By Vance Serchuk
Chris has written a thoughtful post about NATO’s manifest failings in Afghanistan, and what seems to be a shift toward the “re-Americanization” of the war effort there. This prompts an expression of anguish on his part. What’s the point of the Atlantic Alliance, he suggests, if it can’t be the robust and capable partner we need in prosecuting a tough and costly war on the other side of the world?
The answer, actually, is still quite a lot, I think. Though there’s much to be said about the counterinsurgency campaign in South Asia, the direction it is heading, and the role our European allies should, and should not, be asked to play under the new administration, I’d argue the time is also ripe to think afresh about NATO’s mission and meaning—not just in the Hindu Kush, but in the Euro-Atlantic backyard.
For the past several years, there has been an unspoken assumption among many American foreign policy thinkers that Europe -- after being ground zero for the great and grisly geopolitical contests of the twentieth century -- was, for lack of better phrase, pretty much “fixed.” The Soviet Union was gone and the European Union was expanding. The Yugoslav civil war had been successfully stamped out, and its successor states were gradually being pulled, magnetically, into happy Euro-Atlantic orbit. Self-destructive nationalism, ethnic cleansing, inter-state rivalries -- Europe had evolved beyond all of that nastiness. The strategic center of gravity of the 21st century would be in the Middle East and Asia. Hence, while NATO could continue to absorb the countries on its eastern periphery, more or less cost-free, the real prize was beyond the Urals, the Bosphorus, and the Mediterranean. Indeed, for NATO to stay relevant, it was a choice between “out of area, or out of business.” Thus the imperative of going to Afghanistan.
I very much hope that this assessment of Europe as having safely arrived at the "end of history" proves accurate. But the skeptic in me can’t help but wonder: by the most optimistic estimate, Europe has been at peace for less than ten years -- considerably less than that, actually, if you count the war in the Caucasus last August. But no matter when you start dating it, the relative peace, prosperity, tolerance, and stability we see today stretching from Lisbon to Tallinn is by any historical measure not exactly the natural state of the European continent. On the contrary, this has been a part of the world that has proven quite prone to conflict -- which is perhaps not surprising, given how diverse and fragmented political power there has historically been in Europe.
My purpose here isn’t to suggest that we are likely to face a new Cold War or an unraveling of the democratic peace in Europe, or that we’re on the path to these things. I don’t think we are. But it is to suggest that peace and security enjoyed in the Euro-Atlantic world today shouldn’t be taken for granted by strategists, nor should it be presumed that it will persist naturally in perpetuity, in the absence of wise decisions and continued careful stewardship. A Europe that is whole, free, and at peace is not the preordained result of some dialectic of history; it’s the product of a remarkable combination of events, driven by good decisions by key leaders at critical points along the way, and no small share of good luck. And it’s all too easy to imagine how, surveying the last few decades, it might have gone another way.
And indeed, looking forward, there are some clouds on the horizon that demand attention. Although the Balkans has largely vanished from the headlines, the situation on the ground in Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo remains far from settled, as assiduously documented by the International Crisis Group, the Democratization Policy Council, and others who stuck around after the camera crews moved on to Kabul and Baghdad. Add to the mix the variable of a volatile Russia, upon which Europe remains heavily dependent for energy, a global economic crisis that is sparking riots from the Baltic to the Balkans, a serious internal schism over how much farther to expand NATO, an uncertain path forward for EU integration -- and while you certainly don’t have the ingredients for World War III, neither does it look quite like the end of history either.
All of this is simply to say, perhaps it’s time to start spending a bit more time and energy thinking strategically about Europe again. And that, in turn, means some very careful thinking about the future of NATO and its strategic concept, not only as a force provider in expeditionary out-of-area operations like Afghanistan, but as an organization whose foremost objective is to preserve and deepen the hard-won security that Europeans today enjoy closer to home.
As this is my first post, I should offer the all-important disclaimer that I am in almost any imaginable respect the odd man out on this blog. I never worked in the Bush administration, and furthermore I am still happily serving in government, for a Democratic member of Congress. Consequently, I am obliged to underline that any and all views expressed herein are my own and very much only my own—written on my own time, my own computer, etc., far from the federal government.