Media reports indicate that President Obama may abandon his plan to ask America’s NATO partners to provide more combat troops for the mission in Afghanistan. Given how militarily useless many of the existing European deployments have been, that may not prove to be a big loss. But the feckless conduct of some of the European members of NATO in Afghanistan is indicative of a larger problem. The reality is that Washington’s much-touted alliances now involve more symbolism and tokenism than any meaningful addition to America’s military power. Immediately following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, NATO governments invoked Article V—which states that an attack on one member is an attack on all—for the first time in the alliance’s history. American leaders welcomed the European pledges of support, and the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan soon had a significant NATO component.
But early on, doubts arose about how serious the European allies were about their military commitments. Indeed, most of the NATO governments seemed to view their troop deployments as personnel for humanitarian relief and nation-building tasks rather than for combat operations. The military heavy lifting was by and large left to U.S. forces and those of a few other countries, primarily Canada, Britain and the Netherlands.
Most NATO members have placed various caveats on the use of their military personnel. Some are prohibited from night operations (which are inherently more dangerous). Others are prohibited from being deployed in certain areas of the country—specifically, those areas where significant combat is occurring and additional troops might actually prove useful.
Germany is one of the worst offenders in that regard. Berlin has restricted its troops to the northern regions of Afghanistan, where virtually no fighting is taking place. Despite Washington’s repeated requests, the German government has refused to lift that restriction. That might be just as well. A December 2008 German parliamentary report concluded that the country’s troops in Afghanistan spent most of their time lounging around and drinking beer, and that many were now too fat and out of condition to be of any use in combat operations.
The desire of U.S. allies to keep their troops out of harm’s way is not confined to the Afghanistan theater—or for that matter to the NATO allies. A similar pattern emerged with the deployments of both South Korean and Japanese forces in Iraq. Seoul insisted that its troops be stationed only in Iraqi Kurdistan, by far the safest area of the country. But the South Korean government was a profile in courage compared to the Japanese government. Although Tokyo sent units of its Self-Defense Force (SDF) to Iraq, it insisted that those forces must be confined to noncombat roles. Indeed, the SDF units had to be protected by the troops of other coalition countries. Thus, from a military standpoint, the Japanese contribution was not an asset to the occupation effort—it was a liability.
Such episodes indicate that many of America’s supposed military partners are more interested in engaging in tokenism and security symbolism than they are with playing a meaningful military role. The governments of those countries want to show that they are good allies and willing participants in U.S.-led missions, while incurring few, if any, battlefield risks. That sort of conduct may salve the consciences of political leaders in allied capitals, and it may appeal to U.S. policymakers for whom symbolism is more important than substance. It may even gull an otherwise suspicious American public. But it provides little useful addition to America’s own military power.
One wonders at times if U.S. leaders believe that this country should have allies for the sake of having allies, even if those military partners bring little of value to the table. Why else would American officials tolerate the tokenism evident with the allied contributions in both Iraq and Afghanistan? And why would those same officials be so enthusiastic about the addition of tiny, militarily insignificant members to the NATO alliance?
The last round of NATO expansion brought on board such military powerhouses as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia. According to the 2008 edition of the widely respected publication The Military Balance, Estonia’s annual defense budget is $386 million, and the country fields 4,100 active-duty troops. The figures for Latvia are $471 million and 5,996 troops; Lithuania, $470 million and 13,850 troops; and Slovenia, $750 million and 5,973 troops. At NATO’s summit last year in Bucharest, alliance leaders gave the green light to membership for Croatia and Albania. Croatia’s accession would add $875 million and 17,660 troops, while Albania’s would add $208 million and 11,020 military personnel.
Collectively, such members spend less on their militaries in a year than the United States spends in Iraq in two weeks. How adding such military pygmies to NATO is supposed to enhance the security of the United States is a mystery. Indeed, since several of those countries have serious tensions with their neighbors, they are not just militarily irrelevant, but are outright security liabilities that could drag the United States into needless conflicts.
U.S. policymakers ought to be far more realistic about the utility of alliances. Allies are neither good nor bad, per se. But American officials should not pretend that allies are making meaningful military contributions when the evidence indicates otherwise. Security symbolism and tokenism is of little practical use, yet that is the level of assistance that has become all too common from America’s alliance partners.