite NATO in the wake of Afghanistan. Indeed, it was as pessimistic a gathering as I’ve seen on the subject. How gloomy was it? Luncheon speaker Bob Kagan, who eight summers ago told us “It is time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world,” was among the most optimistic voices.
None of the panelists in the political will discussion had any illusion that there actually was any political will in NATO. At least, not in the publics of Western Europe. Kurt Volker, a career diplomat who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to NATO, said that “It is hard to overstate NATO’s lack of unified commitment and vision.”
And Council senior advisor Harlan Ullman, asking the first question, observed that “Political will is a polite way of saying relevance.” He didn’t find much disagreement. The closest we got was Josef Janning’s observation that “relevance is not absolute.” But even he conceded that “jobs” was the thing most voters care about these days and that defense spending was likely to have to be sold on that basis.
The bottom line is that, while the Alliance survived the demise of its raison d’être, the Soviet Union, it’s been struggling for a mission to motivate the citizens of its 28 member countries. We agreed to do “out of area” operations and the 1990s missions in the Balkans were relatively easy sells, uniting a good cause and a low cost. Afghanistan probably killed “out of area” for good. And the financial crisis has made problems much worse.