Isn’t it finally time for a European defense of Europe?
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Alas, the risks to America are growing. In the main, the newest members of the alliance, such as Albania and Croatia, have negligible military capabilities but significant political liabilities. Prospective members Georgia and Ukraine, which face instability at home and threats from abroad, are military sinkholes.
If Moscow believes the U.S. would go to war over states that were part of Imperial Russia as well as the Soviet Union, NATO membership might limit Russian action. But Moscow understandably doubts American willingness to fight over what are, in truth, peripheral geopolitical interests for Washington. And attempting to coerce Russia, in contrast to bombing Serbia and invading Iraq, would risk a nuclear confrontation. By multiplying its security guarantees the U.S. is becoming less secure.
Yet at least most alliance aficionados believe that NATO should remain theoretically connected to Europe. Not so Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, who advocates “offering NATO membership to some stable, non-Western democracies” such as Brazil, India, Japan, and South Africa. Doing so, he explains, “would give the international community a more powerful tool for carrying out vital tasks ranging from peacekeeping to emergency relief around the world.” Yet almost by definition these tasks do not affect basic U.S. security and are not vital. Moreover, both peacekeeping and relief operations are routinely carried out through existing international organizations. Differences among NATO members today often are dramatic; Marshall’s prospective membership could agree on even less.
Fourth, Washington gets little out-of-area benefits in return for its continental security guarantee and military garrison. This doesn’t mean that the Europeans do nothing elsewhere. Michael Ruehle, deputy head of NATO’s Policy Planning Section, proudly declares that “NATO is busier than ever before and increasingly acting in concert with the wider international community” and involved in “an ever-broader spectrum of missions.”
Yet most of these activities are irrelevant to U.S. security, have been performed poorly, or could be handled outside of NATO. The only alliance military mission that really matters, Afghanistan, verges on failure. European peoples see little to gain from risking their troops in Afghanistan, limiting the commitment of all but the most stalwart European governments. Moreover, many of the NATO contingents, out of combat and out of shape, are well nigh useless.
Neither U.S. pressure nor European embarrassment has improved alliance performance. British defense secretary John Hutton has warned: “Success in Afghanistan is fast emerging as the test of NATO’s relevance in this new post-cold war age.” Otherwise, “NATO will risk being irrelevant, a talking shop where process is everything.” But the alliance became that long ago. NATO’s inability and unwillingness to do more in a conflict that really matters to America demonstrate just how little Washington gets for its efforts in Europe. Better for the U.S. to bring its troops home and seek allied support on an ad hoc basis than maintain the pretense that NATO substantially advances America’s interests around in the world.
The U.S. and Europe continue to have much in common and could forge new, more effective forms of cooperation for the 21st century. Washington could replace American membership in NATO with a more flexible system of regular if informal consultation and cooperation in and out of Europe, backed by agreements for intelligence sharing, emergency base access, and joint training exercises.
A couple of weeks ago Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he wasn’t going to NATO’s upcoming anniversary celebration in order to spend the time reviewing the Pentagon budget. The best reason for Secretary Gates to stay home would be to revamp American defense policy to better reflect American interests. Which would include taking the moribund trans-Atlantic alliance off of life support.
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