Is it still our indispensable alliance? From our new April issue.
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ONE OF THE CLEAREST SIGNS of the Alliance’s identity crisis is its bloated PR operation — when its mission was obvious, it didn’t need an advertising campaign — euphemistically known as the Public Diplomacy Division. Its multinational staff of 125 labors “To raise the Alliance’s profile with audiences world-wide.” Equipped with two television and 10 radio studios, it generates a torrent of programs, press releases, pamphlets, magazines, DVDs, and audio-visual presentations. It also organizes frequent international conferences, seminars, and other media events boosting NATO. It runs the web-based natochannel.tv, where slick films show what it’s like aboard a submarine or to go on patrol in Afghanistan. But mainly it carries every speech, statement, declaration, and press conference by Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
Variously described as dynamic, bossy, and high-handed, Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark, seems to think he is still leader of a country instead of a multinational organization where policy is made by consensus among members. “For him, ambassadors to NATO are just flunkies, he doesn’t bother to consult them,” one exasperated official of an Alliance member told me. Like a chief of state, he is given to churning out his own declarations on world crises that have little to do with Euro-Atlantic defense (Egypt, Libya, et al.), calling for the usual democracy, freedom of expression, less violence, etc., etc.
He travels widely promoting new roles for the Alliance. Just last February he was in Qatar and Israel selling NATO’s services in the Middle East. “NATO’s new strategic concept is relevant to the Middle East,” he explained earnestly to an Israeli newspaper. “It gives NATO a clear role in taking on the security challenges that will dominate in the 21st century…. I imagine anyone in the Middle East can see the relevance to your region.” But the secretary general appears subject to homesickness. As I walked through the quiet, mostly empty headquarters hallways one recent Friday with my NATO minder, we passed the impressive glass doors to his office. “Is he in?” I asked. “Not likely,” came the answer. “Every Friday afternoon he heads back home to Copenhagen.”
Rasmussen does get some credit for responding to allies’ prodding for reform, not that he really has any choice at this point. “We have committees for nearly everything,” sighs a headquarters official. “Whenever a topic has to be examined, like armament systems, they create a committee. We had more than 400 of them until we recently began eliminating some. Now there are 200 and we hope to get that down to 100.” NATO’s 14 agencies in seven countries, employing 6,000 people, with a separate budget of more than $13.6 billion, are also due for slimming one of these days.
The military command structure, still basically unchanged since the Cold War, is due to be reduced from the present 13 headquarters scattered among member countries — which value them more for job creation than defense. That will be a long and difficult reform, Stephen Flanagan of CSIS explains. “Right now they’re trying to decide which commands in which countries can be eliminated, but for some members that’s the only part of NATO they have in their territory, so they resist cutting. The new strategic concept gave a better sense of where the alliance should be going. Now the question is, will they really do it?”
What’s certain is that NATO will approach reform softly, softly. It is giving itself two to three years to implement changes, and few if any personnel layoffs are planned. As one official admits, “We hope to make savings, but the NATO budget is so complicated, it’s hard to put a figure on how much we’ll save.”
GOING GLOBAL IS CLEARLY one of Rasmussen’s top priorities. Two objectives, involvement in the Middle East and closer relations with Russia, worry many allies, especially when he acts like a loose cannon. He unveiled a Middle East peace plan of his own at a 2009 conference in Abu Dhabi, shocking ambassadors back at headquarters. “None of the NATO ambassadors or Missions had any advance warning of the statement,” leaked documents say. “Many acted with incredulity to his statement.”
He has been trying to cozy up to Russia, making him the first secretary general in NATO history to seem to believe the Russians can be trusted. Not everyone is comfortable with that. “The new members in central Europe joined the Alliance for protection against a resurgent Russia and want NATO to return to its original mission of collective defense,” says Marko Papic of Stratfor. “But Western members like Germany and France now consider Russia a partner, not a potential enemy. These incompatible threat perceptions make me wonder whether the Lisbon summit is not the beginning of the end for NATO.”
Defense analyst Thomas Skypek, a Washington Fellow of the National Review Institute who believes America should do a hard-headed cost-benefit analysis of NATO membership, points to France’s recent $2 billion sale of Mistral-class ships to Russia as an example of the lack of common threat perception. “What really is the Alliance’s mission?” he asks. “Ask the 28 member states and you’ll get 28 different answers.” The Mistral is a force projection helicopter carrier that can land 450 assault troops. France went through with the deal despite Washington’s protests and concern in NATO’s Baltic members over where Russia might project that force.
The U.S. Mission to NATO has warned Rasmussen off from exceeding his mandate, according to confidential cables released by WikiLeaks. “We strongly urge you not to get ahead of Allies’ deliberations by announcing new NATO-Russia initiatives that have yet to be formally considered by the Alliance,” said one. Another cable said that after a December meeting with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, Rasmussen had exaggerated their interest in cooperating with NATO. (In response to my repeated requests, the U.S. Mission, the largest at NATO with 100-plus staff, declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Such differences within the Alliance about its proper mission are one indication that it has become a futile exercise in herding cats. Another sign is that several European members are already developing alternative, regional alliances while retaining the U.S.-supplied advantages of NATO. Baltic countries are talking with Nordics like Sweden and Finland about their mutual security. Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Hungary are building a European security architecture in the Visegrad group. The European Amphibious Initiative led by France held its first out-of-area exercise last year in Senegal. And France and Britain recently signed a historic new defense agreement to pool and share military resources.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to shoulder the bulk of the NATO burden. Ten years ago America accounted for about 50 percent of the Alliance’s total defense spending. Today that figure is up to 75 percent. Spending by European members has dropped $61 billion over the last two years. The French defense official quoted above says frankly, “Many European members are investing as little as possible in military equipment. As long as they think they can count on the Americans to provide AWACS, transport aircraft, and so on, why bother to maintain an adequate defense force?” Richard Perle agrees. “Other NATO countries are getting a free ride, and have been for a very long time. But even more now, because they don’t feel any sense of danger. During the Cold War you could push, say, the Germans to do more, because their security depended on NATO. Germany doesn’t depend on NATO anymore.”
MANY ON CAPITOL HILL are now looking closely at our relationship to NATO. Congressman Barney Frank, a ranking Democratic member of the House Financial Services Committee, argues that we should spend less on defending the wealthy nations of Europe. “NATO is a great drain on our treasury and serves no strategic purpose,” he declares. Without going that far it’s fair to ask that we re-evaluate our membership in the Alliance. As Senator Richard Lugar, Republican leader of the Foreign Relations Committee, put it in an e-mail to me, “The Alliance must be judicious about its missions. NATO should not function as a ‘universal peacekeeper.’ But NATO remains extremely important to U.S. security.” At Lugar’s request, the Republican staff of the committee is currently reviewing NATO’s mission, as well as its future role and financing.
To be sure, some instrument for mutual defense, like the Alliance’s Article 5 — an attack against one is an attack against all — is useful. Furthering interoperability of equipment so allied forces can act together is also worthwhile. But with American interest in Europe waning while concern over Asia waxes, it’s time to recognize that the rigid, fixed alliance of Cold War days is outdated and in urgent need of revamping.
“NATO is here to stay,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen declared with bravado at the December groundbreaking. As if an expensive new building project could ensure its survival and counter the growing doubts about it. The U.S. should send a clear message that a new, frugal defense era is here, and start by questioning the suitability of that exorbitant new headquarters. For such a message, the timing is perfect.
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