NATO needs a vision

By Max Hoffman | May 25, 2012

The Chicago NATO Summit accomplished its main goal of finalizing plans to turn over control of the security situation in Afghanistan to the Afghan security forces by the middle of next year. But in fact that goal had already been accomplished well before the meeting. As David Sanger writes in his new book, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and the Use of American Power, Obama had already conveyed his plans to the leaders of the NATO nations in private.  Moreover, the president had announced this to the American people when he traveled to Afghanistan to sign the strategic framework agreement with President Hamid Karzai. The alliance also left Chicago having agreed to acquire some critical equipment, like drones, that it had to borrow from the US military during the Libyan intervention.

But the 28 member states that participated in the summit did not adequately deal with a range of critical issues that will persist long after combat forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan — namely the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe, the Obama administration missile defense plan known as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the bolstering of political support for the alliance in the United States, and the outline for a strategic vision of operations outside of Europe. These issues, particularly nuclear weapons and missile defense, are important in their own right and will also impact relations between NATO and Russia.

Two decades after the end of the Cold War, there is still an uncertain but excessive number of tactical nuclear weapons remaining in Europe. At the last NATO summit in 2010, the alliance committed itself to the goal of creating conditions for a world without nuclear weapons. According to foreign ministers Radoslav Sikorski of Poland and Jonas Gahr Støre of Norway (two countries with significantly different approaches to foreign policy), nobody knows the exact size of the US and Russian tactical nuclear arsenals or the exact locations of the weapons; they also point out that tactical nuclear weapons are not covered by any existing arms control system. As Sikorski and Støre wrote shortly before the summit, “NATO should honor this commitment and seize the opportunity of the upcoming Chicago summit to look at its nuclear policy — and engage with Russia.” The ministers correctly argued that such talks could help improve the tenor of NATO-Russian relations, bring about greater transparency in deployment and verification, and enhance mutual trust between these two entities. Unfortunately, no action was taken on this front; in fact, NATO appears to be committed to upgrading its tactical nuclear weapons.

Yet, NATO declared almost triumphantly that it had partly completed a missile defense shield for Europe. According to NATO leaders, this system has now achieved “interim operational capability” and will protect Europe against missile threats from Iran.  Eventually, the system will be upgraded to augment defense of the US homeland.

While the current missile defense plan is less of a threat to Russia than the Bush program of placing missiles and radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, there are three good reasons not to rush to build it. First, there is increasing evidence that Iran may not develop nuclear weapons, and the US intelligence community continues to believe that Iran has not yet decided to pursue a nuclear weapon. In fact, NATO’s missile defense declaration came two days before the opening of negotiations in Baghdad to find a peaceful solution to the suspected Iranian nuclear weapons program. Second, Russian fears about NATO missile defense plans are not necessarily misplaced. The system will eventually be upgraded to protect the United States. The Russians view the European Phased Adaptive Approach as a potential threat to their nuclear deterrent, a position shared by former US officials and Russian experts. Third, even if the system did not cause problems with Russia, there is considerable doubt about its cost and effectiveness. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the Defense Science Board, and congressional investigations, the system faces substantial delays, cost overruns, and technical problems. Is it wise to sacrifice our relationship with Russia for such a program?

Another major issue that the United States did not deal with at the summit was the sticky question of the US “pivot to Asia” and the criticism Defense Secretary Robert Gates leveled in Brussels last year. In that speech, Gates argued that unless European countries increased their spending on military capabilities, future American political leaders might not consider the large US investment in the alliance to be worthwhile. In Chicago, US leaders should have soothed hurt feelings by pointing out that non-US NATO defense expenditures still exceed such spending by China and Russia combined, and that in this age of austerity, the defense budgets of all NATO members, including the United States, will have to decline.

The summit did at least produce a first step in managing the smart defense-cost reductions that the alliance so badly needs, and those collaborative efficiency initiatives should be expanded. While the Europeans could certainly do more in regard to these shared projects, the recent shift of American emphasis to the Pacific means it is a bad time for overly critical assessments of its European partners. US officials should push back against those who seek to end this European engagement.

Obama could have reaffirmed the US commitment to Europe by emphasizing the strategic benefits that the United States receives from its membership in NATO. These benefits fall into three areas. First, US bases in Europe serve as launch pads that enable rapid deployment of troops to the greater Middle East (and, potentially, elsewhere) and help us bring military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan to first class medical facilities in Europe quickly. Second, the alliance can and does provide international legitimacy for military operations that the United States undertakes to enhance its own security. This legitimacy is often a necessary condition to get support at home and around the world for such actions; Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya are all examples of this legitimization of US initiatives. Third, the United States gets strategic political benefits from NATO. NATO served as a vehicle with which to rapidly integrate the countries of the former Warsaw Pact into the European system, thus preventing chaos in Eastern Europe. And Turkey’s membership in NATO gave the United States a useful bridge to the greater Middle East, undermining the narrative that America and the West are enemies of Islam. Likewise, other NATO partners have diplomatic, economic, and intelligence assets and expertise that bolster America’s own in many trouble spots.

Agreeing on an exit from Afghanistan and giving to NATO capabilities that only the United States possessed in Libya are not insignificant steps. But failing to deal with tactical nuclear weapons, missile defense, and US support for the alliance could have significant long-term consequences. There was much constructive talk in Chicago about improving NATO’s ties with partners, but the intense focus on the short-term has reinforced the perception that the alliance lacks a long-term strategic vision for engagement outside Europe. Until such a vision is outlined at the very highest level, questions about NATO’s worth will continue to be raised. Finally, the alliance — led by the United States — should reconsider whether its interests are better served by a more understanding line toward Russia on strategic questions, particularly in regard to a missile defense system that many US experts consider potentially destabilizing.

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