Madly Off in All Directions

NATO is at a crossroads after expanding too far and losing its core purpose

Globe and Mail, July 13, 2009

NATO is at a crossroads. After two decades of promiscuously embracing new tasks and partners, the alliance is suffering from overstretch and mounting internal tensions.

These problems have partly stemmed from the organization's success at reinventing itself after the Cold War. Defying analysts who predicted the dissolution of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization after the Soviet Union's collapse, the alliance instead nearly doubled its membership, as it absorbed most of Eastern Europe's former Warsaw Pact states, then undertook new "out-of-area" assignments from enforcing peace in Bosnia and Kosovo to patrolling the high seas for pirates and weapons smugglers.

Behind this rapid expansion of membership and functions, however, there was no clear plan and no member consensus on NATO's core purpose. Time and again, there was no agreement on priorities but instead an implicit tradeoff: NATO would pursue all goals.

In principle, there is nothing wrong with a multifunctional NATO. If the alliance can solve problems, then it should. But there has been a reckless quality to NATO's ever-expanding roles and commitments. NATO has effectively lost sight of its collective interest and is now less able to explain what it means to be "Atlantic" and how the Atlantic alliance can contribute to international order.

Last year, for example, NATO leaders announced that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually become members. This announcement represented a compromise of sorts between the Bush administration, which saw Ukraine and Georgia as two pieces in a global puzzle pitching democracies against autocracies, and European members, including Germany and France, which saw regional complexity, including potentially destabilizing relations with Russia.

As expected, Moscow was livid. An invasion of Georgia and the interruption of gas supplies to Ukraine followed in due course. Don't worry, some defenders of NATO's policy have responded - since Ukraine and Georgia are not yet formal members of the alliance, existing members have no obligation to defend these two countries against Russian threats or acts of war. But in fact, the current arrangement is the worst of both worlds because it creates informal obligations (transforming Ukraine and Georgia into de facto clients of NATO) but not an alliance-wide agreement to protect these countries - a situation Russia cannily exploited when it invaded Georgia. As a result, Russia has been able to strengthen its influence over both countries while making NATO look weak.

At the same time, the mission in Afghanistan is demonstrating the limits of what NATO may be able to accomplish in its out-of-area operations. What began as a U.S.-led invasion in 2001 became a predominantly NATO-led operation in 2003-2004, and every alliance summit now includes a browbeating of those members perceived to be not pulling their weight.


There have always been divisions within NATO over the use of force in particular circumstances. Most famously, during the strategic bombing of Serbian targets in 1999, when the alliance responded to Serbian military actions in Kosovo, the process of authorizing individual bombing raids required time-consuming and contentious consultation with multiple capitals. Although the Serbs yielded in the end, NATO came out bruised from the experience, with some allies, including the United States, concluding that they would never again fight a war "by committee."

Afghanistan, worryingly, is a larger and more demanding mission. Counterinsurgency war is deadly, difficult and costly - and it is pulling the allies apart. Only the most dedicated allies operate in the violent southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan. This is not the only indicator of division. NATO's Afghan operation runs in parallel to the coalition operation Enduring Freedom led by the United States, and a U.S. general is the double-hatted commander of both operations. NATO is becoming a three-tiered alliance: The United States does the heavy lifting, partly inside and partly outside NATO; some Atlantic-minded countries follow suit within NATO's operation; the remainder hang on in more peaceful regions.

In light of these problems, some observers are calling for all NATO countries to "get serious" about new global security threats by preparing their militaries and populations to contribute more actively to Afghan-like missions in the future. According to this view, the alliance needs to continue transforming itself into a multipurpose global force capable of undertaking major combat and counterinsurgency missions wherever they may be required.

Others take the opposite view, proposing that NATO "get back to basics" by concentrating on the security of its members and the Euro-Atlantic area and focus, in particular, on the growing Russian challenge.


In fact, neither of these positions gets it right, nor is there a need to make a false choice between a global and regional NATO. The alliance has important roles to play in Europe and beyond. But NATO needs to be smarter and more focused in its ambitions. It should now stabilize regional relations in order to enable its wider, global engagement.

In the Euro-Atlantic area, the priority should be to bring Russia in from the cold: specifically, by clarifying the seriousness of NATO's commitment to the security of its existing members, while informally signalling that we have no intention of admitting Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance and are willing to negotiate the contours of missile defence. NATO should build small and mobile standing forces for quick deployment within member countries, regularly exercise these forces across the alliance's eastern regions as well as its northern and southern flanks, and clearly communicate that any threatening actions against members, including energy cutoffs or cyber-attacks, will be viewed as hostile acts.

Regarding NATO's global role, the need to maintain alliance unity must be balanced against growing demands for ever-more diverse and ambitious overseas operations. NATO should strengthen its ability to make specific contributions to multilateral peace-building operations - including strategic airlift, deployable headquarters teams and other specialized functions that are often lacking in United Nations missions, such as engineers and professional military trainers.

Next month, former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen will become NATO's new secretary-general. His first and most difficult task will be to lead the organization through its first major strategic policy review since NATO's last Strategic Concept document was approved in 1999. He will be pulled in a thousand directions, but if he is to make a lasting contribution, he will need to convince alliance members to pare down and clarify NATO's expansive ambitions.

Roland Paris is director of the Centre for International Policy Studies and associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Sten Rynning is a professor of political science at the University of Southern Denmark.