Is NATO’s Cup Empty?
Stephen M. Saideman, McGill University
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has gotten much attention for his speech blasting NATO and pondering its relevance. The speech should not be that surprising since such critiques are a grand tradition. Not only did Gates’s predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, say similar things, but even the ordinarily polite Canadians expressed much frustration at the restrictions limiting what other countries were doing in Afghanistan. Gates is getting much attention because he is viewed as being far more deliberate and discreet than Rumsfeld and far more aware of the tradeoffs that come with the realities of military deployments. Opponents of NATO and of the Afghanistan and Libya missions will take this speech and assert that NATO is a dying organization. The reality is a bit more complex as NATO is indeed constrained, but still has consistently provided significant contributions since the end of the cold war.
It is clear that the members of the alliance do not contribute equally nor have they ever. During the 1980’s, the burden-sharing debate was focused on whether countries spent enough of their gross domestic product on defense. During the 1990’s, countries varied in their participation in the NATO stabilization efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo AND there was much frustration at the intra-alliance bargaining over how to bomb Serbia. During the 2000’s, the debate over burden-sharing became far more real as some countries paid a far higher price for their operations in Afghanistan. The Danes and Canadians led in terms of killed in action per capita while the Germans, Italians and Spaniards faced much criticism for being restricted from engaging in combat in the South and East of Afghanistan. These restrictions, known as caveats, were the subject of multiple NATO summits and are likely to be of increased relevance over the next few years as the transition plan for the NATO mission in Afghanistan implies moving troops around the country.
The ability of individual countries to opt out of specific operations or entire missions is integral to NATO’s existence and to any of its efforts. Why? Because decisions are made by consensus, and we are simply not going to get all twenty-eight countries to agree to a decision if they are obligated to do whatever is commanded. Indeed, Article V, which is the focal point of the organization, “an attack upon one is considered an attack upon all” provides an exit option, as each country is responsible for responding to such an attack “as it deems necessary.” One cannot fix the caveat problem since it is foundational to the organization.
Even with these handcuffs, NATO has made an impact, if not efficiently, in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and now Libya. The difference between the UN force and the NATO effort in Bosnia 1995-1996 was one of night and day, as the latter had far more robust rules and could successfully deter attacks by any of the sides against each other. We overlook the reality that there has been no significant violence in Bosnia since the entry of NATO, which sharply contrasts with the years of UN failure. NATO, despite significant disagreement within the organization and despite a very visible lack of commitment by its members with promises of no ground forces, was able to compel Serbia into essentially giving up a politically, culturally, and historically significant piece of territory. Yes, it took about eighty days, but it is a pretty impressive effort, given how little the NATO countries, including the US, were willing to risk.
The allied troops vary in how efficient they are in Afghanistan, but they have been providing much added value to the effort. While the US was distracted with Iraq, the Canadians were preventing Kandahar from falling to the Taliban and the British and Danes were keeping the insurgents at bay in Helmand. The Germans, much criticized, were at least keeping a NATO presence in a less dangerous area. If NATO fails in Afghanistan, it will not be entirely due to the caveats and other restrictions on the troops in the country. We have the three P’s that are more responsible: poppies, Pakistan and President Karzai.
Libya is far from over, and the NATO effort is borne very unevenly with the US, the French, the British, the Canadians, the Danes and the Norwegians doing nearly all of the work. So, why bother with NATO? Why not just do it alone or with coalitions of the willing. Well, Iraq teaches us a couple of things. First, countries that participate in coalitions of the willing may still have caveats, as the Spaniards, Australians and others proved in Iraq. Second, NATO provides a multilateral gloss that provides greater legitimacy so that other international organizations are more likely to help out. Third, a NATO effort is seen as less imperial to international audiences and those in the country that is the object of the intervention than a solo American one. Fourth, it is very hard to get significant contributions from other countries if NATO is not involved. In the domestic debates over deploying to Afghanistan and Libya, less enthusiastic political parties had to consider whether opposing a NATO mission would impact whether they were perceived as serious parties. While the UK and France were willing to participate in the Libyan operation without a NATO cover, the other countries now participating in the effort would faced far more difficulties at home and Italy might not have provided bases for the effort.
NATO is not a perfect organization by any means, and it is not known for efficiency. But no other multilateral security organization comes close and coalitions of the willing have similar problems while not providing any of the legitimacy. The US has all kinds of reasons for not wanting to go it alone, and its allies would very much prefer that the US does not go solo into these kinds of efforts. The reality is that NATO will be around for quite a while to come as it can and does provide meaningful contributions to the important problems of the day.