NATO's post-Afghanistan future unclear
May 18th, 2012
02:00 AM ET

NATO's post-Afghanistan future unclear

Editor's note: Read all of Security Clearance's coverage of the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago

By Elise Labott

As 60 world leaders descend upon Chicago for the NATO summit, the future of NATO's mission in Afghanistan will be center stage - but NATO's members also will be confronted with a bigger issue of whether the organization can remain relevant.

The challenges going forward are much different and far more complicated than the ones that faced the founders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 60 years ago. Then, the premise was simple: an attack in Europe or North America against any member is an attack against all. The Soviet Union was the common enemy that created a shared sense of purpose among NATO allies.

Today, NATO's battlefield knows few bounds, with threats ranging from terrorism and nuclear proliferation to cyberattacks, piracy and disruption of energy supplies.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the alliance has operated mostly away from Europe's backyard.

Missions in Afghanistan and over Libya have reflected a shift from a European defense organization to a global security organization that confronts threats before they reach NATO's border. NATO has also undertaken counterterrorism operations in the Mediterranean Sea, supported African Union peacekeeping missions, conducted anti-piracy operations near the Horn of Africa and assisted with humanitarian relief in Pakistan.

Read also: A user's guide to the Chicago NATO summit

This new global engagement has not always been popular with member-state citizenry, many of whom who saw the missions in Afghanistan and Libya as wars of choice rather than of necessity, ones that cost nations in blood and treasure and put unwanted strains on national budgets during a global financial crisis.

The decade-long NATO involvement in Afghanistan has produced what some have described as collective fatigue among European allies and questions about whether NATO should be involved in conflicts outside of Europe's backyard.

Europe's collective fatigue with NATO's globetrotting has often left the United States shouldering most of the burden, which is considered one of NATO's greatest shortcomings. The United States now covers 75% of NATO defense budgets, while the majority of allies don't even allocate NATO's benchmark 2% of gross domestic product to defense.

Sharp reductions in European defense budgets have only increased dependence on the United States.

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates left office with a parting shot to NATO by saying that it's unequal burden sharing could erode the alliance. Bemoaning Europe's lack of political will and slashing of its defense budgets, Gates said Congress was tired of footing the bill and warned of a "dim if not dismal future" for the trans-Atlantic alliance if Europe does not step up.

In Afghanistan, several NATO members did not permit their soldiers to fight, focusing instead on development work in quieter areas of the country. And in the recent operation in Libya, only eight members of the alliance took part. The U.S. decision to "lead from behind" in Libya forced members to use their military assets. Yet American aircraft and surveillance were still needed to sustain several of the missions, exposing troubling shortcomings in Europe's defense capabilities and reliance on US military support.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's secretary general, has challenged members to embark on "smart defense," essentially pooling assets with the goal of developing and sharing better key military capabilities. While the United States seems ready to meet the challenge, the commitment of NATO's European members, embroiled in the euro crisis, is unclear.

Although NATO was founded with a pledge to unite a Europe whole and free, plans for enlargement have not been a priority. In a time of austerity, the alliance has sought to reshape itself by strengthening partnership with other states. NATO currently is engaged in partnerships with more than 50 countries in various regional configurations.

Efforts to work closer with Russia, however, have faltered. NATO and the Kremlin agreed to seek ways to cooperate on missile defense but have failed to reach a deal. Moscow wants a legally binding treaty that the missile defense system will not be used to counter Russia's deterrent, but Washington says while the system is not aimed at Russia, it cannot agree to any formal limits on the system.

NATO's reputation for years to come will rise and fall on the future stability of Afghanistan.

The alliance pledged to withdraw its combat forces by 2014. Before then it must train Afghan security forces to maintaining stability in that country. But even after 2014, the alliance's role in Afghanistan will not end and NATO has ensured ensure continued international support even after its troops leave. .

Still, once the mission in Afghanistan is over, NATO will be without a major operation for the first time in 20 years. Some argue that NATO should get back to its basic mission of protecting the homeland security of its allies

"Maybe we need to work closer to home and focus on threats to security in the trans-Atlantic arena in a more diverse way - cyber, energy, terrorism and infrastructure protection," says Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now a fellow at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "That might generate more public support than sending more troops to a place like Afghanistan."

In an Atlantic Council report on NATO entitled "Anchoring the Alliance," former U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns argues that even that even though Europe must show more commitment to NATO's joint security, the United States can't "hand off" responsibilities to NATO.

"The U.S. is the essential member of NATO," Burns wrote. "It cannot 'lead from behind.' American leadership should leverage greater European and Canadian contributions but they are not substitutes for American involvement, purpose and power."

Europe has been the core of U.S. security interests since World War II. Before the 2010 NATO summit in Lisbon,Portugal, President Barack Obama cited Europe as Washington's reliable partner of choice in dealing with international security problems, saying the United States doesn't have any partners in any other parts of the world that shares "such close alignment of values, interests, capabilities and goals." Obama is sure to reaffirm this commitment when he hosts NATO leaders in Chicago.

Yet earlier this year the president also made clear the U.S. is shifting its defense policy toward advancing strategic interests in Asia and the Pacific as a "top priority" in an effort to counter China's growing military might.

This suggests a shrinking common purpose between Europe and the United States, which leaves pointed questions about the future solvency of NATO as a trans-Atlantic security organization.


Filed under: Afghanistan • Chicago NATO summit 2012 • Europe • ISAF • Libya • Military • NATO
soundoff (253 Responses)
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    May 23, 2012 at 10:17 pm | Reply
  2. I

    Could let Germany and Japan rearm thus taking the weight off the US in Europe and Asia. This way China and Russia are held in check saving US tax dollars.

    May 21, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
  3. W.G.

    NATO is still revalant because Russia still has a dictator who cheated and stole votes to remain in power .
    We still have the Axis of Evil , Russia China and N.Korea and added to that is Iran and most Islamic
    countries !

    May 21, 2012 at 6:35 am | Reply
    • Quinton8

      Quite right, WG. We do have an Axis of Evil today which consists of the United States, Great Britain and France! Just who do you think is slaughtering people needlessly in Afghanistan???

      May 21, 2012 at 8:28 am | Reply
    • George Patton

      Come on W.G., are you trying to be funny here? If not, please wise up!!!

      May 21, 2012 at 8:31 am | Reply
  4. truthman

    I want to hear more about USA's post California future, CNN. Please, please, let us know how that economic experiment is going. Maybe we could learn something...or not.

    May 21, 2012 at 4:52 am | Reply
  5. ciaopaparazzi

    The question should be – Do we need more hypocritical Liberal propaganda by random incompetent journalists?

    May 21, 2012 at 2:59 am | Reply
    • truthman

      I guess even if we don't need it, CNN will make sure we get our daily fill of it until we are bloated.

      May 21, 2012 at 3:19 am | Reply
    • Ichsan

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      August 1, 2012 at 2:08 am | Reply
  6. billybob

    Doesn't matter 2012 is the end my friends.

    May 21, 2012 at 1:41 am | Reply
    • Joe Joe

      Haven't you heard, scientist found page 2 of the calendar, it does not end ...... so those that invested in it ...... oh well

      May 21, 2012 at 4:23 am | Reply
  7. Rob

    Yes we need alliances because militaries that work together are better than militaries that work against each other. Think about it.

    May 20, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  8. Lejaune

    NATO was set up for US taxpayers to provide military protection for most of Europe. We no longer have unlimited funding. They can either pay us for the protection or we get out. Yes, in theory, NATO also protects the US if we are attacked but we can defend ourselves. Besides, you think NATO members like Greece or Turkey will really fight for us if we are invaded?

    May 20, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Reply
  9. NVJON

    It would be terribly foolish to close down NATO as we are faced with an enemy sworn to kill all Westerners, and they outnumber our enemies of WWII by 1000%.

    May 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Reply
    • Robert

      Then the other members should do their fairshare.

      May 20, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  10. frank

    Tony, you are completyly correct. Other countries pay US for protection and I'll add that that the money collected is partially or fully distributed to the families of our lost women and men in their causes.

    May 20, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  11. Hal C, Ondaze

    End it. We need the money here. There is no force anywhere in the world that stands a chance of attacking and taking over the US, and it will be that way for many, many years.

    May 20, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  12. Quinton8

    For the first time in history, we have an alliance where there are no enemies and therefore, this alliance no longer has a reason to exist!

    May 20, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  13. MD

    China has sent over 10 thousand medical doctors to help Africa in last few decades, we American should do something similar to help our African friends.

    May 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • Quinton8

      Quite true, MD. Instead, we waste the needed money on our own military to build more and more useless weapons to kill a greater number of people!!!

      May 20, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
      • Arannzaa

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        August 2, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
    • mat

      Bush did. Look it up. But dont expect to find these things here.

      May 21, 2012 at 6:49 am | Reply
  14. tony

    we don;t need nato nor UN, we need every democratic countries to pay US for the protection fees.

    May 20, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  15. mike

    Russian is a democratic country, don't see any needs to set any restrictions against them.

    May 20, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • lol

      are you that gullible? breaking up the soviet union was never about democracy, which by itself is an irrefutable and hollow ideal on the level of communism.

      Instead, breaking up the soviet union is about defining the pecking order in the 'free world', an order that depends on how much you kow tow to the leader of the 'free world'

      And as long as you have an ounce of backbone left to stand independent, you will be on the bottom of that pecking order with the united states lecturing you on how your democracy is shit, so that you will believe ur very existence is self-contradictory, with the end result being maintaining the status quo of the playground

      so pls, don't act childish holding onto democracy like ur teddy bear

      May 21, 2012 at 4:40 am | Reply
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