Winston Churchill once famously said that one could normally rely upon the US to find to right solution but only after every other option had been exhausted. The same can be said of NATO, except that the Alliance rarely seems to find the right solution. Indeed, the steady retreat from strategic reality has now become a pot-marked rutted bye-way of grand statements and small efforts. As the Alliance considers its new grand plan for the next ten years (Strategic Concept in NATO-speak) a simple question needs to be answered by and for Americans; does America still need NATO?
NATO is certainly in crisis. The Alliance has consistently failed to deal effectively with the many challenges it has faced since the end of the Cold War and in Afghanistan NATO is increasingly a side-show in an American war. Even today the US is masking the extent of NATO’s failure in Afghanistan by presenting their effective takeover of the Alliance effort as the re-invigoration of the NATO mission. Given the constant failure of the Allies over many years to meet even the most basic of modernization targets it would be easy (if not just) for Americans to wash their hands of the Atlantic Alliance.
However, the US would pay a price. For all its power the US is today less able to influence and shape events critical to its security than ten years ago. This trend will doubtless continue. And here’s the rub; for all its many failings NATO and the wider transatlantic relationship still matters to Americans because it is the legitimate bonding of democracy and power, a commodity that remains priceless and vital in a world awash with instable and narrow power. If America is again to make the world safe for democracy as the indispensable power, Europeans for all their many failings are the indispensable partners.
However, partnership without power is pretence and as Secretary-General Rasmussen begins to draft the new Strategic Concept the US must insist upon three things: the re-connection of NATO strategy to world security; investment by the European allies in effective but not necessarily the most expensive military capabilities, but above all a new transatlantic contract in which strategic reassurance is offered to the smallest NATO powers in return for the sharing of equitable responsibilities.
US strategy has been frankly poor since 911 with Washington too often intent on generating heat rather than light leaving the Allies confused about just who the US intends to fight, why, with what and for how long. Of course, the US is an exceptional power and must remain the pre-eminent fighting democracy but the Strategic Concept will first need to demonstrate to Europeans the soundness and justness of American strategic priorities and the role of allies therein. Equally, after twenty years of by and large vacuous European talk of Europe’s role in the world inside both NATO and the European Union the next ten years will truly demonstrate Europe’s strategic renewal or final eclipse after a four hundred year global adventure that has done much to shape the world in which Americans live – for better and worse. The US needs to be frank and honest about Europe’s situation and stress the vital role of the Alliance in strategic renewal.
In the 1990s the US got defence transformation wrong. Consequently, when the 1999 Strategic Concept called upon the European allies to develop armed forces that were lighter and more agile but above all networked with the US super-warrior the result was ever smaller, ever more broke Europeans. However, both Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that this is the age of the latter day Imperial Policeman, not Rambo. Therefore, the US should admit it was wrong (not least to the British) and seek a new set of force goals in the Strategic Concept that strike a better balance between boots on the ground which are vital and technology.
The political role of the Alliance is vital as a transatlantic security forum. Indeed, legitimacy and effectiveness are the Romulus and Remus of contemporary strategy. The Strategic Concept must thus re-establish the transatlantic contract through modernizing the defence of Europe through missile defence, cyber-protection and arms control. In return Europeans must commit to deploy with Americans in pursuit of strategic stability. In reality the most Americans can realistically expect is a Europe able to ensure stability in and around Europe’s neighbourhood (some neighbourhood, some challenge) in return for keeping America strong elsewhere.
So, why does America still need NATO? To slow America’s decline from global pre-eminence which is the abiding interest of Americans, Europeans and much of the world beyond.
The world is a safer place when the West is strong and Americans and Europeans must together ensure it stays that way.