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NATO Reconsidered

Is it still our indispensable alliance? From our new April issue.

By From the April 2011 issue

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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."

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.

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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About the Author

Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book, An American Spectator in Paris, was released this fall.