NATO after Riga

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many predicted the end of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Yet a few weeks ago, NATO held its summit meeting in the Latvian capital of Riga, formerly part of the USSR.

NATO was created in 1949 as an alliance to contain Soviet power. Its focus was on Western Europe, and, as one joke went, it was designed to keep the Russians out, the Germans down, and the Americans in. But that Cold War world is long gone. Germany is a democracy firmly anchored in the European Union, and there is no threat of Soviet tanks sweeping across the North German plains.

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NATO survived by transforming itself. While some Central European members that were formerly occupied by the USSR continue to see NATO as a political insurance policy against a revival of Russian ambitions, NATO is no longer aimed against Russia. In fact, Russian officers are welcome to participate in military exercises and to visit NATO headquarters under the Partnership for Peace program. Residual suspicions and Russian pride limit the NATO-Russia agreement, but the organization is no longer focused on Russia.

One major task that NATO performed in the first decade after the Cold War was to attract the newly freed countries of Central Europe toward the West, with the prospect of membership conditioned on meeting democratic standards. Another important task was to help bring stability to the troubled Balkan region after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the resultant wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. NATO peacekeeping operations have been a stabilizing factor in the region. For example, NATO and EU diplomacy prevented ethnic conflict in Macedonia from erupting into a crisis.

While these actions were important, many observers argued that NATO would have to look beyond Europe. A common quip was that NATO would have to go “out of area or out of business.” This became particularly important after the Al Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001, shifted the focus of American foreign policy toward transnational terrorism.

The European members of NATO responded by invoking the Article 5 mutual defense clause of the NATO charter and coming to the aid of the US in Afghanistan, where today there are 32,000 NATO troops. Because they train together, NATO countries can operate effectively even when not all members of the organization are officially involved. For example, NATO did not conduct the Gulf War in 1991 or the initial Afghan campaign, but NATO planning and training meant that members could cooperate effectively when called upon to do so.

At the same time, NATO after Riga faces a number of problems. Europe split over the American invasion of Iraq, and there is no political will to involve NATO there. The new relationship with Russia needs careful management, and rapid extension of membership to former Soviet republics like Ukraine and Georgia could prove difficult.

In military terms, European countries need to spend more on secure communications, airlift capabilities, special operations, and dealing with chemical and biological battlefields in order to be able to fight the war on terrorism effectively. France is concerned that America’s influence in NATO is too large, and opposes a global role in which NATO establishes special partnerships with Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and other countries. The French worry that NATO’s global ambition, particularly in East Asia, could produce friction with China.

But by far the biggest problem that NATO faces today is Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai’s government remains weak, and the economy continues to be heavily dependent upon opium production. The Taliban and Al Qaeda networks are re-emerging as political and military threats. Many NATO countries with troops in Afghanistan have “national caveats” that restrict how their troops may be used. While the Riga summit relaxed some of these caveats to allow assistance to allies in dire circumstances, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, and the US are doing most of the fighting in southern Afghanistan, while French, German, and Italian troops are deployed in the quieter north.

It is difficult to see how NATO can succeed in stabilizing Afghanistan unless it is willing to commit more troops and give commanders more flexibility. Success will also require more funds for reconstruction, development, and alternatives to opium poppy cultivation. Governments in Europe and the US are concerned about budget problems, but in a larger perspective, providing significantly greater resources to Afghanistan now may turn out to save more funds later.

One of the great costs of the Bush administration’s mistaken Iraq policy has been to divert attention and resources away from the just war in Afghanistan. If only a small portion of the money and forces invested in Iraq had been devoted to Afghanistan, the current threat of a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda might not be so great. Unfortunately, Iraq is draining all the oxygen out of the policy process in Washington. Few people are focused on saving NATO from a significant failure in its first major test outside of Europe.