NATO Countries Meet in Lisbon

The inherent vulnerabilities and shortcomings of an alliance created in 1949 to defeat an adversary that ceased to exist in 1989 will be on display for all to see tomorrow when President Obama and leaders of NATO meet in Lisbon. I predict that President Obama will try to put the best possible gloss on the alliance’s inability to resolve its internal differences over Afghanistan, and the leaders of the other NATO countries will surely do the same. But they can not obscure the fact that an alliance that was expanded on the premise that it was uniquely suited to deal with problems far outside of Europe has revealed itself to be all but irrelevant.

Much of the media coverage has focused on the NATO mission in Afghanistan, especially the new, new target date for the handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan government some time in 2014, ignoring the fact that a number of the NATO countries that contributed troops to the mission will have already headed for the exits by then. A story in today’s Washington Post notes that Canada expects to pull out its 3,000 troops next year, and Germany will begin withdrawing in 2012.

Beyond the Afghan mission, it is to be expected that President Obama and the other heads of state will reaffirm the supposed central importance of NATO to transatlantic and, indeed, global security through a new “strategic concept.”

The reality is very different. The U.S. government chose to retain NATO after the end of the Cold War, in part to discourage the creation of an independent European military capability. The net effect of this short-sighted decision is clear: European military capabilities have atrophied, European military spending has stagnated or declined, and U.S. military personnel, and U.S. taxpayers, have been forced to bear a larger and larger share of the burdens of defending a continent eminently capable of defending itself.

It could be argued that the Europeans wouldn’t have much need for more military spending in the first place, even if Americans renounced the security guarantee under Article 5 of the NATO treaty. After all, who are they going to fight? The persistent conflicts that defined Europe for centuries have been replaced by economic interdependence and growing political integration. The notion of France going to war with Germany is about as absurd as Kentucky going to war with Tennessee. 

Regardless, Washington should not be let off the hook for its past failures to encourage European countries to do more for their own defense. Lacking such capabilities, a number of NATO countries have made a show of supporting U.S. policies, most notably in Afghanistan. But public support for such missions is weak, and elected leaders of democratic countries risk a return to private life if they consistently buck the wishes of their constituents.

NATO has become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end – security – that could command support on both sides of the Atlantic, and unpopular one, at that. Germans aren’t willing to die in Afghanistan to prove that NATO is still relevant. Though the concept has fallen into disfavor thanks to the Bush administration’s shenanigans in the run-up to the war in Iraq, a “coalition of the willing” is a lot more useful than a “coalition of the reticent and feckless.”