Thu, Aug 05, 2004 - Page 9 News List

NATO must be saved from its member states' growing apathy

The erosion of support for the alliance on both sides of the Atlantic has ominous implications for the future of regional cohesion and for global security

By Christoph Bertram

Whoever thought that NATO -- that most successful expression of trans-Atlantic solidarity -- had found new cohesion after the divisive Iraq crisis should visit the alliance's headquarters. True, the Istanbul summit in late June produced a veneer of harmony, and NATO headquarters is, as usual, busying itself with frequent meetings of the now 26 national delegations, innumerable committees and the mountains of paper it churns out. Something essential, however, is missing: NATO's spirit.

Many, if not most, of the members no longer recognize NATO as central to their national interest. As one top official puts it, the organization is like the old and bruised car one keeps for as long as it functions but will dump when repairs get too costly.

There is still some use to be had from the old vehicle: it leads some 6,000 troops in Afghanistan, assures a fragile security in Kosovo, and may, as was decided by NATO in June, be helpful in training Iraqi forces. NATO is still nice to have around. But, with the exception of those who have only just joined, few governments on either side of the Atlantic seem to fear major disaster if it gently faded away. That, and not the falling out among major allies over the Iraq War, is the cause for the deep crisis the modern world's oldest and most successful alliance now finds itself in.

The policy differences over the US' Iraq adventure exacerbated the crisis, but also obscured its true cause. This explains why neither the US, nor its opponents or supporters in Europe, ever sought a thorough discussion of the operation in the NATO Council before, during or after the Iraq war -- they realized their views were already too far apart to be reconciled. That is also why the modest efforts now being undertaken by the alliance to assist the US in trying to stabilize Iraq will not stitch NATO back together again.

To be sure, the US administration has now asked all of NATO for help, in marked contrast to its haughty claim only two years ago that NATO as such no longer mattered: not membership in the alliance, but a particular military mission, would henceforth define the coalition. Yet, for most of the allies, this new approach is merely tactical, a sign of Yankee pragmatism when the situation demands it, not of a change of heart on the part of the Bush administration to rebuild NATO as the central plank of the trans-Atlantic partnership.

Nor do European governments display any such urge. Summit communiques have become modest if wordy affairs. Even where members have committed themselves to a joint operation, as in Afghanistan, NATO's able new secretary general, former Dutch foreign minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, has to plead for a few helicopters here, a few hundred men there, like the manager of an impoverished football association trying to put together a team.

NATO's crisis of confidence and cohesion stems from the Cold War's end, not from the turbulence of the Iraq War. The alliance can claim important achievements over the past 15 years: it helped to stabilize Europe as it enlarged to 26 members, almost double the Cold War number; it kept the Balkan conflict under control; it even accepted a role in extra-European security contingencies such as Afghanistan.

But NATO has failed the most important test: to ensure that its members continue to see its success as essential to their interests.

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