- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009


NATO, the most successful and celebrated alliance in recent times, is in distress. Since the birth of the mutual defense pact, signed in Washington on April 4, 1949, the world has changed. While the United States is still in, Russia, embraced in the NATO-Russia Founding Act and Russia-NATO Council, is not exactly kept out. Germany, supposed to be kept down, has become one of its most valuable members.

NATO, the winner of the Cold War that lasted four decades, is still widely respected for its military prowess and has become the only established organization that links America to Europe, holding trans-Atlantic relations together come rain or come shine.

Yet this venerable military alliance, which has created an undivided secure space between America and its European partners, is in trouble. The developments marking tensions between the partners did not just start with the emergence of the asymmetric wars fought by terrorists, the threats posed by Islamic fundamentalism or Washington’s decision to invade Iraq, which caused an open split between the Unites States and Europe.

Differing approaches to the challenges in Bosnia and Kosovo and NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan have created further tensions and uncertainties. In addition to ongoing accusations that NATO is U.S.-dominated, there were claims that the military structure in 1966 would prove ineffective against Soviet aggression, and France withdrew that year. (It only recently returned to the fold.)

There have been frictions about responses to international terrorism and intervention in nations abroad, NATO’s role in energy security and defending against cyberattacks, and the lack of clear and secure exit strategies in foreign involvements. These questions and the issue of geographic overreach, given limited military resources, all have cast a shadow over trans-Atlantic ties.

As outlined last year by five former defense chiefs of staff (U.S., British, German, French and Dutch) who authored “Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World,” the trans-Atlantic alliance has been weakened by a lack of consensus among its members, outdated mechanisms and a lack of will. In the European Union, an amazing lack of interest in global affairs manifests itself in the lack of popularity of the European Parliament and Brussels’ governance. During the last elections, just 45.5 percent of its EU constituency bothered to vote. As of now, because of vastly divergent economics, cultural and religious heritage, the 27 nations of the EU rarely speak with one voice.

The enlargement of the European Union and of NATO, with France rejoining the integrated command in Brussels as a full member, requires a new strategic concept in step with present realities. NATO must define not only global challenges but its own role in meeting them. NATO opted for the out-of-area concept in the Yugoslavian breakup and in Afghanistan. Now NATO must tailor an agenda for change, including cost- and risk-sharing to sustain current strategic objectives.

Though its vision for rescuing NATO dates back a year, the defense chiefs of staff’s proposal of a bold long-term agenda could be a solution whose time has come. Casting aside the two-pillar concept of America and Europe cooperating, the defense chiefs envisioned an alliance of democracies ranging from Finland to Alaska.

Guided by the United States, the European Union and NATO, this would represent a first step toward renewing our challenged trans-Atlantic partnership. It could constitute a forerunner of an alliance of democratic nations.

Barack Obama’s first European visit as president will mark NATO’s 60th birthday Friday and Saturday in Strasbourg, France, and across the Rhine in Kehl, Germany. He will introduce his strategic concept of NATO’s architecture and political purpose and will hear a lot of advice from our European friends. Given the precarious situation in Afghanistan, he will find little support for a surge.

Influential commentators such as Theo Sommer ask for a return to realism. Global overstretch as in Vietnam, strategic aimlessness, a taboo against international crusades and the controversial notion of promoting democracy by armed force are widely discussed by Europe’s intelligentsia. So is the aspect of NATO’s improved capability based on France’s military return and French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal to strengthen the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). Some eyebrows were raised by his offer to reintegrate into NATO on the condition of a redistribution of command posts that might provide Europeans a veto or control over actions by U.S. forces within NATO.

Others, among them Joschka Fischer, Germany’s charismatic former secretary of state, advocate including Russia in NATO. Because of Russia’s size and potential as a strategic rival, Mr. Fischer considers an outreach to Moscow that goes beyond Washington’s famed reset-button stage the best response to Russia’s aggressive energy-powered foreign policy. Overall, there is great concern about the neglect of disarmament, arms control, initiatives to secure Conventional Forces Europe and a freeze of the controversial U.S. missile defense project until the future of Europe has been discussed.

Twenty years have gone by since NATO accomplished its difficult mission. Drifting between regional, global and ad hoc interventions with mostly expeditionary forces, the alliance, devoted to peace and stability, has not been able to define its role in our post-Sept. 11 world. Instead of a decision-making process marked by solidarity, NATO has devolved into an entity whose members are choosing their participation a la carte.

At age 60, the time has come for NATO to reinvent itself.

Viola Herms Drath is a member of the executive committee of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and was awarded the 2005 William J. Flynn Initiative for Peace Award for her seminal work in promoting German unification.

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