"Demilitarization of Europe"
A line in a recent speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates set off a number of alarm bells in Europe about rising friction in the transatlantic relationship. Expressing concern about what he sees as increasing aversion to the uses and risks of military force among European publics, Gates warned about the danger of miscalculations based on perceived weakness as well as the problem of securing sufficient resources and capabilities to meet threats and challenges in the future. He referred to this problem as the "demilitarization of Europe."
In the wake of the Dutch government's recent collapse over the Afghan mission and the expectation that its troops will now be withdrawn, it is clear that there are reasons to wonder how sustainable support for the war effort is and will be throughout Europe. Much of that depends on the ability and the willingness of political leaders to make the case to an increasingly skeptical electorate.
Chiding Yet Praising Too
Yet the issue is at once not only the rationale for the mission but also the contributions needed to fulfill it. While the speech might have sounded like another salvo out of Washington aimed at the Europeans unwilling to send more troops to Afghanistan, another section of the speech got far less attention.
"Over the last year - and even just in the last three months - allies have demonstrated an unparalleled level of commitment to the mission in Afghanistan with non-U.S. troops scheduled to increase from approximately 30,000 last summer to 50,000. By any measure, that is an extraordinary feat - and a clear indication that the international community has the will and the resolve to see this mission through to a successful end." With that remark Gates was praising his allies even though the U.S. is still providing the far greater share of the forces in Afghanistan.
Reshaping NATO's Mission
The secretary's critique of Europe was aimed at what he sees as a potential hollowing out of the alliance if it does not have the capabilities and the structures to carry out missions such as the one in Afghanistan. And if one assumes that the future threats to NATO members are not going to be found so much in Europe but in other areas of the world such as Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, then the mission of the alliance needs to be correspondingly clarified.
Yet even if that is accomplished, there will still be questions about an issue which has been part of NATO since its inception: the asymmetry of burden sharing within the alliance.
Arguments about the engagement in Afghanistan often tend to focus on the military benchmarks, the number of troops in areas of combat, and on the caveats which define their deployment. With one hundred thousand troops in country, the United States military has been doing - and will continue to do - the heavy lifting and that will not change. There is no reality to the expectation that Germany or France or any other Europe country will substantially increase its troop numbers, given both the negative public opinion environment as well as the actual limited capabilities to deploy them.
Twenty-first Century Threats
But the case of Afghanistan is also an illustration of a larger set of challenges for NATO. They are about the outstanding need for adapting both the structures and the resources needed to meet today's threats and dangers, not those of the twentieth century. This has to do as much with the funding needed to generate the tools required to do the job as it does with the structure of decision-making in the alliance.
At the moment, the alliance suffers from inadequate funding to support its deployments. With the vast majority of NATO members allocating less than the two percent of GDP target to defense budgets, NATO finds itself in a serious budget crunch. There are also a lot of duplicate structures which are the result of national priorities - and additionally show some disunity within the alliance.
The solutions to these problems will have to be sought in merging capabilities. But it will also be a necessity to integrate the military and civilian resources in engagements, the demand for which has become more and more apparent after Iraq and Afghanistan. Some have suggested, especially in light of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, that NATO should move toward a humanitarian mission and leave the war-fighting for impromptu 'coalitions of the willing'; this would require a major repositioning of the alliance, which at present is highly unlikely.
Sustainability of the Afghanistan Mission
There has been a good deal of criticism leveled at some European leaders for not being willing to make the case for engagement in Afghanistan against the tide of public opinion. And yet as Secretary Gates stated, the increase in non-U.S. troops following President Obama's decision in December has been a substantial one. The question now is how sustainable the engagement can be given the problems NATO currently faces. Related to that is the question regarding the future threats and challenges if these problems are not addressed.
If the alliance is to gain more political traction in the public sphere, there will be a greater need to persuade people in the alliance that its purpose is as relevant to our mutual security as it has been for over six decades. In Europe that will mean finding ways to underline the relationship between the European Union and NATO and, more importantly, to increase the synergy between the capabilities of both organizations, subsequently harmonizing our defense strategies.
The Chances of a Real CSDP
But that must also assume that the European Union is going to be able to generate enough capabilities on its own, not to substitute for NATO but to add much needed resources to it when needed. That aspiration is in the Lisbon Treaty, which states the goals of a Common Security and Defense Policy. How the aspiration turns into real capabilities in the future remains to be seen.
Even with the Lisbon goal of a common policy, deployment of forces remains the decision of the national governments. Germany, for example, has a parliamentary army, meaning that the Bundestag has final approval over decisions about the mission of its troops outside of the country. Chancellor Merkel has proposed increasing financial aid and training for Afghanistan as well as supplying some 500 additional troops to support Afghan soldiers operationally as well as an additional 350 to assist in other ways. While this represents less than what the United States was hoping for, it is what was deemed politically feasible; it passed the Bundestag last week. Despite the fact that the alliance is based on consensus-building, domestic politics will always be running at different speeds in the member countries.
If NATO's future relevance is being measured by the success or failure of its engagement in Afghanistan, then it should also be measured by how the member nations view it as relevant to their own security. When it was founded, NATO was based on a commitment to collective defense. Today, the questions are: defense against what threats and with which tools? Once these tough issues are solved, we then need to decide how to share and sustain the burdens. That is not a new challenge, but it is getting more and more difficult to meet.
This essay appeared in the March 4, 2010, AICGS Advisor.