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Can NATO remain an effective military and political alliance if it keeps growing?

Ronald D. Asmus and Charles Grant discuss whether NATO can remain an effective military and political alliance if it keeps growing?

Dear Charles,

I look forward to this exchange. As a proponent of both enlargement and an effective NATO, I have long felt that this issue must be addressed openly and honestly.

Of course NATO can remain effective as it gets larger. Whether it will is an issue I will turn to in a second. But first things first. Having pro-Atlanticist Allies is certainly in principle a good thing. Past enlargements have made NATO stronger, not weaker. And Central and Eastern European candidate countries are often even more enthusiastic about NATO than some existing members.

The strategic purpose behind NATO enlargement was to overcome Europe's Cold War divide, consolidate democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and make the Alliance a cornerstone of a new pan-European security structure. This implied that the Alliance would eventually embrace much, if not all, of the eastern half of the continent. Individual countries would remain outside because they failed to qualify or by choice for their own historical reasons. But NATO's final contours (like those of the European Union) will reflect today's Europe - and will therefore eventually include between 25 and 30 countries.

But that does not fully answer the question posed to us: whether today's NATO - as it currently exists and not in theory - will get stronger as it enlarges, especially if we embrace a large group of candidates at this year's Prague Summit. My answer is that an Alliance of this size can function effectively if we successfully tackle the following three challenges.

First, we need to discuss how to streamline a bigger NATO. The Alliance's way of doing business may have to be revamped - perhaps even radically. We should discuss this openly and without taboos. It is striking that the European Union is having a far-reaching debate about how it will function as it enlarges, yet there is hardly a murmur about this in NATO. I understand the sensitivities. But if we can't debate this within NATO officialdom, then perhaps we should gather a group of wise men to reflect on the issue - before Prague.

NATO's future effectiveness will depend first and foremost on the performance and capabilities of its members - both old and new

Second, NATO's future effectiveness will depend first and foremost on the performance and capabilities of its members - both new and old. The reality is that the performance of the first three new members has not been as good as we had hoped. And many current candidate countries are smaller and weaker. We need a better system to help new members stay on track once they join the Alliance and the pressure to perform starts to recede. But let's be honest. We also need a better system of incentives for existing Allies to ensure that they perform as well. Most of NATO's current weaknesses are not due to new members, but the poor performance of old members in recent years.

Third, the key question for the future is, in my view, not NATO's numbers but its purpose. It is not roster but rationale. In the 1990s, NATO went from being an alliance between the United States and Western European countries designed to deter a residual Russian threat to one between the United States and Europe as a whole that reached out to its erstwhile Cold War foe, Russia, and reoriented itself to face new threats. Already at this time, several of us raised the question of how NATO would evolve if and when we succeeded in stabilising Central and Eastern Europe and putting relations with Russia on a new cooperative basis.

That day may have arrived. We are close to succeeding in consolidating peace and stability in the eastern half of the continent. The danger of Russia re-emerging as a threat to its neighbours continues to recede. While there are still sources of instability in the Euro-Atlantic area, they no longer constitute major or existential threats to our security. This is, of course, all good news. At the same time, 11 September has shown us that there are other existential threats to the security of NATO members - but they come from beyond Europe and are threats for which the Alliance is poorly prepared.

NATO therefore faces a fairly fundamental choice. It can continue to focus on the diminishing threats within the Euro-Atlantic area. Its mission would in essence be to continue to keep an already pretty stable continent stable. Alternatively, the Alliance could transform itself to confront the major security threats of the day - nearly all of which come from beyond Europe. In this case, NATO would remain a military alliance but would focus on the new military threats facing its members.

These are weighty issues. I look forward to debating them with you.



Dear Ron,

I agree with you that NATO is a valuable organisation that badly needs reform. I also agree that the Alliance's enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe is desirable. NATO, like the European Union, is helping to spread peace, security and stability across the eastern half of the continent. However, I doubt that the new, post-enlargement NATO will be a strong military organisation.

When you talk of NATO being strong, you mean militarily strong. I think the Alliance will remain politically significant, but I think its military importance has diminished and will diminish further. Of course, the Alliance has always had both a military and a political purpose. And since the end of the Cold War, NATO has taken on a new military task, that of peacekeeping in the Balkans. Overall, however, the Alliance's political role - as a pan-European security organisation - has become important. In 1997, the United States pushed its Allies to accept three new members, as it is pushing them to accept several at November's Prague Summit, in order to bind them into the Euro-Atlantic political space.

Yet, as you yourself acknowledge, the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles subtract more than they add to the Alliance's military effectiveness. The next round of enlargement, too, will weaken the coherence and efficiency of the military organisation. The current Bush administration, like the Clinton administration in which you served, believes that the political gain from enlargement is more important than the military loss. I agree.

What has happened since 11 September has surely reinforced the long-term trend for NATO to become a political organisation. The Bush administration did not want to use NATO to fight the war in Afghanistan. This was partly for the perfectly good reason that the Alliance did not have many of the military capabilities that would be useful in the fight against the Taliban and al-Qaida . But it was also because many people in the Pentagon see NATO as a relatively marginal, European organisation. They used it to run the air campaign over Kosovo and Serbia in 1999, but they found its many committees - which enabled individual countries, such as France, to veto the bombing of certain targets - frustratingly slow to deal with.

NATO's military tasks are surely less important than its political roles

The United States is unlikely to want to use NATO to run another serious shooting war. It would rather manage a military operation itself, perhaps taking just a few close allies into the command just a few close allies into the command structure. Of course, the United States is happy for NATO to run peacekeeping missions in the Balkans. However, unless the European Union utterly fails to meet the target of its "headline goal" - the ability to deploy and sustain for a year a force of 60,000 troops by 2003 - the European Union will start to take over some of that peacekeeping role. Already there are plans for the European Union to replace NATO as the body in charge of the 1,000 (all European) troops in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*. If the European Union can meet that challenge successfully, it may later take over the Bosnia mission. The Bush administration has made it clear that Europeans should take on responsibility for looking after their own backyard, and that seems reasonable enough.

NATO may be left to run those peacekeeping missions which the European Union regards as too difficult to manage, such as that in Kosovo. Would NATO then be seen as a militarily strong organisation, compared to the NATO which defended Europe from the Soviet Union or fought the Kosovo air campaign?

I would certainly not argue that the peacekeeping role is unimportant. I also value the role NATO plays in encouraging its members to make their forces interoperable, so that they can communicate and work together on common missions. If the European Union is able to run a successful peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, it will be making use of the skills of NATO's operational planners, and profiting from the habit of collaboration that NATO's integrated military structure has encouraged among its members (and also with the countries, which are not part of the integrated military structure but have taken part in NATO-led Balkan operations, namely France and the neutral EU countries).

However, NATO's military tasks - as a peacekeeping organisation and godfather to the European Union's embryonic military ambitions - are surely less important than its political roles: keeping the United States engaged in European security; helping to unify the two halves of the continent; and - in the future, I hope - giving Russia a formal place in the management of European security. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair's idea of a new council, consisting of the 19 members of NATO plus Russia, in which they could discuss topics of common concern, is promising. I am sad that conservative elements in the Pentagon have - at least for now - delayed the implementation of this concept.

I see NATO becoming a pan-European security organisation that would still have a military structure. That structure would be focused principally on Europe and its near abroad. You seem to want NATO to play an active, global role in the fight against terrorism. Is NATO well placed to take on that task? And how many people in the US defence establishment share your view?



Dear Charles,

Whether a larger NATO remains militarily strong or becomes weaker depends on the policies we craft. There is no law of Alliance politics dictating that NATO has to get militarily weaker as it enlarges. New members have had a harder time integrating than we had hoped, but they have not weakened NATO. They are making a real contribution in the Balkans and elsewhere. That contribution will grow over time. Having struggled to gain their freedom, these countries understand the need to defend it.

But our real disagreement lies elsewhere. You suggest that NATO's role will become more political because the military threats in Europe are disappearing and because it is either not desirable or too hard for NATO to tackle the new threats from beyond Europe. I believe NATO must address these new threats. The "political" NATO you sketch would, in my view, quickly be reduced to a kind of housekeeping role on the continent. If NATO is not involved in the central strategic issues facing our countries, it will cease to be central in our policies. A "political" NATO is a halfway house for the Alliance's demise.

The administration I served was working toward a vision of NATO in which, having stabilised Central and Eastern Europe and locked in a new cooperative relationship with Russia, the Alliance's natural evolution was to embrace new missions further afield because that was where future threats would come from. We tried to lay a foundation for NATO to move in this direction in the run-up to the 1999 Washington Summit, but made limited progress because most European Allies preferred to restrict NATO's role to crisis-management operations in Europe's near abroad.

There is no law of Alliance politics dictating that NATO has to get militarily weaker as it enlarges

But hasn't 11 September demonstrated that we were not visionary enough? Article 5 threats to our security do not come only or even primarily from Europe's near abroad. They can come from beyond Europe - from terrorism and countries with weapons of mass destruction. In a world where terrorist attacks are planned in Europe, financed in Asia and carried out in the United States, it hardly makes sense to talk about limiting NATO to Europe's near abroad. What will Europe do if and when terrorists strike at a major European city with weapons of mass destruction?

I hope 11 September was a wake-up call. Shortly after the terrorist attacks, I attended a dinner in Washington with a leading European foreign minister. He asked whether future historians would not criticise our leaders for their complacency in letting our defences atrophy at a time when a new totalitarian threat was emerging. He may have been right. At the Washington Summit, NATO heads of state and government committed themselves to building an Alliance as effective in dealing with the threats of the 21st century as it had been in winning the Cold War. If we are serious about that commitment, we must make NATO a better tool to deal with the threats of our time.

How many people in Washington share my view? More than supported NATO enlargement when others and I first advocated it. On a serious note, I remain hopeful that the Bush administration will build on the foundation it inherited and make new missions a central theme of the Prague Summit. It would be a mistake to abandon that policy precisely when Europeans are accepting its necessity. For decades, the United States has encouraged European Allies to play a more active out-of-area role. Our need for allies and alliances has increased, not decreased, since 11 September.

I believe the Bush administration missed an opportunity after 11 September to consolidate a consensus in NATO on new missions. But the problem is not only this administration's unilateralist instincts. It is Europe's repeated failure to invest in defence or to take new threats seriously. One depressing part of my State Department job was reading reports on how, year in year out, European Allies failed to achieve NATO force goals and how little European governments and publics cared. The more serious Europeans are about defence, the more seriously they will be taken in Washington.



Dear Ron,

You want to give NATO a global military role in tackling the new threats to security. My difference with you is not, in the main, over the desirability of NATO evolving in the way you suggest. But I have strong doubts about the feasibility. Let's think first about NATO's geographical scope. You are right that modern security threats are global. Americans often accuse Europeans of being introverted and worrying only about their own backyard. It is true that many Europeans lack the global vision of the US foreign policy elite - and, let's be frank, the over-concentration on Europe's near abroad is a particular problem in some of the smaller EU countries.

NATO may not need the extravagant Convention that the European Union has established to rethink its institutions, but a group of wise persons should consider the fundamentals of how NATO operates

Nevertheless the Europeans, but not the Americans, sent troops to East Timor. There are British and French soldiers in Africa, but no Americans. And even in Kabul, the International Security Assistance Force is largely European. So let's not exaggerate Europe's introspection. That said, the Europeans do have to prioritise when they plan for using their too-scarce military capabilities. When considering where to use their "headline goal" forces, they think of the Balkans and Africa. Given the United States' lack of interest in Africa, and its desire to cut back involvement in the Balkans, those European priorities probably make sense. And since the Europeans lack the resources to develop separate forces and planning capabilities for EU and for NATO missions, there is not much sense in NATO - an organisation whose members, with two exceptions, are European - focusing its plans on flashpoints such as Kashmir, Korea or Taiwan.

Now, if the Bush administration was keen for NATO to engage in military operations in places such as Afghanistan, this argument would change. But, as far as I know, the administration wants NATO to "look after" Europe while unilateral operations, or coalitions of the willing, sort out the new security threats.

Divisions of labour are not only geographical. I share your frustration that European efforts to develop useful military capabilities are impaired by insufficient budgets and, importantly, inadequate military reform. This does mean that the United States finds it increasingly difficult to work with European forces in a high-intensity conflict. I agree with you that this damages Alliance cohesion, but the reality is that European capabilities are not going to improve dramatically in the foreseeable future. Perhaps we should accept that a great deal of division of labour is inevitable, and make the best of it. Each side of the Atlantic can do something that the other side does not want to do: the Europeans are happy to provide large numbers of peacekeepers, while the United States is happy to spend money on high-tech military equipment. Therefore they both need each other. That could be good for Alliance cohesion.

Finally, you want the Alliance to focus on the new security threats, like terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Of course NATO should do what it can against such threats, but how well suited is it to play a leading role? The fight against terrorism surely requires the sharing of intelligence and speedy decision-taking. A large multinational bureaucracy with - soon, perhaps - 25 members may not be well suited to such a struggle. The same argument applies to WMD. Is not NATO too leaky and slow-moving to manage an offensive operation that would, for example, destroy biological weapons factories? I suspect that the Pentagon would rather fight terrorism and WMD on its own, or with a small group of allies that can be trusted to keep a secret, provide skilled forces and accept US command.



Dear Charles,

If we agree that the United States and Europe should elevate dealing with the new threats to our common security - nearly all of which come from beyond Europe - to a centrepiece of future transatlantic strategic cooperation, then we have found important common ground. This need not mean that NATO has to "go global" (not even I see a NATO role in the Spratly Islands). But it does mean that NATO must have the capability to act in Central Asia, the Middle East and the Gulf. That is, after all, where the greatest threats to our future common security probably lie.

The strategic issue we face is whether the West can reorganise itself to confront a world in which terrorism and weapons of mass destruction pose a new, potentially existential threat

Is it feasible? I am not sure. But we must try. The questions you raise are legitimate and must be answered.But they are also the kind of issues that sceptics raised in 1949 when NATO was being created, and in the early 1990s when NATO enlargement was first discussed. I am glad our leaders at the time ordered their aides to find a way to make this work and didn't follow the advice of the naysayers.

We need the same approach and level of commitment today. The strategic issue we face is whether the West can reorganise itself to confront a world in which terrorism and weapons of mass destruction pose a new, potentially existential threat. If the most advanced and wealthy countries of the transatlantic community cannot figure out how to do this, then something is surely wrong. I hope we don't have to wait until the next attacks, potentially killing far greater numbers of Americans or Europeans, before we decide to get our act together.

Let's also not give up on the Bush administration. Its policies are still evolving. On NATO enlargement and NATO-Russia, it has embraced continuity with its predecessor. It has yet to decide whether it wants to embrace new missions as a major NATO priority at the Prague Summit. I hope it does. Otherwise, it could preside over the marginalisation and eventual demise of the United States' most important alliance.



Dear Ron,

You are certainly right that NATO should prepare to operate in Central Asia, the Middle East and the Gulf. I agree that NATO should develop its military organisation, as best it can, to cope with new missions. Even if the results are not brilliant, NATO will be a useful tool for its members if it tries hard to re-tool itself for new challenges in new areas. And you were right to signal, in your opening letter, that NATO needs institutional reform. NATO may not need the extravagant Convention that the European Union has established to rethink its institutions, but a group of wise persons should consider the fundamentals of how NATO operates.

If American and European governments continue to talk past each other, NATO cannot be an effective organisation

However, my big worry is not whether NATO can evolve into a effective organisation. It is rather that political leaders on the two sides of the Atlantic are finding it increasingly difficult to find common ground in their views of the world. Europeans are concerned that the United States seems interested only in military solutions to terrorist threats; that it seems relatively oblivious to the economic, political and cultural roots of terrorism; that it spends so little on development assistance to the world's poorest countries; and that it appears to have a phobia of international treaties. Americans, for their part, are frustrated by Europe's inability to improve its military capabilities; by its slow-moving and often ineffective institutions; by its desire to trade with rather than isolate and threaten rogue states; and by its tendency to sanctify international treaties and organisations.

If American and European governments continue to talk past each other, as they seem to have done in the first two months of this year, NATO cannot be an effective organisation. But if they can make more of an effort to understand each others' concerns, and thus speak and act in a manner which takes those concerns into account, Americans and Europeans will be able to renew their common purpose. And then a new and transformed NATO has a future, as an instrument of that common purpose. I am sure you agree.



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