The War in NATO

My recent op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor argues that the US objective in Afghanistan – preventing the creation of terrorist havens – does not require that Afghanistan become a peaceful, centralized state. I say that’s good news because it’s beyond us to build one. Absent this goal, the push for a surge of US or NATO forces in Afghanistan makes less sense.

I want to add couple points here that I couldn’t fit into the op-ed.

American leaders have lately been telling Europeans to make a bigger commitment to Afghanistan, even though the war is becoming unpopular in much of Europe. For instance, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech at a conference in Munich in February where he explained the terrorist threat to the Europeans to get them to send more troops to Afghanistan. He did not say how counter-insurgency in Afghanistan serves counter-terrorism in Pakistan, which is where the terrorists in the region who should concern Europeans mostly live. At least in the short term, 55,000 thousand western soldiers across the border seem more likely to inflame Pakistani extremism than to suppress it.

This hectoring demonstrates the trouble with NATO. Back when NATO had a clear purpose, to defend Western Europe from the Soviets, it made sense to ask the Europeans to do more. The Europeans had an incentive to avoid military spending; to free ride. That was OK with Americans at the start of the Cold War, when we were eager to spark European economic growth as a bulwark against Communism. Once Western Europe got rich, we told them to ante up, in part via publications like the Allied Contribution of the Common Defense.

Most American policy-makers believe that we remain in that Cold War relationship; that our allies are free-riding to a shared goal. But, as Stanley Kober has observed, threat perceptions have diverged, and many Europeans, rather than appreciating our wars, dispute their efficacy. Europeans seem more inclined than Americans to wonder whether the war in Afghanistan is making them safer. By asserting a common cause without providing one, NATO clouds this reality. It deludes us into thinking that our efforts are a favor that the Europeans ought to return.

It has become popular to worry that Afghanistan will destroy NATO. That would be no great loss. Today, the principle effect of NATO and its eastward expansion is to antagonize Russia. The benefit that justifies this antipathy is unclear. How do the military responsibilities that the US has so casually accepted in recent years – to defend Estonia, for example, against Russia – serve US interests? This guarantee, if it’s believed, seems likely to encourage the war it defends against by provoking moral hazard; as the defense we provide our new allies frees them to offend Russia.

The thesis that the prospect of NATO membership spreads liberal values or institutions is plausible, but I’m not convinced. Nor is it clear that NATO matters much in signing up allies for wars. It’s possible we got a few more contributions in Afghanistan by virtue of the alliance, but I doubt it mattered much. The countries that went probably did so because they believed in the mission, not because they are in NATO.

Despite its strategic obsolescence, NATO has proven politically useful on both sides of the Atlantic. However hollow, NATO will survive. What we might lose in Afghanistan are misconceptions about its usefulness.