Shadow Government

What is NATO for?

Secretary Gates continued his remarkable straight-talk farewell tour when he dared tell Europe that the emperor has no clothes. That was his basic message on Friday when he said that NATO risks irrelevance and a "dismal" future unless Europe begins paying more for its defense.

My initial reaction to NATO when I served alongside our partners in Afghanistan in 2002 was to be impressed with the individual soldiers but underwhelmed by the aggregate contribution of the alliance partners. Despite having invoked Article V for the first time in its history, most NATO allies did not deploy significant material or manpower to the fight: it was clearly the United States' war in the first year. That impression has only deepened since NATO assumed lead responsibility for Afghan security in 2006, nearly losing the war in the process, and undertook a war of choice against Libya in 2011. It has not distinguished itself in either conflict.

What is NATO for? Not for fighting wars. It proved in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya that NATO is not an effective fighting alliance. The wars it fights are fought by committee: or, worse, by bureaucracy. They are clumsy, inefficient, and violate the unity of command, one of the basic principles of war-fighting. Kosovo ended when the Kosovo Liberation Army began to make progress in ground combat and President Clinton appeared to be rethinking his no-ground-forces rule. Afghanistan has only turned around (barely) since the United States effectively re-Americanized the war starting in 2009 (Americans did not make up a majority of international military forces in Afghanistan until then). And Libya is likely to remain stalemated until NATO changes its approach or the United States takes over.

Gates lamented that allies have not spent more on their own defense: buy why should they? The Europeans are not genetically or culturally programmed for pacifism: from the 16th century onwards each took a turn as the predominant world power, and their empires collectively conquered the globe. Their weak defense today is a simple function of rational choice. The United States subsidizes European free-riding, and the alliance structure is clearly a recipe for moral hazard. Europe has absolutely no reason to spend more on its defense when it can get defense for free from us. They are only doing the rational thing.

But Gates was right when he said that "future U.S. political leaders -- those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me -- may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost." That is exactly right. I am a generation younger than Gates, and I have consistently heard (and expressed) these sort of doubts from colleagues and classmates for the last decade.

That is not to say that NATO has no function or that the United States should pull out of the alliance. Far from it. We just need to recognize what NATO really is and what it isn't and then calibrate our expectations appropriately. NATO has evolved (or devolved) from a military alliance into a political institution. It is a sort of institutional expression of the West. It gives voice to common concerns and values. It is the first line of meaningful political (though not military) multilateralism. The possibility of membership in NATO was a powerful incentive for post-communist East European states to reform and implement accountable governance.

More significantly, NATO is a bargain in which the United States commits to Europe's external security in exchange for a European commitment to keep its internal peace. Lord Ismay's famous dictum, that NATO exists "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down," is still pretty much on target (just replace "Germans" with "secessionists and fascists"). NATO is a tool to balance Russian influence in Eurasia. NATO is emphatically not for global peacekeeping and is not designed for out-of-area operations.

As Russia demonstrated with its 2008 war against Georgia, it is still very much prepared to throw its weight around in its near-abroad. If the United States ever pulled out of NATO and withdrew its troops from Germany and elsewhere, Russia would almost certainly feel emboldened to reassert influence in the Baltics, Eastern Europe, and probably the Middle East, and resurrect an illiberal regional order. NATO helps preclude that scenario. That's a good thing, but don't expect much else.

JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Castles in the sky: the failure to rebuild Afghanistan

The United States is very good at making war. It is awful at state building. No matter how often Washington has tried over the years to pour its human and material resources into what is currently and euphemistically termed "reconstruction and stabilization," it has fallen short at least as often as it succeeds. In places where it has succeeded -- in Germany, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea -- the recipient country put as much, if not more, effort into rebuilding its polity and economy as did the United States. Where Washington has failed -- the Philippines, Haiti (several times), Somalia, and now Afghanistan -- the country in question simply was on the take.

The United States has defeated al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is hammering the Taliban. But, as the recently issued Senate Foreign Relations Committee report has made abundantly clear, it has utterly failed to construct a viable political and economic structure that can be expected to outlast the departure of most U.S. forces from that country in 2014. It has not been for want of trying: Washington has poured some $19 billion into Afghanistan in the past decade. Rather, it is due to policy-makers' indifference to the implementation of their plans, lack of timing, and inability to deploy sufficient numbers of civilians to that war-torn country. Equally, it is due to the nature of the country itself: a collection of fiercely independent tribes and ethnic groups that, as they have for centuries, are often at war with one another when not united in warring with outsiders. 

As I point out in my recently published A Vulcan's Tale, Washington missed the boat when it came to Afghan reconstruction. From 2002 to 2004, Afghanistan was quiet, and the Taliban (and al Qaeda) had gone into hiding. The country was suffused with optimism; the U.S. was popular. That was the time to move significant resources, and civilian personnel, into the country -- to forestall reliance on the poppy crop, to build up small business, to train the military and police. Instead, Afghanistan became yesterday's news as Iraq moved to the forefront of policymakers' concerns, while the Office of Management and Budget stubbornly ignored pleas from the State Department and the USAID for more resources. At the same time, few civilians volunteered to serve in the country, and contractors took the lead in "reconstruction" -- and in reaping the profits thereof. Add to that the United States' overreaction to that indifference that resulted in a flood of money into Afghanistan beginning in the latter part of the past decade, as well as a cultural tone-deafness that persists to this day, and it should come as no surprise that the majority of Afghans have not benefited from U.S. largesse.

The State Department has, as might be expected, issued a rebuttal to the Senate report. But the statistics it cites regarding economic growth mask the fact that Afghan governance is riddled with corruption, while its economy (excluding revenues from narcotics crops) is not much more than $8 billion, despite all the funds that have poured into it since 2002. Civilians still are chary about serving in Afghanistan -- the civilian surge of about 1100 personnel not only is dwarfed by the U.S. military presence, but is also almost invisible in a country the size of Texas with a population of some 30 million.

There remains a strong case for providing training assistance to Afghanistan's security forces, though it is nothing short of amazing that, until three or four years ago, virtually nothing was done to provide trainees with even a modicum of literacy proficiency. Likewise, there is a case for a significantly reduced but still potent military presence to ensure that the Taliban, and, in particular, al Qaeda, cannot return to the pre-September 11 status quo ante. But it makes no sense for the United States to pour billions into reconstruction assistance when the current effort to reform USAID is in its infant stages, when civilians can still refuse to serve in Afghanistan, and when contractors will continue to dominate U.S. assistance activities. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the United States' allies, many of whom have had far more success in implementing state-building projects, sit on their hands and withhold their money. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was right to castigate the United States' NATO allies for their blithe refusal to pull their weight in Afghanistan and, for that matter, Libya. At a minimum, the Europeans and other putative members of the coalition in Afghanistan should take the lead in providing the human and material resources for the non-military aspects of that country's reconstruction. It is the least that they can do -- and they happen to be better at the job than we are, or are likely to be for some time.

MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images