The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, once was comprised of Western European nations who were still recovering from the devastation of the Second World War, and in the aftermath of that conflict were staring at the looming colossus of a Soviet Union with both the means and desire to dominate all of Europe.
The eastward expansion of NATO in the last decade and a half has greatly increased the dichotomy between western European member nations and those within the “near abroad” of the very entity NATO was formed to hedge, Russia. These new member nations have very different political and social traditions than do the 1949 founding members. Most have spent fewer than fifty years of modern Western history out of the grips of either Imperial Russia or the Soviet Union.
These new members, and their neighbors who have petitioned for membership to NATO (Georgia, Ukraine), have a decidedly more fearful and less conciliatory tone with Russia than do the western European members. Problem is, with the exception of Poland and possibly Ukraine, none have more than trifling military capability, and remain fragile economically.
With rumblings from Putin regarding the restoration to Russia of the power and influence of his beloved Soviet Union, the NATO members in the “near abroad” are counting heavily on Article 5 of the NATO agreement (…”an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”) in the event of Russian aggression.
The unfortunate fact of today’s NATO is that the will and means to uphold Article 5 is almost entirely lacking. And, like Czechoslovakia in 1938, any eastern NATO ally will likely, in the event of aggression, get little by way of assistance from its western European neighbors other than expressions of regret and rationalization of inaction in the face of a bullying and expansionist foe.
The Georgia crisis of the late-summer of 2008 provided a glimpse of the monumental problems that exist in NATO as a vehicle for collective security against a resurgent and restive Russia. Germany, heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas, saw Chancellor Merkel dash off to St Petersburg to meet with Medvedev to reassure him of Germany’s non-interference with Russian plans in Georgia.
More disturbing (and harder to fix) than the conciliatory tone of western members toward Russia because of economic and energy dependence is the overall withering of any military capability on the part of any NATO member except the United States and the UK. Increasingly since the end of the Cold War in 1991, the nations which comprise NATO have contributed less and less to the maintenance of security, and have more and more expected the United States to provide what they refuse to, even toward their own defense. US coaxing and cajoling by several administrations for increased participation have been universally greeted with empty promises, further defense reductions, and thinly-concealed resentment.
The ISAF Model of NATO capability
Though the above assertion may be considered debatable by the European NATO membership (though I couldn’t imagine how), there is a real-time case study that makes the point far more eloquently than assertions here. In Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has approximately 64,000 troops in country. Of those, more than 30,000 are US Army and Marine forces (likely to increase significantly), and almost 10,000 are Brits.
This 40,000 provided by just two of the 28 contributing NATO members represents nearly 2/3 of all troop strength and nearly all of ISAF’s combat power. The contingents for the remaining 26 countries have proven to be ill-prepared, unmotivated, poorly-conditioned, and generally of dubious value, despite what may officially be trumpeted from Brussels. Sadly, this includes the once-respected Bundeswehr, which has become an embarrassment to German traditions of military excellence.
Not that we shouldn’t have (or didn’t) see this coming. In the last decade, NATO’s record in the Balkans was just as dismal. Why, these nations ask, should they contribute to a common defense when the United States provides for them? Besides, NATO’s common defense has ceased to be common. Ceased, at least until its members end up again under the thumb of a totalitarian state that used those differences and disagreements among an alliance’s members to split, intimidate, and then subjugate those nations for which it has an appetite.
Whither, then, NATO? If the organization is inept and incapable of action outside of Europe, and fractious and vacillating within and among the continent, what benefit is there to perpetuating what has become, as one author labeled it, “more a political honor society than a meaningful security organization”?
Perhaps it is time to dissolve NATO, though exactly what can be cobbled together in its place is unclear. The United States also cannot abandon Europe, tempting at times as that can be. This question may become one of the largest of the next decade for US foreign policy, and by proxy, US National Security and National Military Strategy.
Lessons from NATO for the “Thousand-Ship Navy”
There are other lessons to draw from NATO and its shortcomings. The first and largest lesson is once again the failure of collective security. The Thousand Ship Navy concept, one of Admiral Mullen’s pillars of the Global Maritime Partnership, is heavily reliant upon such a collective security. But, no such “fleet-in-being” exists. Nor does a true network of “partner nations” who will contribute more than they will demand. The line between maritime security as defined by “reducing transnational crime, WMD proliferation, terrorism, and human trafficking” and maritime security against nations with blue and brown-water threats who support, condone, and profit from such activities is by no means clear, if it exists at all.
Extrapolating the Afghanistan ISAF model to the world’s oceans, the “thousand-ship navy” would consist of some five hundred US Navy warships, and nearly 200 units of the Royal Navy. Of course, neither service comes close to those numbers. Neither have plans to do so. Both navies, in fact, are shrinking. The US Navy, committed worldwide, is struggling to maintain its level of 280-odd ships, while the Royal Navy has fewer than 100 vessels in commission. Though many will point to those numbers and claim that the Thousand Ship Navy concept is not entirely one of warships, we have had several recent lessons regarding the value and necessity of “presence”. This, in its true form, requires warship hulls.
The NATO model needs to be an object lesson and reality check to the concept of building our Global Maritime Strategy on the idea that “partner nations” are to be counted upon to ante up when the need arises. That the need will be commonly perceived at all by those partners is a dubious concept.
If NATO’s time has passed, the time for the concept of the Thousand Ship Navy never was.