Is NATO Relevant?

Yesterday's NATO Beyond Afghanistan conference was a depressing day for fans of the most successful military alliance in history.

As I detail in my New Atlanticist post “NATO’s Relevance,” 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.


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FILED UNDER: Europe, Military Affairs, World Politics,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Basically you’re right Jim. The raison d’etre for the alliance has disappeared and it’s being held together by inertia basically. Most of the Europeans given their druthers would never have got involved in Afghanistan. The only reasons they have participated half heartedly is official sentiment and diplomatic pressure. Add to this the popular alienation from the US that occurred in 2001-2008 and it’s easy to understand the loss of support/interest in NATO at the street level. Another perhaps more abstract factor is declining nationalism and its bedfellow militarism. Britain is probably the most “militarily” minded country in Europe but even there I sense at long last a move away from the preoccupation with the imperial past and Britain’s role as a major world influence. When you have a conservative govt proposing defence cuts of around 25% then it’s obvious a huge mind shift has occurred.

  2. Simon says:

    I think it’s very relevant insofar as one day, it’s going to drag us into a needless war that we’d do well to avoid. It is deadweight at best, a liability at worst, and while I shall be accused—wrongly—of isolationism, I think we should withdraw from it at once.

  3. Brummagem Joe says:

    “It is deadweight at best, a liability at worst, and while I shall be accused—wrongly—of isolationism”

    Not isolationism but perhaps a disregard for our own interests since right at this moment the US is on balance probably a net beneficiary of NATO membership. I’m not sure what war it’s going to drag us into. Is Germany planning to invade Poland, attack France, make a push into the Balkans. Or what imperial designs do the Brits and French harbor?.

  4. ponce says:

    “the most successful military alliance in history”

    Seems like a very dubious claim.

    What has NATO done in comparison to, say, the Allies during WWII?

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    “What has NATO done in comparison to, say, the Allies during WWII?”

    Er…..prevented a Soviet takeover of Western Europe? Per Life of Brian “What have the Romans ever done for us?”

  6. ponce says:

    “Er…..prevented a Soviet takeover of Western Europe?”

    That’s nice, but the Soviets were never coming.

    Stopping an imaginary Soviet invasion is more “successful” than defeating Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany?

  7. Brummagem Joe says:

    “That’s nice, but the Soviets were never coming.”

    And vaccination had nothing to do with the elimination of polio epidemics. Ok the Berlin airlift never happened. The Hungarian uprising was a chimera. The murder of Jan Mazaryk and the Czech takeover in ’48 a bad dream. The attempted communist takeoever of Greece in ’47-49 a fantasy. The subversion of Italy by the communist party re-writing History. I can see you have immense practical knowledge of the subject but speaking as someone who was stationed in Germany in the fall of 1962 let me assure you we thought it rather likely they were coming.

  8. ponce says:

    “let me assure you we thought it rather likely they were coming.”

    Now that the old Soviet archives are open we know they were never coming.

    Just another case of our military inflating a threat to get more taxpayer bucks.

    NATO is a bizarre nomination for the “Greatest Military Alliance Ever!”

  9. Tano says:

    What i don’t understand is why the mood one senses in this meeting was depressing, rather than joyful. NATO is effectively the military coordination for “the West” – i.e. the structure that assumes the responsibility for defending Western civilization.

    That NATO seems not to know what to do with itself is simply a manifestation of the fact that Western civilization faces no real, existential threats.

    Can we not at least raise a glass to that – if not have a kickass party?

  10. Simon says:

    Brummagem Joe replies to my earlier comment: “I’m not sure what war it’s going to drag us into.” Well, Georgia first applied to join NATO in 2005, and some people still want it in. If it had been a member in 2008, we would have been ipso facto at war with Russia. Looking forward, relations between Russia and the baltic states could go south. Or Iran could invade Turkey. Or there could be a skirmish between Ukraine and one of the NATO border states, although I concede that is a less likely scenario. The point is that you’re wrong to dismiss the possibility. In any of these scenarios, we will either renege on our treaty commitments or be dragged into a war that we should stay out of. It’s one thing for something to happen that we decide to respond to. It’s quite another to be committed in advance.

  11. James Joyner says:

    That NATO seems not to know what to do with itself is simply a manifestation of the fact that Western civilization faces no real, existential threats.

    Certainly true. But it has been the primary vehicle for the West to work together on security issues. Personally, I don’t think we need NATO for Afghanistan. But it was quite helpful in the Balkans and is the obvious forum for moving ahead on cyber and other issues where interoperability is key.

    If [Georgia] had been a member in 2008, we would have been ipso facto at war with Russia.

    Possibly. More likely, though, is that Russia would not have dared invade a sovereign country over such minor interests.

  12. Simon says:

    James, given the stakes, I prefer that we not risk the future of humanity on idle speculation about what Russia might or might not do. We shouldn’t be party to treaties which automatically trigger a state of war based on forces beyond our control; that kind of domino run is exactly what dragged the world into war a century ago.

    If Russia invades Georgia and we’re stupid enough to to intervene, so be it. But it should be our choice, and it should be decided after due post facto consideration, not ex ante stipulations. It’s lunacy to indulge a situation where we delegate to third parties the power to declare war on behalf of the United States, which is the upshot of the North Atlantic Treaty’s fifth article: any NATO member can set us at war with a country by provoking an attack on themselves. One could frame an (admittedly tenuous) argument that it’s unconstitutional, but even if it’s constitutional, it’s very dumb.

  13. Brummagem Joe says:

    ponce says:
    Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 19:00
    “Now that the old Soviet archives are open we know they were never coming.”

    What archives would these be? I’m afraid you’re going do much better than some vague assertions that the Soviet Union didn’t have aggressive intentions from 1945 to at least 1965 when they were spending over 40% of GDP on military activities and with their allies deploying a force of nearly 200 divisions backed by a huge nuclear arsenal and repeatedly as I listed undertook expansionary initiatives aimed at western and central Europe.

    Simon says:
    Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 23:00
    “Brummagem Joe replies to my earlier comment: “I’m not sure what war it’s going to drag us into.” Well, Georgia first applied to join NATO in 2005, and some people still want it in. If it had been a member in 2008, we would have been ipso facto at war with Russia.”

    But Georgia WASN’T a member!! And even if she had been the notion that NATO was going to get dragged into a war with Russia over some border skirmishes that were largely caused by Georgian stupidity is a bit far fetched. By the same criteria NATO would have gone to war with Israel over the Gaza convoy incident. You’ll have to do better than these non existent and fanciful scenarios.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Possibly. More likely, though, is that Russia would not have dared invade a sovereign country over such minor interests.”

    Much more likely that Russia doesn’t need to invade any of these former parts of the Soviet Union because most of them are effectively satellites anyway. Quite apart from that Russia does have legitimate claims on all these places most of which have been part of Russia for centuries. Georgia and the Crimea were part of Russia 100 years before California became part of the US. This is why by and large NATO wants nothing to do with these countries as distinct from places like Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Roumania, Bulgaria, the Baltics, etc which were independant sovereign states occupied after WW 2 by the Soviet Union. My personal view is that in some form or other Putin’s ultimate goal is return Russia to her borders in 1945 (less the Baltics which were illegally annexed) and in truth he has history and legality on his side. And in reality I don’t think NATO would do much to stop him. In fact they would probably prefer to deal with one country than with the patchwork quilt of unstable tin pot successor regimes now in place.

  15. Simon says:

    “But Georgia WASN’T a member!!”

    The point was clear: the potential for conflict between a NATO state and a non-NATO state exists, and could have been actual if Georgia had been a member. You can object to resting on hypotheticals all you like, but it doesn’t fool anyone. Happily, hypotheticals are the only possible basis for discussing this issue in advance of an actual crisis that will hopefully never come.

    “And even if she had been the notion that NATO was going to get dragged into a war with Russia over some border skirmishes that were largely caused by Georgian stupidity is a bit far fetched.”

    That’s what the North Atlantic Treaty says. If we formally subscribe to a treaty we wouldn’t honor in a pinch, we shouldn’t be a party to that treaty.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    Simon says:
    Wednesday, September 29, 2010 at 13:45

    “, and could have been actual if Georgia had been a member.You can object to resting on hypotheticals all you like, but it doesn’t fool anyone. ”

    What is it about this that you don’t understand. Georgia WASN’T A MEMBER so therefore there was absolutely no potential whatever for NATO involvement. You construct an argument based on hypotheticals and when I point this out accuse me of attempting to “fool” people. What an interesting reasoning system you have. So logical.