Sunday, December 8, 2019

NATO High School: Closer to Reality Than You'd Think

Saturday Night Live finally got there--capturing a bit of International Relations far better than, well, how the US president understands it.  This sketch portrays NATO as if it were high school, with a cool kids table featuring Trudeau/Canada, Macron/France, and BoJo/UK.  Eventually, Merkel/Germany is invited to join and she is super excited to do so, while Trump is left to hang with Latvia. 

With a few quibbles, this is how NATO used to operate with, of course, the US at the cool kids table.  How so?  NATO has always operated with mini-lateralism pushing the multilateralism.  That to push major initiatives forward, a small group of allies work together to develop the agenda and then once they get agreement, they present it to the rest of the alliance.  Oh, and while these mini-groups were led by the US, in my experience, there was a well-coordinated British effort to get the US to do its bidding.  Both the US leadership and clever British manipulation  were lacking from the SNL sketch .... perhaps because the sketch kept up with current events really well, perhaps accidentally capturing Macron's brain death comment.

Let me explain both the past and the present.  In 2001-2002, NATO members became concerned that three separate operations in the Balkans--SFOR in Bosnia, KFOR in Kosovo, and Operation Essential Harvest (really!) in Macedonia--was more expensive and had a variety of seams than if there were a single NATO effort.  So, there were many meetings to "regionalize" the NATO effort in the Balkans, with the idea of centralizing things at NATO's HQ in Naples and developing a better division of labor.  Much of the impetus of this was led by the QUINT: five countries providing the biggest contingents--US, UK, France, Germany, and Italy (not Canada, but I will get to that).  Once these five countries agreed to a plan, they shared it with others.  This is not that controversial or new. 

What was less well known was that much of this was driven not by the US but by the UK--that the British had troops in both Bosnia and Kosovo and desperately wanted to reduce costs by being in one rather than both.  So, the Brits developed a well-coordinated effort to push their agenda, disguised by this larger argument about efficiencies, to get out of Kosovo.  This was most problematic to the French because it meant that they could be alone in the most difficult part of Kosovo--Mitrovica where the Serbs and Albanians bordered each other.  This British effort to work the system, coordinating their personnel in Naples and the various HQ's in the Balkans, with diplomats in Brussels and in DC was best symbolized by something that happened in the Joint Staff in DC.  One day, an early draft of the plan was found on one of the chairs in the Central and Eastern European Division of the Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate of the Joint Staff... where I was working.  We wondered where it came from, but then we realized that the British Defense Attaché had been in the office earlier that day.  So, this is how NATO worked--small groups of the "cool kids" working together with their coolness defined by how much they brought to the mission and then imposing their will gently or not on the rest of the high school alliance.

Now?  How are things different?  Well, in Afghanistan, the group of cool kids was a bit different as it was not just the size of the contingent that determined membership but what they were doing.  So, the US and UK were still the central players because they had large contingents  AND they were relatively unrestricted by domestically imposed caveats (where they could operate, whether they could engage in offensive operations, etc).  The Canadians, while they were in Kandahar, largely got to be in this club as well, because they were willing to move around RC S to help out whoever needed it.  The Germans and Italians?  They had the third and fourth largest contingents, but they got moved to the semi-cool kids table (where Merkel started in the SNL skit?) because they didn't have as much freedom to operate and could not contribute as much to the fight.  The French?  Off in a corner since Chirac was so pissed off at Bush.  Sarkozy got France back into the cool kids table as he removed the restrictions, making France a more valuable player.

Today, NATO is brain dead in Macron's words, as neither the US nor the UK are cool.  Trump hates the club and those in it, British is too busy destroying its relationship with the world to scheme how to get the cool kids to do its bidding.  By default essentially, Trudeau/Canada becomes one of the cool kids, one of the voices of NATO cooperation, as I saw in person at the NATO summit in Brussels in 2018.   And, yes, the audience there ooo-ed and aah-ed when Trudeau appeared, so yeah, definitely a cool kid.  BoJo these days?  Not so much, but I think he was portrayed well by James Corden as being out of synch with the others. 

Anyhow, I never thought I would see the day that a satire on SNL would get NATO better than the President of the US (who thinks of it either as a country club or protection racket).  Did you?

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