Equal Alliance, Unequal Roles

With NATO set to hold its annual summit next week in Bucharest, there is concern that the failure of Germany and other members to carry a larger share of the burden in Afghanistan is threatening the alliance’s future. Critics complain that it has become an unequal, two-tiered alliance, with the troops of the United States, Britain, Canada and Holland taking the combat role while Germany, Italy, Spain and other members take refuge in the safe areas, refusing to put their soldiers in danger.

It certainly isn’t fair. Yet predictions of NATO’s decline hold it to an impossible cold war standard. Then, a direct mortal threat to Central Europe in the form of Red Army divisions led to an all-for-one and one-for-all mentality. Now that the threat is more subtle and diverse, NATO’s mandate, structure and personality need to change accordingly.

NATO, two-tiers or not, potentially holds as much value to the United States in the multipolar future as it did in the cold war past. Indeed, as we look at the possibility of a “Pacific Century” featuring the rise of China as a great power, combined with a resurgent Russia across Eurasia, we should see that an American-European alliance is imperative.

Let’s face it, the threat of a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan is not of the same order as the threat Germany faced from the Soviet Union, so is it any wonder that Germany’s attitude has changed? Rather than bully the Germans into doing what they’re not very good at — counterinsurgency — in the violent south of Afghanistan, we should be grateful that they’re doing something they are good at — nation-building — in the relatively peaceful north.

The same holds for countries like Italy and Spain, whose troops are also restricted to northern Afghanistan. In the post-cold-war world, individual NATO members can’t be expected to automatically take part in missions outside the alliance’s traditional European sphere. Participation will be contingent on specific circumstances. And that will lead to an increasingly stratified alliance.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO’s mandate has been a work in progress: from a sole focus on the defense of the European homeland to a three-dimensional engagement in global issues like terrorism, human rights abuses, military partnerships with fledgling democracies, energy security, nuclear proliferation and outbreaks of chaos.

This changing focus has necessitated a shift in structure, toward mobile rapid-reaction forces as opposed to cumbersome, conventional infantry units. Unfortunately, the future of the NATO Response Force, proposed in 2002 by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to serve just these needs, is now in some doubt because of the twin burdens of NATO deployments in Afghanistan and Kosovo and the inability of most alliance members to spend at least two percent of their gross domestic products on their militaries.

In these circumstances, countries like the United States and Britain will simply have to carry a heavier burden than others. But what of it? NATO has always operated as a multi-tiered organization. During the cold war, northern countries essentially ran the show while the southern ones went meekly along (except for Greece, which often protested loudly). France, in a fit of Gaullist pique, pulled out of NATO’s unified military structure in 1966, although it remains part of the alliance and took a place on the military committee in 1995.

Had there ever been a land war in Europe, American forces would have done the overwhelming amount of the fighting, so why should Afghanistan and future armed clashes be any different? NATO forces were never deployed in a war zone during the cold war, so the inequalities within the organization were masked. Now that its forces are taking the field, those inequalities are exposed. And especially as it expands to include smaller, weaker countries in Eastern and Central Europe, it is natural that NATO should be a multi-layered enterprise, to reflect the great differences in military capabilities and public opinion among its many members.

In fact, a two-tiered NATO has certain advantages for the United States. Eastward expansion acts as a bulwark against a neo-czarist Russia. Countries close to Russia like Poland and Romania feel NATO is every bit as vital as it was to Western Europe during the cold war, which is the real reason they’ve helped us in Iraq and Afghanistan. NATO membership represents a seal of good-product approval for former east bloc states seeking investment and stabilization.

The very fact that we’re even talking about Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO shows how dynamic the alliance still is on a political level. A two-tiered NATO still keeps a retrograde Serbia in a box; this reduces Russian interference in the Balkans to the level of a significant irritant rather than a strategic threat. NATO membership sets parameters for Turkey’s democratic experiment with Islamic rule, making it more likely to succeed in ways that the West can tolerate. NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, in which second-tier members like Germany participate, gives former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia access to NATO training programs, which helps keep them from slipping closer into the Kremlin’s orbit.

The fact that NATO forces don’t fight nearly as impressively as the American military doesn’t make the alliance useless. Even without a legitimate rapid-reaction force, it is still by world standards a well-oiled, Western political-military machine with command and control protocols honed by six decades of existence. And it is certainly superior to anything the United Nations can muster.

In fact, through its ability to participate in out-of-area humanitarian emergencies, NATO still holds the key to a potential global constabulary force that could be led by the United States while at the same time relieving the American military of the burden of going it alone.

For now, however, we must also look to expand appropriate roles for NATO members not inclined toward combat. One option is sea power. Navies make port visits, they protect sea lanes, they allow for access during humanitarian emergencies. The French, Dutch, Norwegians, Germans and Spanish have all been making serious investments in new ships, especially frigates. With the United States Navy concentrating on competition from China in the Pacific, NATO could become the primary naval force to patrol the North Atlantic and Mediterranean.

NATO is never going to be a rubber stamp for American proposals like in the darkest days of the cold war. By getting bogged down in Iraq and consequently neglecting Afghanistan, the Bush administration has forced NATO members to bear a military responsibility that many in their heart of hearts do not feel is vital to their interests.

Embryonic European pacifism needs to be carefully managed, not just condemned. That is why we must push harder for the NATO Response Force. Europe’s aversion to conflict — and its tendency to reduce geopolitics to negotiations and regulatory disputes — has not prevented all 26 NATO members from taking part in some capacity in Afghanistan. Europe, merely because of its economic weight, is going to be a significant military power in the 21st century. Our goal should be for that military power to be expressed as much as possible through an American-led alliance.

The United States will have to forge plenty of other military alliances in the 21st century: area-specific ones for the Pacific and Indian oceans; and culturally specific ones, namely the core group of Anglo-Saxon nations that have borne the brunt of responsibility in Iraq and Afghanistan. But simply because NATO cannot be an alliance of equals does not mean that it won’t play a significant role in our grand strategy: to create a web of global arrangements and liberal institutions that will allow America to gradually retreat from its costly and risky position of overbearing dominance.

Robert D. Kaplan, a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.