What NATO should and shouldn't do
By Senator Jeanne ShaheenMay 21, 2012
This week, Chicago will host the 25th Summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The stakes are high: the capitals of nearly all NATO member nations are wrestling with unprecedented economic challenges - fiscal crises that have forced unwelcome austerity measures, declining defense budgets and weak economic growth - as well as a rapidly evolving security situation, including rogue nations with nuclear ambitions, unrest in the Middle East, instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and global terrorism.
Noting all these challenges, critics have lamented the "decline of the West," and have started to question NATO's relevance. It is hardly the first time they have done so. Just seven years after NATO's founding, Gen. J. Lawton Collins, former chief of staff of the U.S. Army, summarized the criticism of NATO in a 1956 Foreign Affairs essay defending the alliance: "Questions have been raised as to whether the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has outlived its usefulness. Is it outmoded in these days of possible thermonuclear war?"
More than fifty years later, I have been hearing similarly misguided rhetoric from naysayers in the halls of the Capitol and in forums across the Atlantic. So how should NATO respond to these arguments about its alleged weakness? With strength and pride.
At this year's summit, the West must push back and remind the world that the United States and its NATO allies still wield unrivaled power to shape the world for the better. This summit should demonstrate NATO members' commitment to the principles that have fed its strength for two generations: perseverance and a dedication to meeting the challenges of the day. Members should set an agenda for NATO that will both address its shortfalls and build on its successes — starting with the recent operations in Libya.
At the previous summit in Lisbon, two years ago, alliance members adopted a new strategic concept — a 10-year plan for NATO. The document, the first of its kind since before 9/11, outlined what capabilities NATO would need in the future given the operations it would be expected to take on. It called on the alliance to become more agile, more capable and more effective.
History will be the ultimate judge of whether the Libyan intervention was a long-term strategic success. What is not in question, however, is the fact NATO and its partners acted swiftly and effectively to save thousands of innocent civilians from a coming massacre.
I recall visiting NATO headquarters in Brussels just one week into the military intervention in Libya to hear directly about the alliance's plans and objectives. Though it felt a bit hectic and freewheeling, there was a distinct sense of renewed purpose and a determination to respond quickly and effectively to the requests for intervention from the Arab League and the U.N. Security Council. In just 222 days, NATO laid the groundwork for the overthrow of an entrenched and brutal dictatorship. It did so at a fraction of the cost of previous engagements (an estimated $1.1 billion in U.S. funding, compared with the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in Iraq and Afghanistan) and with no NATO military casualties.
At the Chicago summit, NATO should not shy away from touting the success of its effort in Libya. But at the same time, it should acknowledge and attempt to address the significant capability gaps that the operation revealed, including targeting, surveillance, refueling and shortages of ammunition. In addition, critics have noted that only 14 of 28 member states were involved in the operation. It is dangerous to judge a mission on such a measure alone. Even so, allies with much-needed capabilities, such as Germany, must bring those to bear when the alliance chooses to act. The United States cannot continue to shoulder so much of NATO's military burden.
Next on the agenda in Chicago should be resolving the details of the upcoming transition in Afghanistan. At the Lisbon summit, NATO members unanimously agreed to 2014 as the date to hand over responsibility for security to the Afghans. Chicago will thus be a time for the United States and NATO to more fully define the parameters of the draw-down and to plan a post-2014 relationship with Afghanistan that is credible and realistic. Plans need to include specific troop numbers and financial commitments from alliance members.
The summit should also contemplate the long-term sustainability of the Afghan National Security Forces. Current plans envision a force of about 352,000 troops at a cost of at least $4 billion per year. Kabul only takes in a total of $1 billion each year in revenue, so the international community would be expected to make up the difference.
While we're talking money, NATO's Smart Defense program, which is an effort to better prioritize projects and capabilities among NATO members, should be another focus of the Chicago summit. In a time of limited resources, there is no question that NATO will need to better pool and share them, such as building on the successes of the Baltic Air Policing mission and the Strategic Airlift Capability, which brings together 12 nations to procure and operate C-17 transport planes.
There is a real danger, however, that Smart Defense will become an excuse for continued European under-investment in military capabilities. This is a particularly difficult economic time in Europe, and the eurozone debt crisis will certainly bleed into the debate over military commitments. Our European allies have responsibilities and commitments abroad. Over the past decade, they have fallen short. They cannot continue to do so.
After discussing current operations and capabilities at the Chicago summit, members should turn to NATO's open-door policy. NATO enlargement has so far been a success, bringing in critical allies in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, which have rapidly transformed from needing security to contributing to security, such as Poland and Romania soon hosting critical missile defense sites.
But there are also signs of strain. NATO officials have emphasized that Chicago will not be an "enlargement summit," and the prospects for adding new members are slim due to outstanding political matters in several aspiring countries. For example, Macedonia is still locked in a dispute with Greece, barring it from joining.
One country that deserves to see progress on its membership aspirations is Georgia, which was first promised NATO membership in Bucharest in 2008. Despite the lack of movement since, Georgia continues to act as a contributing NATO partner country. It currently provides a full battalion to NATO forces in Afghanistan and has committed to adding a second. This would make Georgia the largest troop-contributing nation on a per capita basis in Afghanistan.
At Chicago, the alliance must recognize the important contribution Georgia is making to NATO and demonstrate, through the formal summit communiqué, some advancement toward the country's ascension to NATO. If NATO's open-door policy is to remain credible, it must acknowledge and reward countries such as Georgia.
Last, let me raise a topic that should not be addressed in Chicago: The alliance's relationship with Russia and the possibility of Russia's cooperation on missile defense would represent an unnecessary distraction.
The issue has earned plenty of headlines in recent weeks. At the summit, the alliance plans to announce that its missile defense program, which is aimed at Iran and other rogue states, has reached interim operational capability. Russia — still caught up in a Cold War mentality — perceives this effort as a threat. Early hope for a NATO-Russia summit on missile defense in Chicago quickly diminished as Russian intransigence blocked any progress on this issue.
The United States remains committed to all four phases of Obama's missile defense plans for Europe. The first phase has already been successfully implemented.
To be sure, NATO does share a wide range of interests with Russia outside of missile defense, including security in Afghanistan, counterterrorism and halting proliferation. The alliance must continue to engage Russia on those issues, but cannot allow the deadlocked discussions on missile defense to overshadow other critical agenda items.
The Chicago summit should be a turning point — a time for NATO to redefine its role in a world where the security focus is shifting toward Asia and military budgets are shrinking. Chicago is an opportunity to tell everyone that the United States and its allies will remain the preeminent force for peace and stability now and for future generations.