Whither NATO?

By Caitlin Taylor

Apr 3, 2009 8:36am

STRASBOURG, France — “NATO is the most successful alliance in modern history,” President Obama said Friday at a joint press availability with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “The basic premise of NATO is Europe’s security is the United States’ security, and vice versa.”

President Obama was referring to the famed “Article 5” of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty Organization treaty: “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”

Though NATO troops have worked on peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia, Article 5 has been invoked once in NATO’s 60 year history: after the terrorist attacks on the U.S. on September 11, 2001.

But in reality, how much have NATO member states been willing to contribute troops to the military mission in Afghanistan, as if they have all been attacked?

Not much, NATO critics say.

Other than the U.S., Great Britain, France, Canada, Albania, and the Netherlands, most NATO countries have been reluctant to send troops into the country that has felled so many empires before. President Bush pleaded with NATO allies to send troops, to little avail.

Thus, though President Obama comes to the NATO summit today with plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan that he will describe to leaders of the now-28 member states, beyond the push for help in what the Obama administration is calling a “civilian surge” in Afghanistan – aides to help with reconstruction, training Afghan police, and combating corruption and drug trafficking – an existential question lurks beneath the surface of this summit: why does NATO exist?

"NATO in 2020: What Lies Ahead?" is the title of the conference, which gets at, politely, questions about the world role of the alliance, formed to combat the then-Soviet Union.

"It’s entirely unclear what NATO’s reason for existence is after 1989 [the year the Berlin Wall came down]," Tarak Barkawi, of Cambridge University’s Center for International Studies, told TIME.

But beyond NATO members; reluctance to send troops, members of the Obama administration also say that the non-military efforts of NATO allies have fallen short.

The British were supposed to battle drug trafficking; the Germans were supposed to train Afghan police; the Italians were supposed to help set up the Afghan justice system.

None of these efforts will be taught in graduate schools in international relations as resounding successes, critics say.

President Obama’s aides say Australia and the UK are talking about sending more troops for the new mission, and the French may help train Afghan police.

NATO runs a serious risk of becoming a shadow of the promise of its alliance, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned last year.

"I worry a great deal about the alliance evolving into a two-tiered alliance in which you have some allies willing to fight and die to protect people’s security and others who are not," Gates testified before Congress. "And I think that it puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure and perhaps even get worse."

On that first tier would be those who put their troops where their signatures are – the US, UK, Canada, Poland, France – which is rejoining the military command of the alliance this year – and Albania, which is a new member state, and, on the second tier, the vast majority of NATO countries.

Speaking to reporters earlier this week in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told Europe to step it up. "This is not President Obama’s war," Scheffer said. "The allies need to ensure that they all do their part. No complaints about ‘Americanization’ of this mission, if the other allies don’t play their role."

- jpt

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