NATO: A Troubled Transatlantic Marriage

June 28, 2004 • Commentary

The NATO summit in Istanbul (June 28–29) will produce a barrage of statements about the importance of the alliance in the 21st century, and there will be an equal number of proclamations about the continued good health of the transatlantic security relationship. Such optimism, however, cannot disguise the growing fissures in the alliance.

NATO has dramatically shifted its focus since the end of the Cold War. During that era, the mission of the alliance was straightforward: To deter a Soviet attack on democratic Europe (or more subtly, to prevent Soviet blackmail). But as NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer emphasized in a May 17 speech, territorial defense is no longer the alliance’s sole‐​or even primary–mission. In the 21st century, the principal goal of the “new and improved” NATO is to “project stability,” both in Europe and other regions.

The alliance has actually been moving in that direction for more than a decade, as evidenced by the offensive military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. But at least those missions were in the European theater. NATO’s latest troop deployment is in Afghanistan, and the United States is pressing hard for a similar mission in Iraq.

But the farther NATO ventures from its traditional territorial defense mission in Europe, the less competent and united the alliance becomes. There are only 6,500 troops deployed in Afghanistan, mainly in the capital, Kabul, and the surrounding area. Yet even that modest undertaking has strained the alliance. Efforts to deploy more forces elsewhere in the country have been postponed repeatedly.

And that is with a mission that has the united backing of NATO members. The situation is much worse with regard to Iraq. Key alliance members, most notably France and Germany, vehemently opposed the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein’s government. Alliance unity has improved little in the intervening months. Most recently, Berlin and Paris spurned U.S. pleas at the G-8 summit to endorse a NATO peacekeeping deployment to Iraq. The best the United States is likely to get at Istanbul is approval for a limited alliance mission to train Iraqi security forces. Such a result would be little more than a sop to Washington.

The underlying problem is that there is no consensus among NATO members about what the organization should do outside of Europe. That is especially true regarding policy in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions‐​the most likely arenas for “out of area” missions.

Differences over Iraq policy are obvious, but the discord does not end there. Although the United States and its European allies share the objective of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, there are sharp differences over the strategy to achieve that goal. Washington favors isolating the Islamist regime and applying maximum pressure. Most of the European members embrace a more complex strategy of engagement, entailing incentives as well as penalties.

Perhaps the greatest degree of transatlantic discord involves the Israeli‐​Palestinian conflict. NATO’s European members regard U.S. policy as reflexively pro‐​Israel. Washington considers the Europeans too soft on Palestinian terrorism and some U.S. officials even believe they detect a whiff of anti‐​Semitism from their alliance partners. In any case, there is almost no agreement on the substance of policy.

NATO since the end of the Cold War is reminiscent of a married couple that has drifted apart. Some couples will do almost anything to avoid facing the troubling reality that the marriage no longer works. They may purchase a new home or even decide to have a child to hold the relationship together.

Instead of confronting the question of whether an elaborate, formal transatlantic alliance makes sense in the fluid post‐​Cold War era, NATO has acted like a married couple in denial. It issues ever more vague platitudes about new missions in other parts of the world. It also has expanded its membership, taking in a dozen countries in Central and Eastern Europe. In the process, the alliance has become more of a political honor society than an effective military organization.

The alliance that once faced down the powerful Soviet Union across the heart of Europe now strains to fulfill a meager mission in Afghanistan and squabbles over a host of policy issues. NATO remains superficially an impressive organization. But as Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland: “There is no there there.” The alliance lacks either the cohesion or the seriousness of purpose to play a significant role in the 21st century.

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