NATO at 60 faces growing pains that could threaten its survival

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — The questions that nobody will ask out loud about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: How much is enough?

How many new members can NATO afford to take on? If Georgia had already been a member last August, would NATO have gone to war with Russia in its defense? And how far beyond Europe should it try to operate?

When U.S. President Barack Obama asks NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan, few member nations will comply, but nobody will ask what a “North Atlantic” alliance is doing in the middle of an Afghan civil war.

Well, it is a party, after all, and nobody wants to spoil it. NATO marked its 60th anniversary Saturday in Strasbourg and Kehl, and that really is something to celebrate: The organization’s survival for 20 years after the disappearance of the threat that justified its formation defies most historical precedents. It will probably be around for another 20, too, but quite soon it will have to rethink the heedless expansion of both membership and commitments that have characterized the last 20.

History offers few other examples of alliances that outlived the conflict that gave them birth, but NATO has added 10 new members since the collapse of the Soviet Union and has expanded its area of operations outside the North Atlantic region for the first time. Two more countries, Croatia and Albania, were welcomed into the alliance April 1, for a total of 28, and a further three (Macedonia, Ukraine and Georgia) have already been told that they will eventually be allowed to join.

Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France is at last rejoining the NATO integrated military command structure that it left under Charles de Gaulle in 1966. The alliance accounts for 70 percent of the world’s military spending, and towers above all potential rivals. This is a remarkably successful organization by any standard, and yet it is also remarkably uncertain about its role and its future.

NATO was never just a traditional alliance such as the Triple Entente of the early 20th century, which was basically a diplomatic agreement despite its success militarily. Members of the alliance didn’t train together in peacetime; there was no effort to standardize equipment or coordinate weapons purchases; and there wasn’t even much detailed planning for strategic cooperation in the event of war.

By contrast, NATO soon began to evolve an integrated command structure and a large bureaucratic infrastructure. When the end of the Soviet threat in 1989-90 removed the original motive for its existence, it automatically began searching for alternative justifications for its existing structures.

Episodes like the bombing campaigns in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 and Serbia in 1999 provided some temporary employment for NATO’s air forces, but what really secured the alliance’s survival was a lingering fear about Russia and a general reluctance to create any purely “European” military alternative to NATO. Partly this was due to sheer parsimony: It has always been a lot cheaper to let the Americans carry much of the burden of defending Europe. And partly it was about Germany.

Even in the days when the old Soviet Union presented a real military threat, it was well within the capacity of the European members of NATO to deter that threat without American help. Their population was equal to that of the Warsaw Pact countries, and their wealth was two or three times greater. They chose not to solve their security problem that way because the United States was willing to carry part of the burden in return for a leadership role — and because a purely European alliance would depend too heavily on Germany.

Lord Ismay, the British officer who became NATO’s first secretary general, famously remarked that the alliance had been created to keep “the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” Two full generations after the last big European war, that fear that Germany’s demographic and economic weight would make it the dominant power in a purely European alliance is much diminished, but it is far from extinct. Besides, the course of least resistance is to stick with the existing structures.

The NATO alliance is Europe’s army, to the extent that one exists at all, and there is no viable alternative on the horizon. However, it is an American-led alliance, and it often has to respond to American initiatives and requests that have little resonance in the foreign ministries of the European members. As a result, NATO has significantly over-reached itself, and it will probably have to withdraw from some of its more exposed positions if it is to retain its central position in European affairs.

One very sore point is the military commitment in Afghanistan. It’s not just a question of the unequal sacrifices borne by the various NATO countries with troops there, although the disparities are very large: the British have lost 152 troops killed, Canada has 116 dead, and little Denmark has lost 23 killed, while five of the six biggest European members of NATO, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland, have together lost only 95 killed. The larger problem is that many senior people in European NATO countries privately see the war as unwinnable, unnecessary and none of NATO’s business.

It is unwinnable because the Western armies in Afghanistan, a country of minorities, have effectively allied themselves with the other ethnic groups, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara, in a civil war against the largest minority, the Pashtun, whose main political vehicle in this era happens to be the Taliban. It is almost never described in these terms in official NATO circles or in the Western media, but a brief glance at any ethnographic map of Afghanistan will show that every single Pashtun-majority province is in revolt while none of the others are. And a brief glance at the “Afghan National Army” will reveal that it is disproportionately recruited from the other ethnic groups.

This is a war that can only end in the traditional Afghan solution of a power-sharing deal between the various ethnic groups, and that will not occur until the foreign armies have left, or at least are clearly on their way out. So the foreign troops might as well leave now, because the final result will probably be about the same whether they stay for another three years or leave in three weeks.

The war is also unnecessary, because the constantly repeated mantra that a post-withdrawal Afghanistan would become a “terrorist base” for attacks against the West is sheer nonsense. Terrorists do not need “bases,” and all the terrorist attacks carried out in Western countries by Islamist radicals (including the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.) were actually planned and prepared by Muslim radicals already living in the West.

Spiritual leadership and strategic guidance for the 9/11 attacks came from al-Qaida camps that happened to be in Afghanistan at that time, but neither the Afghan location nor the camps themselves were necessary. Osama bin Laden and his senior people could just as easily have been living in safe houses in Karachi or Khartoum. Nor, by the way, is it likely that he informed his hosts, the Taliban leadership, of his plans to attack the U.S. and kill thousands of Americans, which would certainly trigger a U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

It is possible that the Taliban could seize control of all Afghanistan after a NATO withdrawal from the country, but not very likely. After all, they never managed to establish control over the non-Pashtun north of the country in their five years of power in Kabul before the U.S. invasion, despite enjoying the full support of Pakistan. Why would we expect them to do so now?

Obama appears to have bought into Washington orthodoxy on the “war on terror,” which means that we can expect several more years of war in Afghanistan before U.S. policy diverges from the Bush formula in the “AfPak” region.

As European disaffection from that policy grows, there will be growing strains on NATO’s trans-Atlantic ties and even its intra-European ones, as most of the former Soviet-bloc NATO members tend to view international affairs through a Washington prism. But predictions that the Afghanistan war is the reef on which NATO will finally strike and sink are vastly exaggerated. It is just not important enough.

The much bigger danger to NATO’s future is the rapid expansion of its membership into eastern Europe. The absorption of former East Germany in 1990, the inclusion of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in 1999, and the expansion into Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia and the three Baltic states in 2004 were all strategically credible actions, if politically controversial ones. The Russians felt cheated, but they had nothing on paper promising that NATO would not expand into their former sphere of interest.

More importantly, NATO’s commitment to go to war, if necessary, to defend these new members is plausible. You can never be certain that it will keep its promise until and unless the day of crisis actually arrives, but the deterrent effect is genuine. Britain and France failed Czechoslovakia in 1938, but they really did go to war over their guarantee to Poland in 1939. Whereas nobody believes that NATO would ever go to war and risk the immolation of Europe in order to save Ukraine or Georgia if they got into a war with Russia.

The push to expand NATO even further east and take in Ukraine and Georgia comes mainly from Washington and has caused grave misgivings in most Western European capitals, but they have so far not defied the U.S. on the issue.

As a result, Kiev and Tbilisi now have formal declarations from NATO that they are on a path that leads to membership in the alliance. But to bring them in would turn it into a two-tier alliance where some members have real guarantees for their security in a crisis, and others have only paper promises that would not be honored.

Less than a quarter of Ukrainians want their country to become a NATO member. Most Georgians would love to, but President Mikheil Saakashvili actually launched an attack on Russian troops last summer (and quickly lost the ensuing war), which makes them a deeply unattractive partner for most other NATO countries. In neither case can one imagine a NATO military intervention in a crisis that would risk triggering the NATO-Russian war that has been successfully avoided for 60 years.

If NATO allows these countries to join, it will create a threat to its own survival. If it confines itself to its present frontiers, perhaps bringing a few more remnants of former Yugoslavia in from the cold, it will probably survive for another generation.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based journalist.