NATO’s Old Playbook Still Comes In Handy

By Steve Saideman

NATO has had an on-going existential crisis since the collapse of the USSR. Built to confront the Soviet Union in Europe, it seemed to have lost its raison d’être in 1991. Quickly, it became clear that the alliance was handy for more than just confronting the big bear to the east.

What can we expect from next week’s summit in Wales? A look back at NATO’s successes shows that despite being slow, flawed and possibly broken, its playbook may provide some clues.

In the 1990s, NATO served as a far more credible and effective peace-enforcer in the Balkans than the European Union or the United Nations AND facilitated the development of democracy in Eastern Europe via improved civil-military relations. Essentially, NATO helped make the Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, possible by bombing the Bosnian Serbs, and then providing troops to enforce the agreements after other organizations tried and failed. NATO, too, was able to hold itself together to deal with Serbia when the Kosovo issue boiled over just a few years later.

The older members socialized the newer members of NATO. The militaries in Eastern Europe have now thoroughly bought into civilian control of the military: the parliaments and executives of these countries now take oversight over their militaries seriously, and the threat of coups is pretty close to non-existent. The exception—Hungary’s creeping authoritarianism—is due to executive dominance and not due to the military.

While there was much bickering about burden-sharing in Afghanistan (explained in our book), NATO countries expended much in terms of money, lives and political capital to hold the country while the U.S. was dealing with its unfortunate Iraq obsession. While the aftermath of the 2011 NATO campaign in Libya has been problematic to say the least, NATO sought to do one thing and did it—provide air cover for Qaddafi’s opponents. Sure, people will complain that this exceeded the mandate of protecting Libyan lives, but I have argued elsewhere that the responsibility to protect can imply regime change.

The key reality is that NATO has 65 years of interoperability—of democracies working together to coordinate their militaries. As such, it has fundamental flaws that are deep in the organization’s DNA. To do anything, there must be consensus. To be sure, this doesn’t mean there has to be unanimity. Rather consensus exists when enough countries agree to a course of action and the rest are not opposed. To gain consensus, NATO has a built in opt-out clause. The vaunted Article V that is the essence of NATO—an attack upon one is equal to an attack upon all—does not require any country to respond in any particular way. Each responds as “each deems necessary.” No democracy could surrender control of its military, so an alliance of democracies provides each member a variety of “outs” or “red cards” to opt out of a particular mission or out of an entire effort. This does lead to much uneven burden-sharing, but there is no other way to do it. All this means that any decision will involve much politics.

The thing is, any form of multilateral military cooperation will suffer from the same problems but have fewer benefits. Members of the coalition of the willing that joined the U.S. in Iraq had their own caveats that limited what they could do. The Spaniards said ‘No’ when asked to confront the Sadrists. Any good history of the Second World War will have many stories of U.S.-British friction, not to mention challenges in working with de Gaulle.

NATO has legitimacy. Indeed, left-wing and Green Parties have had to become “NATO-compatible” when they seek to be office-holders. In Canada, the NDP, a traditionally pacifist party, ended up supporting the NATO effort in Libya in part because it was much closer to being a mainstream party that could potentially hold office. Being too pacifist by holding onto anti-NATO stances was seen as a barrier to being taken seriously by potential cross-over voters. Canada is not alone in this, as left-wing parties in Europe have found support of NATO to be almost required to be taken seriously. This led to greater support for the Libyan effort.

Some would suggest that NATO is broken, due to burden sharing problems, and we should build a new organization. This ignores the basic reality that it is hard to build institutions. It is easier (although not easy) to reform existing ones. That there are no substitutes for NATO—not the United Nations and not the European Union. To paraphrase Churchill, NATO may be the worst form of multilateral military cooperation except for all the others.

We can always expect NATO to be slow, to be bedeviled by bickering. But we can expect that when people question its ability to act, it ultimately acts. I fully expect that the Wales summit will produce commitments that countries have thus far been shy of making—a more lasting presence in Eastern Europe. After all, NATO was built to deal with a threat to the east. So, the old playbook might be handy, and NATO as a collection of democracies will do what democracies always do—act slowly but then provide more than enough effort to deal with the threat.

This article is published in partnership with the Canadian International Council and its international-affairs hub  OpenCanada.

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