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
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  68. I

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  69. 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

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      May 21, 2012 at 8:31 am | Reply
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  73. Rob

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    May 20, 2012 at 11:34 pm | Reply
  74. 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
  75. 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
  76. 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
  77. 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
  78. 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
  79. 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
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  80. 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
  81. 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'

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      May 21, 2012 at 4:40 am | Reply
  82. gmwsc

    Nato and UN shall be closed, we American don't have to pay for such debts.

    May 20, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply

    Do we need NATO? The answer is simple: if we are living in a cold war time, yes we need it; if we are living in a post cold war time, we may not need it. It appears to be that EU is in a huge trouble of economic crisis. We American couldn't help since we have to rescure ourselve first. But disturbing the EU peace can help to chase the rich ones away from EU, by migrating to US continent. Therefore, NATO can help us to reach this goal. We definitely need NATO.

    May 20, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  84. mr. butters

    The battlefield has changed since when NATO was formed. When it was created it was clear who are the bad guys and who are the good guys.

    Afghanistan has really polarized nations, and people. Afghanistan, we knew there were evil people there. But we didn't know who. I'm certain for years there will be debates on how Afghanistan could have been handled better. But a brute force punch by NATO, wasn't the best idea. And since the war is still going, it's obvious it didn't work.

    And while we can agree terrorism is a global threat, we can't use the same tactics that won us a world war. NATO has a use, but War in Afghanistan is not one of them.

    May 20, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  85. Bobby J

    Nato, has become neutered by a global campaign, of the liberal leftists, Marxists & New World Order Advocates ... Barack Obama, can be counted in this number ... Currently, they cannot be counted on to fulfill their commitment to America ... America too, is being weakened each day ... In January, our new leadership, must work hard to solidify our alliances and encourage their strengthening ... There are some very nasty prospects on the horizon and weakness is the greatest provocation ...

    May 20, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  86. Bobby

    NATO has become an umbrella of protection for the Europeans - at a tremendous cost to the USA-it's only super power. If all the nation members do not contribute equally (based on size) then it should be abolished 🙂

    May 20, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • mr. butters

      Protection from what? NATO is an organization to fight wars, not terrorists. Unless the news is really slow, there isn't any war going on in Europe that i know about.

      May 20, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
      • Bobby

        The U.S. has in the past provided 75% of NATO funding. With Europe's economy in the toilet, Europe expects the U.S. to increase its funding. This should cease. We spend more on Euro defense spending than we spend on American defense spending. We don't have the $$$-we cannot pay for our own programs. Congress needs to stop spending money the American people don't have. NATO ought to disappear unless all participating countries pay equal share.

        May 20, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
      • mr. butters

        You didn't answer my question at all. You are talking about the cost of NATO. After you said Europe is using NATO for protection. The cost of NATO is a different discussion, but I think if Europe were actually under attack they would be spending more on military action.

        My original question is, who is attacking Europe. You claimed NATO is defending Europe. Defending them from who? What nation is attacking Europe? And if you are even going to say terrorists. I'll say right now, NATO was built to fight wars, and as the War in Afghanistan has shown sheer brute force does not win against terrorism.

        May 20, 2012 at 2:18 pm |
      • Bobby

        So I take it you don’t appreciate what the USA is doing to fight terrorists worldwide? Removal of OBL from Pakistan by our ELITE seal team. Drones taking out terrorists where ever they are found (Pakistan-Yemen/etc.). So then where the heck has NATO been during this fight against terrorism. This is also a European problem. Oh I see they are sharing intelligence but putting absolutely no skin in the game. Then perhaps NATO is no longer needed and the rest should booster their own defensive capabilities and conduct their own war against terrorism 

        May 20, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  87. ug

    Nato and the UN need to go...

    May 20, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
    • winnie

      NATO has become a kind of terrorist organization in itself doing the bidding of members who do not want complete active involvement themselves.
      NATO and the UN must go!

      May 20, 2012 at 1:11 pm | Reply
  88. ug

    Nato and the UN are not needed anymore...

    May 20, 2012 at 11:53 am | Reply
  89. George Harrison

    Bill Clinton expanded and prostituted NATO's original charter, along with a compliant NATO. The UN is not an organization for peace or any other altruistic purpose. It exists to serve its self, i.e., its greedy power brokers who have, for over 50years, been trying to bring this nation down to a lower level of global influence. And for you bombastic anti-militarist, this country gives away billions every year in the form of humanitarian aid; we are a very generous country that is going broke, not because of military organizations, but because of blatant political corruption and power plays in DC willing to give away the farm to buy votes.

    May 20, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  90. W.G.

    Russia under Putin remains a full fledge member of the Axis of Evil . NATO you are still revalant .

    May 20, 2012 at 10:57 am | Reply
  91. W.G.

    Don´t worry NATO you still remain revalant because Russia is still our common enemy .
    tHey still are supplying Iran with nuclear technology , their still backing N.Korea and
    every chance they get they stick their collective noses up China´s _ss . Stalin changed
    his name to Putin and he´s still a dictator of an evil empire .

    May 20, 2012 at 10:55 am | Reply
  92. W.G.

    Don´t worry NATO , it´s the same ole same ole again . Russia is still our enemy ! They supply iran with nuclear tech.
    they support China and N.Korea they still are part of the "Axis of Evil " .Because of these evil servers of satan ,
    you remain revalant .

    May 20, 2012 at 10:51 am | Reply
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