(The author is a senior fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and director of the Center on the United States and France at the Brookings Institution in Washington.)
Less than 24 hours after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, America's allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) came together to invoke the Alliance's Article 5 defense guarantee -- this attack on one" was to be considered an "attack on all." When it came time to implement that guarantee, however -- in the form of the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan -- NATO was not used. The Americans decided not to ask for a NATO operation for both military and political reasons -- only the United States had the right sort of equipment to project military forces half-way around the world, and Washington did not want the political interference of 18 allies in the campaign.
In the wake of these decisions, some observers have begun to wonder whether NATO has any enduring role at all. And there are, in fact, serious reasons to be concerned about the future of the Alliance if leaders on both sides of the Atlantic do not take the steps necessary to adapt it to changing circumstances. The Afghanistan campaign revealed significant gaps between the war-fighting capabilities of the United States and its allies, and reinforced the perception in some quarters in Washington that it is easier to conduct operations alone than with allies who have little to offer militarily and who might hamper efficient decision-making. Moreover, the U.S. decision in the wake of the terrorist attacks to increase its defense budget by some $48 billion [$48,000 million] for 2003 -- an increase larger than any single European country's entire defense budget -- will only make this capabilities gap worse. To the extent that the war on terrorism leads the United States to undertake military operations in other distant theaters, and to the extent that the Europeans are unwilling or unable to come along, NATO's centrality will be further diminished.
Yet to conclude that NATO no longer has any important roles to play because it was not used for a mission that it was not designed for would be perverse and mistaken. The Alliance remains the primary vehicle for keeping the United States engaged in European security affairs. Through its enlargement process, it is playing a critical role in unifying a continent that had been divided for almost 50 years. NATO brought peace to the Balkans, and continues to deploy tens of thousands of troops to the Balkans, without which the region could easily revert to the horrible conflicts of the 1990s. Through its Partnership for Peace, the Alliance has reached out to and promoted military cooperation with partners in Central Asia, some of which ended up making essential contributions to the campaign in Afghanistan. NATO also continues to perform the important function of promoting military interoperability among the allies, so that they can cooperate militarily among each other even when NATO per se is not involved -- as they did during the 1990-91 Gulf War and in parts of the operation around Afghanistan. In short, while the war on terrorism does indeed suggest that NATO is no longer the central geopolitical institution it was during the Cold War, it would be premature and extremely short-sighted to conclude its mission is over and that it has no future role to play. Instead of giving up on NATO, the North American and European allies should use its upcoming summit -- in Prague in November 2002 -- to continue to adapt the Alliance to the most important security challenges of the day. Just as previous developments -- such as the end of the Cold War or the conflicts in the Balkans -- have obliged the Alliance to adapt, September 11 and the conflict that has followed it will require NATO leaders to think boldly and creatively about how to keep the Alliance relevant.
How should NATO adapt at Prague?
First, Alliance leaders should make clear that new threats such as international terrorism are a central concern to NATO member states and their populations. Already in its 1991 Strategic Concept, NATO leaders recognized that "Alliance security must also take account of the global context" and that "Alliance security interests can be affected by other risks of a wider nature, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disruption of the flow of vital resources, and actions of terrorism and sabotage."(1) NATO made essentially the same point in the 1999 Strategic Concept, this time moving "acts of terrorism" to the top of the list of "other risks."(2) This is not to say that any act of terrorism or threat to energy supplies can or should be treated as an Article 5 contingency for which all allies are obliged to contribute troops. It does mean, however, that all allies recognize that their common interests and values can be threatened by global developments, a point made dramatically clear by the attacks on Washington and New York. Even if invocations of Article 5 will no longer necessarily mean a formal NATO operation under NATO command, the concept that "an armed attack" from abroad must trigger solidarity among the member states is an important development that must be maintained and reinforced.
Second, NATO members -- and particularly the European allies -- must accelerate the process of adapting their military capabilities for new missions in light of the new campaign. At NATO's April 1999 summit, the allies adopted a Defense Capabilities Initiative (DCI) designed to improve allied forces' deployability, mobility, sustainability, survivability, and effectiveness.(3) The DCI process identified some 58 areas in which allies were asked to make concrete improvements in their forces to fill specific gaps in allied capabilities. But the DCI process never really had political visibility and few of its goals have been fulfilled. At Prague, European NATO members should consider whittling down this long list to some 3-5 most critical categories -- perhaps Precision Guided Munitions, airlift, security communications, and in-air refueling -- and making real commitments to fulfilling their goals. Not only do the Europeans need to make serious improvements in capabilities if they want to join effectively with the United States in the anti-terrorism campaign, but the EU (European Union) process needs to be fully integrated with NATO's. Otherwise the current problems with interoperability will only get worse. Europeans have had legitimate complaints about not being fully involved in the first stages of the military operations in Afghanistan, but such involvement will only become more difficult in the future if American and European military capabilities continue to diverge.
Third, NATO should continue the process of enlargement, as a means of developing strong allies capable of contributing to common goals and of consolidating the integration of Central and Eastern Europe. The precise number of candidates that should be accepted at Prague will depend in part on how successfully they maintain their political, economic, and military reform processes between now and the summit, but at a minimum NATO should take in all those candidates who have demonstrated that they are now stable democracies committed to the values of other NATO members. The new relationship between Russia and the West that has resulted in part from the common battle against terrorism should help ensure that NATO enlargement -- even to the Baltic states -- does not undermine relations with Russia.
Fourth, the Prague summit should be used to promote greater cooperation between NATO and Russia. Significant progress is already being made in this regard, as seen in Russian President Vladimir Putin's apparently new attitude toward NATO enlargement and his agreement with NATO Secretary General George Robertson to set up a new forum to expand NATO-Russia cooperation. In another sharp break with the recent past, Moscow has also agreed to get NATO's help in restructuring its armed forces, a move long resisted by Russia's conservative defense establishment. This is an area where NATO has much to offer, as can be seen by the help it has provided to other former Soviet bloc states. NATO should seek to build on this new momentum and propose more far-reaching cooperation that could transform Russia's relationship with the West. This cooperation could include exchanges of information on civil defense cooperation (where both sides would have much to learn from each other), cooperation and training among NATO member and Russian special forces, Russian involvement in collaborative armaments programs, and other NATO-Russia joint military exercises. In the wake of the tragedies of September 11, the prospect that Russia could feel that it is part of the West -- rather than threatened by it -- is an opportunity that should not be missed.
Finally, NATO needs to develop its capacity to deal with the specific issue of terrorism, a process long resisted by European allies who worried about giving the Alliance too great a "global" or "political" role. In fact, there are great limitations on the role NATO can and should play in this area -- issues of law enforcement, immigration, financial control, and domestic intelligence are all well beyond NATO's areas of competence and should be handled in other channels, notably those between the United States and the EU (which have in fact been strengthened since September 11). Still, NATO allies can and should share information about nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs; develop civil defense and consequence management planning; develop theater missile defenses; and better coordinate various member-state special forces, whose role in the anti-terrorism campaign will be critical. The Alliance should even consider a new Force Projection Command, that would be specifically responsible for planning out-of-area operations. During the Cold War, few could have imagined the need for American and European special forces to travel half way around the world and execute coordinated attacks, but that is now a very real requirement. While NATO was not used for the military response to an attack on the United States, it is unfortunately not difficult to imagine a major terrorist attack on a European city for which a NATO response would be appropriate.
Even with all the right reforms, NATO will probably not again become the central defense organization that it was during the Cold War, or even during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But that does not mean that it does not remain an essential tool with which the United States and its most important allies can coordinate their militaries, promote the unification of Europe, maintain peace in the Balkans, and quite possibly fight major military operations anywhere in the world. The Prague summit should be used to revitalize and adapt a still-essential organization, not to announce its demise.