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Why NATO Matters

NATO celebrates its 60th anniversary this week, even as the limits of its power are being demonstrated in Afghanistan. The alliance gamely agreed to take on the war effort against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But most of its members refused to do any serious fighting, leaving the actual combat to what is essentially a “coalition of the willing”: the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, and a handful of others. Even those countries that are doing the heavy lifting are finding themselves hampered by NATO’s dysfunctional command structure, with countless officers rotating in and out on four to six month tours and various national contingents checking with their capitals before undertaking certain missions. There is nothing like the streamlined command structure that turned around the war effort in Iraq.

That’s a cause of real concern as 21,000 more Americans head to Afghanistan. To make sure those troops are deployed in the best possible manner, we will probably have to Americanize the war effort even more than we have already done.

Does that mean NATO’s day is done and we can afford to junk the alliance? That’s what Andy Bacevich argues. He concedes that Europe faces a continuing threat from Russia, whose bellicosity has diminished but not disappeared since the end of the Cold War. But he goes on to argue:

The difference between 1949 and 2009 is that present-day Europe is more than capable of addressing today’s threat, without American assistance or supervision. Collectively, the Europeans don’t need U.S. troops or dollars, both of which are in short supply anyway and needed elsewhere. Yet as long as the United States sustains the pretense that Europe cannot manage its own affairs, the Europeans will endorse that proposition, letting Americans foot most of the bill. Only if Washington makes it clear that the era of free-riding has ended will Europe grow up.

I’m not sure what he has in mind by “free riding,” since it is no more expensive to base U.S. troops in Europe than it is in the continental United States. In most cases it is actually cheaper because European states like Germany underwrite some of the costs. That’s one reason Donald Rumsfeld was pursuing a misguided agenda when he decided to bring most American troops home; I hope that Bob Gates countermands his redeployment scheme.

Another reason Bacevich (and Rumsfeld) are wrong is that having our troops in Europe puts them closer to the action in places where they might be deployed, such as Central Asia and the Middle East.

Moreover — and this is the key mission that U.S. troops still accomplish — they provide vital stabilization and reassurance to Europe that it will not be abandoned by the United States. Left on their own, it is not hard to imagine the feckless Western Europeans leaving Eastern and Southern Europeans at the mercy of aggressors and demagogues, as happened in the 1930s and again, on a smaller scale, during the Balkans crisis of the early 1990s. The dangers today are not as great as in the fascist or even the immediate post-communist eras, but neither are the defense capacities and willingness to fight of most major western European nations. It is wishful thinking to assume that if left alone by the United States they will pick up the burden of their own defense. More likely, they will cut deals with the devil, which will wind up proving costly to us in the end.

NATO still performs a vital function by stabilizing newly democratic areas and expanding the boundaries of the “West.” In the 1990s that meant moving NATO into nations such as Poland and Hungary ahead of the European Union. Today it means incorporating nations such as Ukraine and Georgia, however fearful Europeans may be of those tasks. It would be a mistake to leave NATO — as much of a mistake as it would be to rely on NATO too heavily in places like Afghanistan. The alliance can still play an important, largely political role if we realistically assess its strengths and limitations.


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