If not, should it be?
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization may not be dead, but it sure isn’t in the best of health. Currently, NATO is engaged in operations in Afghanistan and Libya. And SecDef Gates, on his way out the door, has lambasted the lack of military capability shown by our partner nations. Norway, with a force of 57 F-16 Fighting Falcons, says it can’t sustain a 6 jet detachment in support of operations in Libya, for example.
US operations in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, while not universally successful, were by and large very effective. But as NATO joined in and provided forces, and assumed responsibility for several regions, the momentum slowly shifted, and Taliban forces regained a toehold in several areas. And have since expanded that to a foothold. Our NATO allies where hamstrung by restrictive rules of engagement that effectively kept their troops sitting inside their compounds while the Taliban built up their own capabilities. Our allies were also crippled by a lack of helicopters, intelligence and surveillance capability, and limited logistical capabilities.
The fact of the matter is, only the US is putting any real military muscle into the alliance.
It is almost a given that the US can only participate in military operations that are multi-lateral, with a “coalition” of partner nations. But that is strictly a political consideration, not a military one. There are a lot of brave, conscientious troops in our partner nations, but in a lot of ways, it is easier for our forces to operate without allies. Working alone simplifies logistics and communications, and makes the command structure much simpler, and provides a unity of effort that is impossible to impose on an amalgam of forces from multiple nations.
NATO, of course, was originally formed to defend Western Europe against an expansionist Soviet Union and its satellite vassals in Eastern Europe. In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the choice between aligning with the US/UK, or hoping the USSR would play nice was something of a no-brainer. And even if the US remained the biggest kid in that sandbox, many NATO nations made very real contributions to their own defense.
But that focus on one relatively well defined task enjoyed popular political support, and mostly took place before the imposition of the social welfare state in Western Europe, so there was actually enough money available to fund respectable military forces.
But as time went on, European nations noticed that as long as the US was the ultimate guarantor of their defense, they could trim a little force structure here and there around the margins. And with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many western European nations gutted their military forces.
And then came the Al Qaeda attacks on the US on 9/11. NATO very promptly invoked Article 5 of the NATO charter, which said that an attack on any member nation was an attack on all member nations, and brought into play the multilateral defense portions of the treaty. In a moment of solidarity with us, many NATO countries wrote a check their militaries just couldn’t cash.
And to be honest, what is really in it for our European partners? There’s only a slim margin of support for our operations overseas today, and we were the ones attacked. You can argue that fighting Islamist extremism is in their own best interest, and I’d tend to agree with you. But the problem is, our partner nations may not actually see it that way. Many European nations have very strong commercial ties with nations that we have little involvement with. And their own huge Muslim populations certainly are a domestic political factor.
That NATO nations have actually been as involved in our wars as much as they have been is really rather surprising.
But what about the future of NATO? In the past few years, several former Soviet satellite nations, such as Poland, have joined NATO. But while I’m all for the expansion of freedom to those former nations, does anyone really think our European partner nations are willing to go to war with anyone over the fate of Latvia? Russian operations against Georgia in 2008 showed the reluctance of NATO nations to interfere with Russia in what has traditionally been perceived as the Russian sphere of influence. But if NATO isn’t willing to leap to the defense of each and every member nation, it loses any legitimate deterrent value. And unless the European partners are willing to greatly increase their defense spending to field far more capable military forces, they won’t have the ability, much less the political will, to influence events outside the core German/French region. And there is little or any public support for such a buildup.
I doubt we’ll see a dissolution of NATO anytime soon. But for all practical purposes, NATO as a military alliance has withered and died.