The NATO Alliance at War

Greg Bruno
Council on Foreign Relations
Thursday, April 3, 2008; 2:46 PM

Ahead of a presidential trip to Europe built around the summit of the Atlantic alliance in Romania, President Bush said his chief goal was "to make sure NATO stays relevant." The best way to do that, he said, was to "deal with the threats of Afghanistan." Yet when Bush arrived in Bucharest for the three-day summit, he found that his allies often define relevance differently.

NATO, experts say, suffers from a deficit of strategic vision. The definition and redefinition since 1991 of an alliance once held together by the Soviet threat has yet to produce a long-term strategy everyone can coalesce around. And in Afghanistan, argue Julianne Smith of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Michael Williams of the Royal United Services Institute, NATO has become "a two-tier alliance" (PDF). On the one hand are members like Germany that view reconstruction as the primary objective. On the other is the United States, pushing security and stability. Domestic political pressures frame the debate. Transatlantic Trends, an annual public opinion survey, finds just 30 percent of the European public supports combat operations (PDF) against the Taliban in Afghanistan, compared to 68 percent of Americans. An uptick in suicide attacks in 2007 (PDF), along with corruption, crime, and an illicit drug economy, have contributed to the violence, and to Europe's squeamishness. Last year, 232 NATO and non-NATO forces were killed, marking the deadliest year for the coalition.

Troop commitments by NATO member states, and the limitations their forces serve under, reflect this split in attitudes toward the alliance's Afghan project. The U.S. supplies about 19,000 of the 47,000 NATO troops (PDF) in Afghanistan. Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands make up the bulk of the remainder. Yet many among the European NATO contingent steer clear of the southern provinces, where combat is an inevitable part of deployment. Thus the United States, along with British, Dutch, and Canadian forces, do the heavy lifting (FP). Together they have lost 672 troops in Afghanistan since 2001 -- 491 of them American, according to, which tracks military deaths. In contrast, Germany, whose parliament insists on deployment in the relatively stable north, has lost 25 in those years. France says it will send an additional battalion of troops (RFE/RL), though some allies doubt it will be enough to tame the restive south (Toronto Star). In a pre-summit speech after arriving in Romania Bush urged other nation's "to step forward with additional forces."

Success in Afghanistan may be vital to NATO's long-term relevance, but was not be the only thorny subject in Bucharest. Bush's call for putting Georgia and Ukraine on a path to membership ran into opposition from NATO members France and Germany, which were concerned about provoking Moscow (DeutscheWelle). NATO member Greece also blocked the membership bid of Macedonia, repeating concerns about the former Yugoslav republic's name, which is the same as a northern Greek province. Macedonian officials walked out of the summit (Guardian) following Greece's opposition. But Bush did score a victory with NATO's endorsement (AP) of a plan to build a controversial missile defense system in Europe. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a CFR adjunct senior fellow for alliance relations, says NATO also deserves credit for work being done in Kosovo, Iraq, and elsewhere. "While there's political grousing about troop commitments, the reality is that NATO is doing a huge amount."

And yet Afghanistan is viewed by many as the harbinger of the alliance's future. Some argue gaining the upper hand will require a focus on non-military objectives. NATO spokesman James Appathurai, briefing journalists on March 26, said the UN, EU, World Bank, and other international bodies would attend the summit to discuss a "comprehensive approach" to Afghanistan, including governance, reconstruction, and development needs. Others, like J. Peter Pham, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, argue the "growing gap" (National Interest) between members' military contributions is the most pressing concern. But Robert D. Kaplan, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, says criticism of NATO as a "two-tiered alliance" (NYT) misses the point. "NATO has always operated as a multitiered organization," Kaplan writes. "Simply because NATO cannot be an alliance of equals does not mean that it won't play a significant role in our grand strategy" of sowing global democracy.

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