Is it still our indispensable alliance? From our new April issue.
From the April 2011 issue of The American Spectator
With policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic slashing public spending and searching for ways to reduce military budgets, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has just begun construction of a splendiferous new $1.38 billion headquarters on a 100-acre site in Brussels. Designed by Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, renowned for luxurious commercial buildings including the tallest in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the futuristic new NATO offices will feature eight sweeping wings covering 2.7 million square feet. Glass-walled elevators overlooking cavernous atriums showering natural light. Ecologically correct grass growing on the roof. Seventeen conference rooms. A range of amenities from cafeterias, restaurants, and banks, to shopping, sport, and leisure facilities. Pentagon staffers, eat your hearts out.
The architects wax rhapsodic, comparing its weird configuration to “fingers interlaced in a symbolic clasp of unity and mutual interdependence.” As one SOM design director glowingly describes the sprawling steel and glass structure, “We wanted to break the norm of what is perceived as a government service, bunker-like building. We made it look very classy, giving the illusion that it was a world-class, floor-to-ceiling-type glass building, very inviting. We also paid attention to how these grand spaces look.”
For an organization that’s been a perfect illustration of Parkinson’s Law (bureaucracies expand over time, regardless of workload) since it lost its original raison d’être when the Soviet Union collapsed, it seems a normal entitlement. “A modern NATO needs a modern building,” NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted at the groundbreaking ceremony last December 16. Maybe. But does it have to be this extravagant, this grand, this pricey? The timing couldn’t be worse.
The timing couldn’t be better. The provocative new structure comes just when the Obama administration is pushing to trim federal budgets by some $1.1 trillion over the next decade, along with reductions in Pentagon spending by $78 billion. Other major NATO members are also cutting defense spending, Britain by 8 percent, Germany by some $11.5 billion. The spectacular project at least has the virtue of symbolizing what has gone wrong with this self-aggrandizing, self-perpetuating body whose main mission often seems to be not collective defense of its members, but its own self-preservation.
“It is somewhat ironic that NATO breaks ground on its new headquarters at the same time the fundamental sinews binding the alliance together are coming apart,” says Marko Papic, a senior analyst at Stratfor, a global intelligence analysis firm based in Austin. As for NATO’s image in a time of austerity, the controversial building is a well-aimed shot in the foot. “It is certainly unfortunate,” Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “We don’t need the crystal palace that’s on the drawing boards. It’s an easy target for critics when everybody is having trouble maintaining current operations.”
I BEGAN COVERING NATO as a young Paris-based newsmagazine correspondent in 1966, when French president Charles de Gaulle abruptly tore up the lease on its headquarters. Belgium hastily offered to house the organization in Brussels, and I covered the opening ceremony the following year. Built in just 29 weeks — the lavish new offices have taken a decade of planning, construction will take another four years — the prefab headquarters was simple, but at least it looked lean, keen, and spartan-military. Not like a stately pleasure-dome for coddled fat cats. (Having recently revisited the present headquarters, I can attest that working conditions are equal to those in many federal buildings in Washington.)
Over the years I interviewed NATO secretary generals and SHAPE commanders, rode in helicopters with SACEUR General Alexander Haig on maneuvers in Germany, went hunting for Soviet submarines in the North Sea on a Norwegian frigate, flew in an AWACS plane as it monitored bogey air traffic on the other side of the Iron Curtain. I wrote articles calling attention to threats like Soviet SS-20 missiles pointed at the heart of Europe. Never was there any doubt about the necessity of collective defense. NATO filled an obvious need.
No more. Behind the façade of variegated non-defense activities, bigger and more complex command structures, and far-flung operations is an organization in identity crisis. “NATO’s mission has been unclear since the end of the Cold War, and there is a sense of it trying to validate itself as relevant to today’s world,” Richard Perle, assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration and former chairman of the NATO High Level Group, told me. “It’s no longer the indispensable defense organization it used to be. It’s become so much less important that, if it didn’t already exist, you couldn’t start it today. It’s living on its legacy.”
The North Atlantic Alliance was marked by mixed motives from the very beginning. As its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, put it bluntly, NATO’s purpose was threefold: “To keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” It managed that, then ironically faced its biggest crisis when the Warsaw Pact disappeared in mid-1991. With that ended the specter of an onslaught of Red Army tanks across the North German Plain — and the Alliance’s mission.
NATO went into limbo and into a funk. “It entered a profound existential crisis two decades ago,” explains Dominique David, executive director of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris. “But it managed to survive for several reasons. First, big bureaucracies never go away. They always find other pretexts to stay in business. Then, the U.S. wanted to keep an eye on Europe and NATO was a convenient way. But the biggest boost came in the early 1990s when former Soviet satellites requested membership. It became both a military organization and an instrument for the political stabilization of Europe. That made it a strange, schizophrenic animal constantly looking for new threats to relegitimize itself.”
For the last 20 years NATO has tried hard to look relevant to Western security. From the homogeneous 16 members of the Cold War period, it has ballooned to 28 disparate countries with widely divergent perceptions of their individual security threats. Thus its recent operations far beyond the original Euro-Atlantic area threaten its cohesion. Is its place off the Horn of Africa, for instance, where its anti-piracy operation overlaps with two other international task forces? Many think not. “For us, the most important aspect of NATO is European operations,” a well-placed European defense official told me. “I’m not sure that fighting pirates in the Red Sea is its best role.”
The Alliance’s eager quest for a convincing new role has led to mission creep on a grand scale. A new strategic concept formulated in 1991 tried to define a new threat environment that lacked any real dangers to its members. So security was redefined as not only a military issue, but one with political, economic, social, and environmental dimensions. Dialogue and cooperation were NATO’s new weapons “to reduce the risk of conflict arising out of misunderstanding.” Another strategic concept in 1999 expanded its purview to humanitarian operations. Still another issued at the Lisbon summit last November covered every conceivable threat from energy security to non-proliferation, cyber war, health risks, and climate change. It also invited Russia to participate in ballistic missile defense.
Originally NATO concentrated on its core activity of defending the Euro-Atlantic area. Going “out of area” was verboten. That changed in the early 1990s when, as Dutch analyst Hugo Klijn of the Netherlands Institute of International Relations notes, “NATO followed the usual course of big, self-perpetuating bureaucracies: seeking new missions and linking to other big bureaucracies.” What new missions? Ill-defined and far from its designated area. What other big bureaucracy? The mother of them all, the United Nations.
In December 1992 the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s governing body, declared that the Alliance was “prepared to take further steps to assist the UN in implementing its decisions to maintain international peace and security.” Suddenly it was in the global peacekeeping business as a subcontractor to the UN. Says François Heisbourg, special advisor at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research and one of France’s top defense analysts, “They said in the 1990s that NATO had to go out of area or out of business, and that was true. It did go out of area and it stayed in business. But it lost its geographical focus and turned itself into an ad hoc coalition where countries agree or not to share risks and burdens together. That’s the new NATO.”
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