Is it still our indispensable alliance? From our new April issue.
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It’s a NATO that considers it has a universal mandate, and whose name, “North Atlantic,” now bears little relation to its activities. In years to come, this might turn out to be more than many members, including the U.S., bargained for. Could the Alliance operate anywhere now? When I asked a high NATO official, the answer was clear. “I cannot envision a future in which NATO is not called upon to generate power of whatever kind for crises anywhere in the world,” he replied. “We airlifted disaster relief into Pakistan. If you can go into Pakistan, what’s off limits?”
WITH NATO’s new vocation as a global, proactive, security, crisis management, peacekeeping, and humanitarian organization, it now commits Americans to fighting and dying in any hotspot on the planet. As a Cato Institute study puts it, “The transformation of NATO from an alliance to defend the territory of its members to an ambitious crisis-management organization has profound and disturbing implications for the United States… [with] the potential to entangle [it] in an endless array of messy, irrelevant disputes.”
In the best bureaucratic tradition, the Alliance grew geometrically, metastasizing from its core area to the Baltic States, Central Europe, and, heaven help us, the Balkan powder keg. Enlargement aggravated its already complicated, consensus-based, decision-making process. Difficult with 16 members, it becomes virtually impossible to make timely, coherent operational plans with 28, even with — or because of — the more than 5,000 meetings it holds every year. “NATO’s enlargement [has] increased the complexity of an already complex NATO bureaucracy,” states another study by the Dutch institute, “and one wonders how NATO is managing its increasing bureaucracy with its complex procedures. One of the most important questions…is how this bureaucracy can remain effective and efficient.”
Some allies ask the same question. “There’s a tendency at NATO to create numerous bureaucracies, and they’re not terribly effective,” a senior official at the French Defense Ministry told me. “With the British, we’re determined to slim down its command structure, which has become enormous, and reform its financial management.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said France is particularly unhappy with the way NATO spends money. “They have only a vague idea how much an operation is going to cost when they get into it, just presenting us with the bill once it’s under way. That’s no way to run an outfit that has to be cost effective, especially nowadays.”
Even the diplomatic perks and prestige of international functionaries, plus the prospect of spiffy new offices, no longer attract the best and brightest to NATO, to hear Richard Perle tell it. “Here’s an indication of where NATO stands today,” he says. “When I was in government during the Cold War, NATO was the prized assignment. Everyone in the diplomatic service wanted to be ambassador to NATO, military people wanted assignments there. It was the center of something important. It no longer is. The new dangers threatening us are no longer things that can be solved by an alliance like NATO.”
Prized or not, the civil-military bureaucracy has kept busy with things unrelated to defending member states. It has, inter alia, helped stabilize Bosnia, assisted peacekeeping in Darfur, combated ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia (an operation the Cato Institute called “just shy of a full-blown policy fiasco”). And it became embroiled in Afghanistan.
THE MIXED MOTIVES AT NATO’s creation also marked its stepping into the Afghan quagmire. Was the International Security Assistance Force turned over to the Alliance because it was best qualified and equipped to handle the job? Or to make it appear a less American, more international effort? (Fully two-thirds of the ISAF troops are American; some countries have less than a token 10 personnel there.) Or as a costly, lethal way of modernizing NATO? As Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, testified to the House Armed Services Committee in February 2007, “The Afghanistan campaign could mark the beginning of sustained NATO efforts to overhaul Alliance operational practices in every domain: command and control, doctrine, force generation, intelligence, and logistics.” It could also, he implied, make or break the Alliance.
Right now NATO is positioning itself for a lifetime job in Afghanistan. Earlier this year its then senior civilian representative there, Mark Sedwill, declared that a long-term partnership would be required even after hand-over in 2014 to Afghan forces. NATO would then be in the business of Afghan socio-economic development. “We will be there as long as we are needed,” he promised.
Canadian general Rick Hillier, who commanded ISAF from February to August 2004, came away bitterly disillusioned (he went on to Canada’s top military job as chief of the Defense Staff). In his bestselling book last year, A Soldier First: Bullets, Bureaucrats and the Politics of War, he writes that “NATO itself was looking for something, anything, to do that would allow it to prove that it was still a worthwhile organization.” When he took over his command, Hillier was appalled by “NATO’s lack of cohesion, clarity and professionalism.” There was, he writes scathingly, “no strategy, no clear articulation of what they wanted to achieve, no political guidance, and few forces. It was abysmal. NATO had started down a road that destroyed much of its credibility and in the end eroded support for the mission in every nation in the Alliance…. Afghanistan has revealed that NATO has reached the stage where it is a corpse, decomposing.”
Strong words from a soldier known in Canada for speaking his mind. Small wonder that Hillier had little patience with NATO’s ponderous bureaucracy, with its “enormous numbers of high-ranking civilians and military — general officers were a dime a dozen…. It was a wonder that any decisions got made at all.” Today about 4,500 staff are at the Brussels headquarters. Along with thousands of others in its multifarious agencies and strategic and regional commands, they engage in a giddy flurry of activities. Many have only an imaginary relation to security. For example:
• The Academic Affairs Unit runs a fellowships program and organizes conferences, seminars, and visits for academics and think tank researchers to “project the Alliance’s point of view and strengthen information on its goals.” In other words, a glorified PR operation with academic pretensions.
• The Science for Peace and Security Committee “contributes to NATO’s mission by linking science to society,” whatever that means. Concretely, it funds grants for research on soft, fashionable subjects like civil science and environment.
• The NATO Undersea Research Center in La Spezia, Italy, has a vast program including Marine Mammal Risk Mitigation that studies the effects of sonar on marine animals, “to counter the threat from quiet submarines.”
• Then there’s the NATO Multimedia Library with its more than 18,000 books and subscriptions to 155 newspapers and magazines. And its annual Manfred Wörner Junior Essay competition with a $6,800 prize. And the NATO photo competition for young shutterbugs who learn that, for example, “Taking photographs of random strangers can be risky.”
Really lucky individuals from member states get to go to the NATO School in Oberammergau, Germany. Located in the heart of the spectacular Bavarian Alps, the school is, as NATO puffs it, “a very special place…blessed with the beauty of the mountains.” After a grueling day studying intelligence or joint operations, participants can relax at the NATO Recreation Center with skis and snowboards and then get a massage.
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H/T to National Review Online