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NATO and the R-Words: 10 Takes on the Chicago Summit

A plethora of op-eds in the US and German media argue that the Alliance needs to be rescued, revitalized, resurrected, and reinvented. The think tankers want to reaffirm or renegotiate the transatlantic bargain and look for a revolution to overcome geostrategic irrelevance.

Many editorials and op-eds paint quite a gloomy picture of NATO on the eve of its Chicago Summit. Secretary Rasmussen's signature project Smart Defense is seen most skeptically. A review of eight articles and two Senate testimonies:

1. Patrick Keller and Gary Schmitt, respectively from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, conclude in the Wall Street Journal op-ed "Revitalizing the Atlantic Alliance" that "NATO's member states must resurrect a shared security vision. The close alignment of its members' fundamental values and interests alone is no substitute for a common understanding of today's security challenges and NATO's plans for meeting them."

They are critical of the Smart Defense initiative:

In theory, by pooling and sharing capabilities member states seek to enhance overall military efficiency while allowing for greater national specialization and more targeted, less redundant procurement of weapon systems. Yet in reality, most of the "smart defense" initiatives are either old hat-air policing, joint headquarters-or have been in the works for many years. The alliance-wide program to acquire ground surveillance capabilities falls into this later category. Moreover, the "smart defense" initiative lacks the necessary political foundations. The effectiveness of pooled and shared capabilities depends on a common view about potential threats, with the accompanying certainty that political leaders across NATO capitals will be in agreement on when and how to use armed force. As the Libya mission showed last year, the alliance is far from such a consensus.

2. Karl-Heinz Kamp, Research Director of the NATO Defense College, wrote for Project Syndicate about "Reinventing NATO", which is "a long-term process, and will necessarily occur in small steps. The alliance's main goal must be to ensure that they are steps forward."

Kamp is also skeptical about Smart Defense, because it collides with some "harsh political realities":

The major NATO allies all support pooling and sharing in principle; in practice, they are reluctant to provide their military assets for common operations, as was the case in the recent Libya operation. Such opting-out not only erodes NATO's cohesion, but also renders smart defense impracticable, as no NATO country will be willing to forego certain military equipment without a guarantee that its allies will provide it when necessary.

3. Frederick Kempe, President of the Atlantic Council, describes for Reuters "How NATO can Revitalize Its Role" and points out that partnerships could mean a "potential revolution in how the world's most important security alliance may operate globally in the future beside other regional organizations - and at the request of the United Nations. (.) It would also rescue the alliance from geostrategic irrelevance.

4. Barry Pavel and James Joyner from the Atlantic Council in Washington argue in the Christian Science Monitor that President Obama "must push NATO leaders to address three key issues" to "avoid the Chicago summit ending up as a total bust"

The Lisbon Summit had produced an ambitious strategic concept with a bold vision for NATO's future, including a renewed commitment to the fight in Afghanistan, a robust agreement on missile defense, and deepened cooperation on emerging challenges such as cyber security. Eighteen months later, not nearly enough progress has been made. (.) While the Lisbon declaration stressed the need for building partnerships with non-NATO members to increase alliance capabilities - and Libya highlighted the effectiveness and necessity of that approach - progress on this process has been moving at a glacial pace, constrained by bureaucratic routine.

Thankfully no R-words. On Smart Defense they point out:

While there has been good work at the technical level, national budget decisions continue to be made in isolation and without a coherent overarching approach.

5. Germany's former Minister of Defense Volker Rühe and his director of the policy planning staff Ulrich Weisser start their Cicero article "Can NATO Yet Be Saved?" with the claim: "Despite its uncontested achievements, NATO has been steadily losing significance and acceptance in recent years - not least of all in the eyes of the public." I beg to disagree, because the Transatlantic Trends surveys show that solid majorities of both Europeans and North Americans have considered the Alliance "essential" to their country's security in each of the last ten years. Rather it is some NATO missions that lack sufficient public support, I believe. A more limited role would make NATO stronger and maintain public support.

Rühe and Weisser outline, however, some welcome suggestions for Smart Defense:

This process should also lead to the joint operation of modern aircraft carriers by France and Great Britain and in the formation of a unified fleet of submarines and a unified squadron of naval long-distance reconnaissance aircraft by all the countries bordering on the North Sea. It would also make sense to create a joint German-Italian missile defense unit using the new weapons system MEADS or a German-Polish Baltic Sea fleet - or even a European projection capability to which at least the six larger EU states would contribute contingents, and which includes the necessary sea-transport capacities.
It goes without saying that intensified European cooperation suggests itself for several reasons. No member of the European Union needs armed forces for the purpose of waging battle with another member state. No state in Europe would seriously entertain the abstruse idea of defending itself single-handedly against Russia.

6. Franklin D. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of defense, and Jordan Becker, a major in the United States Army, also write about "Saving NATO". In The National Interest they describe how NATO Special Operations Forces cooperation will "epitomize the notion of smart defense":

The 2012 version of the renegotiation of the transatlantic bargain at the Chicago Summit holds the possibility of making a virtue of necessity by increasing efficiency and return on defense investments. Special Operations Forces (SOF) is a proven winner in this regard, and increasing SOF capacity and interoperability within NATO is likely to generate significant results.

7. Ian Brzezinski from the Atlantic Council speaks in his Senate Testimony about "NATO's growing irrelevance and further[ing] a process of transatlantic decoupling" and the need to "reaffirm" and "revitalize" the transatlantic bargain, and "reanimate the vision of a Europe whole, free and secure".

8. This was just the criticism from the pro-NATO mainstream media and think tank community. The US progressive magazine The Nation has more fundamental criticism in its editorial "Why Is NATO Necessary?":

The simple facts are that most of the challenges to Western security are not military in nature or subject to a military solution-and that a heavy Western military footprint outside NATO territory usually creates more problems than it solves. And yet the alliance continues to absorb a disproportionate amount of resources and diplomatic energies. Just compare, for example, the enormous expenditure on the war in Afghanistan and even the intervention in Libya with the trifling amount of economic and developmental aid that NATO countries have been willing to give Egypt and Tunisia since the uprisings there.

As laid out by Ambassador Daalder, one of the American objectives at the Chicago summit is to ensure that NATO members maintain their military capabilities during this era of deep recession. At a time when austerity programs are gutting essential social services in Europe and the United States, it's hard to imagine a more misguided objective. A far better goal is to shrink NATO's military budget and global ambitions so that US and European leaders can focus on the greatest threat to Western peace and prosperity since World War II: an economic crisis that threatens to destroy the social welfare state. A broad coalition of activists (see will be converging on Chicago to hold teach-ins, direct-action training and a Counter Summit for Peace and Prosperity in pursuit of just that goal.

A few experts are, however, surprisingly positive about NATO:

9. Charles Kupchan, Georgetown Professor and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations:

NATO has demonstrated impressive resilience and solidarity since the Cold War's end. Indeed, it has defied history; alliances usually disband when the collective threat that brought them into being disappears. Instead, NATO has not only survived, but markedly expanded its membership and undertaken major missions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Libya. As the Cold War came to a close, few observers could have predicted that NATO, twenty years later, would be in the midst of an extended operation in Afghanistan while simultaneously carrying out a successful air campaign to topple the Libyan government. (.)

Many analysts have fretted over the past two decades about the prospects for NATO's survival in the post-Cold War era. Their anxiety has so far proved unnecessary; the alliance is alive and well. However, most analysts failed to foresee what today may well be the greatest threat to NATO's future - the economic and political malaise plaguing both sides of the Atlantic. The West has entered a prolonged period of sluggish economic growth, political polarization, and self-doubt, producing a crisis of democratic governance. It cannot be accidental that the United States and Europe (as well as Japan) are simultaneously passing through a period of unprecedented economic duress and political discontent. (...)

Any serious consideration of the future of the alliance must urgently address how to restore the West's economic and political vitality. Strength starts at home; in the end, NATO can only be as strong and resilient as its individual members.

10. Robert D. Kaplan writes about "NATO's Ordinary Future":

Analytically, it is a mistake to assume that just because a political-military organization is less useful now than it was a quarter-century ago it is useless altogether. NATO has a bureaucracy, protocols, interoperability between member militaries and all manner of standard operating procedures honed over decades that would simply be irresponsible to get rid of. NATO can act fluently in humanitarian emergencies with which European publics are comfortable and thus somewhat reduce the burden on the United States. NATO, like the United Nations on occasion, still provides diplomatic cover of varying degrees for American actions. NATO is American hegemony on the cheap. Imagine how much less of a fiasco the Iraq War would have been were it a full-fledged NATO operation, rather than a largely unilateral one. Without organizations like NATO and the United Nations, American power is more lonely in an anarchic world.

Kaplan has something positive and uplifting to say about Smart Defense and trust in the Alliance:

For example, the Dutch are disbanding their tank battalions and putting trust in German units and others to defend Dutch territory. With the savings, the Dutch are investing in ballistic missile defense radars for their frigates, a capability that will benefit all alliance members.

I guess since he is writing for Stratfor, the article has to overly play up the unlikely scenario of a German-Russian alliance:

As long as NATO exists and Germany is a member, playing a substantial political if not military role, then the chances of Germany pivoting toward an alliance with Russia in future years is lessened.

In 2008 Stratfor already wrote that "today's Germany closely resembles pre-World War II Germany; it is economically and politically strong, unified and unoccupied, which means it can actually decide whether to align with Russia or the West instead of having the choice made for it, as it was in 1949." Will they ever give up their concern and fear mongering?

My conclusion:

Most of these articles and testimonies strike me as decent analyses of NATO's problems with some convincing calls for more commitment to NATO, but many also fall short of providing concrete solutions to help the governments from the NATO member countries to solve these issues and revitalize, reinvent, rescue, resurrect NATO.

All those "R" words suggest either a look back or a reinvention, but instead, we need to go forward and keep our commitments to the ten year plan laid out in the Strategic Concept passed in Lisbon in 2010, which most experts described as a success.

We do not need to save, rescue or reinvent NATO, but rather, to use a different "R" word, reinforce a strong commitment to implement the Strategic Concept faster and more thoroughly.

Joerg Wolf is editor-in-chief of

Crossposted from NATO and the R-Words: 10 Takes on the Chicago Summit


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