The NYT on NATO’s Mission

In recognition of NATO’s approaching 60th anniversary this morning’s New York Times editorial, observes that and France’s return to full NATO participation and remarks:

All that has inspired hopes of shaping a meaningful mission for the alliance after 20 years of post-cold-war drift. For that to happen, NATO must succeed in Afghanistan. Right now, it is frighteningly close to failing.

The fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda is the alliance’s first major operation outside of Europe. And it is a battle against the new enemies of the new century: nihilistic terrorism, corrupt and unstable rule. Yet of the alliance’s 26 NATO members, the brunt of the real fighting has been borne by only five: the United States, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Many other NATO countries have hobbled their forces with “national exceptions” — self-imposed restrictions on how and where they may be deployed. German soldiers, for example, can only be used in a noncombat role in the relatively peaceful north. The effect on relations among allied forces is corrosive.

I wish they’d given us a hint of what success in Afghanistan might look like in the editorial.

However, they’re absolutely right. NATO is a military alliance. Does a NATO membership that’s mostly there to hold our coats while we do the heavy lifting have a mission?

In the comments to James’s post on defense spending this morning I noted that one of the reasons that we spend so much on defense is that our allies spend so little. I recognize that some of that is strategic and to the extent that’s true I think we and they need to acknowledge the fact.

I believe it’s high time that our European allies begin to carry more of the weight, particularly in conflicts closer to home for them in Europe, in Africa, in the Mediterranean, and in the Gulf. When the inability to project power becomes a strategic objective, it calls the value of a military alliance built on such ground into question.

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Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.


  1. You could ask the question, including of the US, are we “in it to win it” concerning Afghanistan?

    As far as victory conditions, I think the answer is similar to Iraq. A minimal win is one where the conditions in the country make it no better than say France for being a terrorist launching site. A decisive win would be to establish a functioning and prosperous democracy as a alternative to the terrorist vision which could then help lead the region.

  2. James Joyner says:

    It’s a classic free rider problem, Dave. The Allies know we’re prepared to make up the difference and cover them under our security umbrella. They realized this even during the Cold War and got away with it.

  3. DC Loser says:

    To pick up on James’s point, the alliance will continue to let us do the heavy lifting as long as we insist on being the top dog and providing the bulk of forces. I argued long ago that NATO became an anachroism when the Warsaw Pact dissolved along with the USSR. It should have become a European entity under some kind of political umbrella like the OSCE. I guess we still found it useful to keep it under our control in the 90s. But I can’t see the point now. I would recommend that we give up the monopoly on military leadership of the alliance in favor of it going to whomever ponies up the largest military contribution (personnel and resources) to the alliance. If France wants the SACEUR slot, let them do the heavy lifting.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    My all-time favorite Soviet era wisecrack:

    The slogan of the Warsaw Pact: “Russian respect for the law, German civility, Polish sobriety [ed. this was told me by a Pole], Czech industrial might, united by a common understanding of the Hungarian language.”

    The notion of Eastern European troops following the vanguard of the Red Army against Western Europe was always ridiculous. Russia might well have invaded Western Europe but they wouldn’t have received a great deal of help from the rest of the Warsaw Pact.

  5. DC Loser says:

    Dave – that’s true up to a degree. The Soviets rated their “allies” according to various degrees of political reliability. On one end there were the reliables, which pretty much they could be counted on to do anything Moscow wanted (and more). That would have been the East Germans, who (being typical Prussians) were often more doctrinaire and orthodox Marxists than their Moscow comrades. The Russians looked absolutely reasonable compared to the East Germans. Everybody else was viewed with a degree of suspicion. The Bulgarians and Czechs were relatively trusted, but the Poles and Hungarians weren’t.

  6. dutchmarbel says:

    The US spent 48% of the global militairy spending in 2008 and the “free riding” Europeans 20%. Number three on the list spent 8%.

  7. dutchmarbel says:

    And besides… if we want to take our rightful place in the community of nations we have that right — but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the European people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is our demonstrated ability to build and create.