As a staunch member of the Atlantic Council of Canada and as a past model-NATO award winner, I take a lot of pride in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s history as being a strong, successful and modern military-alliance. Unlike many multi-lateral institutions, NATO possesses a strong core principle embodied in ‘Article 5’ that holds that an attack against one member is an attack against all. NATO-members were often able to agree upon significant and substantial objectives – built upon the collective security of all members – and execute them. NATO’s obvious virtue is that, in principle, it unites countries which have a commitment to democracy and human rights, and allows them to protect each other and to protect these values elsewhere. The alliance ably accomplished its goal of protecting North Atlantic democracies from Soviet invasion and even succeeded in post-Cold War operations, such as the protection of ethnic Kosovars from attacks by Slobodan Milosevic’s forces.
However, NATO is now facing a new era. An era dictated not by large-scale, interstate, conventional conflicts in Europe, but instead characterized by smaller, asymmetric, intra-state conflicts beyond Europe’s shores. In other words, the model that once reflected America’s commitment to (Western) Europe’s military security now depends on Europe’s commitment to far-ranging “war-on-terror” and “human security” missions. The countries that fringe the Atlantic simply are not the world’s main chessboard anymore and with the arguable exception of Turkey, NATO includes none of the world’s rising economic (and eventually military) powers. NATO also includes a continually shrinking relative-share of the world’s relative military spending. In other words, cash-strapped Portugal is being asked to help in conflicts on two non-European continents whereas burgeoning Brazil is not asked, because it is not a member.
This strain, which has metastasized over the last few years is best viewed in Afghanistan and Libya. As NATO took over military responsibility for Afghanistan through the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), many NATO-members were unwilling to make troop commitments proportionate to those made by the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada. Alternatively they imposed arduous caveats on the use of their forces, requiring them to serve only in the far more peaceable north of Afghanistan. In Libya, enforcement of the no-fly-zone, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1973, was taken-up by NATO but now even as the mission was extended for up to 90 days, there is a bifurcation of political will emerging. Some members wish to expand the mission. American, British and Canadian warplanes now are bombing key targets in the Libyan capital of Tripoli whereas other members such as the Netherlands are indicating a desire to end any involvement in Operation Unified Protector.
Now top political voices have felt it necessary to wade into the divide. With the luxury of retirement a few months away, American Defence Secretary Bob Gates spoke before a meeting of NATO-member Defence Ministers. He echoed the observations above indicating that the missions in Afghanistan and Libya demonstrated the Alliance’s lack of focus. Furthermore he intimated that unless serious commitments are shown by all NATO members, the organization risks “collective military irrelevance”. Gates lambasted the NATO-members who are “are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” More specifically, unless the 62-year old Alliance is reinvigorated (with new displays of support), then it faces what Gates called “a dim if not dismal future”. American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay both quickly backed the tenor of Secretary Gates’ comments.
The tension that Secretary Gates highlighted is one that will only get more acute with the introduction of ‘austerity budgets’ by NATO-members. For instance, the United Kingdom has announced controversial plans to aggressively pair-down its defence budget – a plan which received vocal criticism from UK armed service chiefs. The United Kingdom has been one of the more active NATO members over the last decade, but even the UK has trouble keeping pace with America’s military gait, then what could we expect from NATO members such as Iceland, Greece, Latvia or Portugal? All those countries presumably still have a desire to help physically protect the European continent from foreign invasion, but they may not have the stomach to help finance and partake in more distant security operations.
NATO members are going to have to internalize Secretary Gates’s words and think hard about how they envision their role in the future of NATO. They will have to consider whether they are willing to “pay the price” necessary to actively partake in the collective protection of security. I personally believe quite strongly in the future of NATO but my optimism will not be achieved by accident; it will only be achieved if all NATO members truly rise to the occasion.