What’s NATO to Do?

This article appeared in Copley News Service.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Having successfully deterred Soviet aggression, what next for the alliance?

To help answer that question more than 40 presidents andprime ministers, accompanied by legions of aides and innumerablejournalists, are swarming into Washington for city-widefestivities from April 23rd to 25th. But all of the king'shorses and all of the king's men will have trouble developing anew role for NATO.

There is no longer a Soviet Union. Even a hawk like theWeekly Standard's William Kristol admits that no comparablethreat "is likely to emerge for many years, if not decades."

Moreover, the Western Europeans are fully capable of dealingwith Moscow now and in the future. The British, French, andGermans alone spend more than Russia on the military. TheEuropean Union has a combined population in excess of 400million, a GDP of more than $8 trillion, and a military of overone million. Add the polyglot nations of central and easternEurope and the task of even a revived Russia becomesinsurmountable.

So NATO advocates are busy devising new duties for thealliance. They believe the organization should promote democracyin the former Soviet satellites and ensure peace throughoutEurope. NATO enthusiasts foresee further expansion into EasternEurope and closer connections throughout North Africa and theTranscaucasus.

Indeed, without NATO, it has been said, we would have war inthe Balkans. Conflict would threaten surrounding states. Therewould be massive ethnic cleansing and disruptive refugee flows. Instability would stalk the continent.

Er, never mind.

In fact, NATO's blundering assault on Yugoslavia has createdevery condition it was supposed to prevent. Diplomaticintervention on behalf of the Albanian rebels strengthened Serbresolve to retain the province of Kosovo.

Military intervention convinced Belgrade to brutallysuppress the guerrilla movement and drive out native Albanians. Chaos, instability, and suffering have spread throughout theregion.

Images of destitute Kosovar refugees, Yugoslav factories inflames, and Serbs being killed by NATO airstrikes have dampenedwhat was supposed to be a joyous celebration. Ironically, it wasfear of intruding on NATO's anniversary that caused some analyststo originally propose intervention in Kosovo.

For example, earlier this year Robert Hunter of the RandCorporation complained that "If fighting in Kosovo goes onunabated at the time of NATO's 50th anniversary summit inWashington this April, the focus will not be on its new strategicconcept or grand visions. Kosovo will overshadow bothcelebration of the past and plans for the future."

Hunter's sentiments were widespread, but it is hard toimagine a poorer rationale for military action. Which helpsexplain why NATO blundered so badly.

The allies intervened in a conflict not their own. Theystarted bombing for the wrong reason. They ignored history andacted hastily. They failed to develop contingency plans to copewith unexpected results. They gave no thought to the ultimateconsequences of their actions.

As tragic as is NATO's experiment in Wilsonian warmongering,it at least answers the question as to the alliance's futurerole: none.

The organization has demonstrated that it is incapable ofmaintaining peace in the historically unstable and strategicallyunimportant periphery of Europe. This was never a sensible goal: the causes of ethnic fratricide run deep and decisions to kill,maim, and displace one's neighbors are rarely rational.

Until now NATO adopted the sensible policy ofnonintervention. All of the major powers erected firebreaks towar, limiting the Bosnian civil war to Bosnia.

In contrast, the allied decision to intervene in Kosovospread conflict to surrounding states and confronted Russia. Indeed, as in World War I, alliances have acted as transmissionbelts of war from the Balkans outward to the rest of Europe.

NATO's disastrous mistake now starkly presents the questionof the organization's future. Its old purpose has disappearedand the proposed new ones are beyond its capability. "If NATOcannot meet this challenge and defeat it," asks William Kristol,"Why does the alliance still exist?"

Rather than concocting new duties--or undertaking new wars--to preserve an organization that has fulfilled its original role,the Europeans should construct a new security regime. NATOwithout the U.S., the Western European Union, EuroCorps, andOrganization for Security and Cooperation in Europe all providepotential frameworks for a European-organized, -funded, and -manned security organization.

Of course, America should remain culturally, economically,diplomatically, and politically involved in Europe. But ondefense Washington should merely remain warily watchful for thedevelopment of a potential hegemon that cannot be contained bythe Europeans.

Americans spent some $13 trillion (in current dollars) towin the Cold War. They deserve to reap the benefits of theirvictory, no longer subsidizing the populous and prosperousEuropeans. NATO's 50th anniversary should double as a well-deserved retirement celebration.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.