The funny thing about writing a book on NATO and Afghanistan that is pretty critical of the alliance's performance is that I still end up being a NATO defender. How so? Well, whenever I see folks ponder the future of NATO, I get grumpy. In the New York Times, there is a Room for Debate bit with five perspectives on the issue. This seems like a semi-monthly exercise. Google trends for "NATO end" produces this nice sine wave (although to be fair a bit more lately):
Too bad we don't have that capability yet for the 1990s.
Anyhow, it is moments like this when I realize that I am a Liberal Institutionalist a la Robert Keohane. How so? The alliance solves finesses a heap of transaction costs and represents a lot of sunk costs so that its members, however frustrated, are not going to end the alliance. As I have said before, the Churchillian quote about democracy applies here: NATO might be the worst alliance save all the others.
What are the alternatives? One of the pieces in the NYT posits the European Union. I would laugh, but my cold-induced sore throat would not appreciate it. The EU? Since when has the EU come through in a major international security crisis? The EU failed to manage the end of Yugoslavia, which required ... NATO to end the war in Bosnia and stop Serbia in Kosovo. The E.U. found the Libyan thing to be a huge crisis as France backtracked on a fundamental part of the EU enterprise--open borders. ESDP, the effort to build a European defense effort akin to NATO, has not gone anywhere. Symbolic bi-national units have seen no action. So, please. EU? Nay.
Coalitions of the willing? Well, yes, an ad hoc alliance can replace NATO, but such entities tend to have all the same problems of NATO with few of the advantages? Legitimacy? No. Caveats? Yes. Mixed burden-sharing? Yes. Common training, doctrine, equipment? Only if a subset of NATO.
How about a global NATO? Well, the bigger the organization, the harder it is to get consensus, right? NATO has been able to act precisely because it has kept opponents outside of the organization, such as Russia over Kosovo and China over everything down the road. Adding Japan and Australia and a few other select countries might make sense, but I am not sure how expanding NATO's role in the world fits with the reality that NATO members are spending less money on defense.
NATO will continue to be asked to do stuff that people never anticipated. Remember, Yugoslavia was an "out of area operation." Afghanistan? Way the hell outside of Europe. Libya? Almost Europe. It is true that everyone's budget cuts will make it harder to engage in and sustain operations, but the history of interoperability, the practice of interoperability, and the relatively common views of the world mean that NATO can be far more functional as a multilateral military enterprise than anything else. There are no real rivals on the horizon. Indeed, with the US spending less on defense (well, maybe) and looking to the Pacific, NATO will remain important as a security institution to manage affairs in and around Europe. Why? Because there is no one else.