NATO has been with us 60 years. The organization staged the usual self-congratulatory anniversary ceremony last month, with President Barack Obama in attendance. Exactly what the organization is supposed to do these days isn't clear, however. A herd of heads of state and government celebrated the alliance's birthday without bothering to explain its purpose.
The original goal of NATO, articulated by Lord Hastings Ismay, the alliance's first Secretary General, was to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in. The first objective was firmly achieved two decades ago when the Berlin Wall fell, the Eastern European satellites spun out of Moscow's orbit, and the Soviet Union collapsed.
Russia's oil-based rise has changed nothing: Moscow might be able to impose its will on neighboring Georgia, which was part of Imperial Russia as well as the USSR. But there will be no Red Army romp to the Atlantic. With ten times Russia's GDP and nearly four times Russia's population, Europe is more than capable of defending itself.
Meeting the second goal arose naturally out of the rubble of World War II. A few neo-Nazis might still meet furtively to discuss the coming of the Fourth Reich, but most Germans have run far from their past. Today the Bundeswehr is primarily a recruiting mechanism for social service agencies; indeed, when drafted two-thirds of young men choose alternative civilian work. The once feared German warriors are a memory.
The problem is not a lack of individual bravery. As of March, 34 German soldiers and policemen had been killed in Afghanistan. But Berlin insists on deploying military units to the north, where they aren't needed. And they no longer are combat-worthy. Reinhold Robbe, the parliamentary commissioner for the military, observed: "Plainly put, the soldiers are too fat, exercise too little, and take little care of their diet." London's Daily Mail headlined one story: "German soldiers are 'too fat to fight' Taliban because they drink so much (while our boys go dry)." Europe can breathe a sigh of relief — no one need worry about German soldiers singing Deutschland Uber Alles and goose-stepping down their own, let alone someone else's, streets.
Which leaves keeping America in, but to what end? The U.S. isn't needed to protect Europe from the Russians or Germans. Instead, Washington provides prosperous and populous allies, whose collective economy and population are larger than that of the United States, with a defense insurance policy at American expense. If the Balkans get messy, Washington sends in real military forces. If something should go terribly wrong with Russia, we know who the Europeans would expect to save the day. Hint: It wouldn't be the overweight and well-lubricated Bundeswehr.
Other members of NATO want the U.S. to believe that it gets something out of the alliance. But it's hard to see what. Albania and Croatia joined the organization this year. They added geopolitical liabilities rather than military assets to NATO. Proposals to bring in Georgia and Ukraine, which are involved in complex geopolitical disputes with Russia, risk another confrontation with nuclear-armed Moscow, this one in the latter's rather than America's backyard, and over conflicts in which America has no stake.
The U.S. isn't even getting much out of its allies for its number one geopolitical objective of the present, Afghanistan. The British, Danes, French, and Australians have fought. So have the Canadians and Dutch, who, unfortunately, will be going home over the next year or two.
But most of the nearly two score countries (NATO members plus other states) have followed the German model — modest detachments deployed in regions and under conditions, called "caveats," designed to ensure that they are never shot at. Indeed, American commanders say that ISAF stands for "I Saw America Fight" rather than "International Security Assistance Force."
Consider the record of the Czech contingent. The Herald Sun (Australia) reported that "When asked by the Britons to attack Afghan rebels, the commander of a special operations unit (SOG) said 'we're not going to, it's dangerous,' then ordered his men to get in trucks and return to the base." At another point the SOG commander rejected a British request for aid by noting that his 35-member unit was on vacation. This is "help" that Washington doesn't need.
The Obama administration is having no more luck in enlisting additional European assistance than did its predecessor. So far the response to the president's plea, writes William Pfaff, is "65 men with two F-16s promised by Belgium; 12 trainers and a small troop contingent (probably from the gendarmerie) for the election in Afghanistan next month, with a larger French contribution to the new, combined European Gendarmerie Force that has already dispatched 300 to 400 men and women, all to improve Afghanistan's own national police, so far without conspicuous success." The Europeans also are promising a "civilian surge."
It comes as no surprise that the Europeans see little cause for fighting in Afghanistan, but NATO invoked Article 5 in 2001 with great fanfare for the first time as a show of support for the U.S. If the alliance is not needed to defend Europe and won't aid America elsewhere, then, really, what is its purpose?
Some alliance members recognize that NATO is failing its Afghanistan test. Warned British Defense Secretary John Hutton: "Success in Afghanistan is fast emerging as the test of NATO's relevance in this new post-cold war age." If the alliance can't act there, then "NATO will risk being irrelevant, a talking shop where process is everything," he adds.
In fact, that's all NATO has become.
It's time to give NATO, at least an American-dominated NATO, a decent burial. The U.S. should pull out, leaving the Europeans to construct whatever continental security architecture seems best. If they want to sort out the Balkans, guard the Caucasus, or engage in some other far-flung mission, they should be free to do so. Without American forces.
At the same time, Washington could work out agreements with any European nations with real militaries that see the value of continued security cooperation. That likely would include Britain and France. And maybe Germany, if its soldiers would lay off the sausages and beer.