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Brookings Expert On Adapting NATO

By Philip H. Gordon

(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

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.