NATO: Marching to Irrelevance?

For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has rebuffed the request of one of its members for assistance.

For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has rebuffed the request of one of its members for assistance.  Invoking Article 4 of the Washington Treaty ("The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened"), Turkey asked its allies to begin defensive preparations in the event that war breaks out in Iraq.  This request was eminently reasonable.  No matter whether NATO members are prepared to support military action against Iraq, Turkey is a front-line state, likely to be directly affected by any spillover from the Iraqi maelstrom.  In the aftermath of Secretary Powell's presentation at the United Nations, it is clear that a desperate Saddam Hussein might use his remaining biological and chemical weapons to target his neighbors.  Moreover, the emergence of any power vacuum in Iraq could easily destabilize Turkey's southeastern frontier, especially if accompanied by large refugee flows across the border.  Yet three NATO members, comfortably located far to the west from any potential crisis, decided that Ankara's concerns did not need to be addressed, for fear that accommodating Turkey's request might be interpreted as support for a potential armed assault against Baghdad. 

NATO's only raison d'être is to provide security for its members.  This commitment needs to be absolute.  A dangerous precedent is being set whereby states that themselves perceive no threat choose to ignore or downplay the very real concerns of their fellow allies.  U. S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns is correct to term this a "crisis of credibility" for the alliance.  One can foresee a future where Denmark or Latvia, for example, might decide that instability in the Maghreb-transnational terrorism or illegal immigrant flows-that threatens Spain or Italy did not require a concerted response from the alliance as a whole.  Moreover, the implications for the new members of NATO must be unsettling.  If some members of the alliance balk at providing assistance to a fellow ally who feels itself to be under threat, in this case from Iraq, are the Article 4 and 5 guarantees really worth the parchment on which they are written?  The whole fabric of the alliance could easily unravel if collective security is understood to be a salad bar, with each ally picking and choosing when to render aid and assistance.  It also sends a clear warning to other aspirant countries located in troubled neighborhoods on the European periphery (e. g., the Caucasus) that NATO is interested in new members that will not make any substantive demands on the alliance's resources. 

In the end, France, Germany and Belgium may reverse their stand and honor their obligations to take Turkey's request seriously, but the damage has already been done.  To ensure Turkey's security, the United States and other countries are prepared to work "outside of NATO if necessary" in a coalition of the willing.  Yet this calls into question the very necessity of the alliance.  NATO is not just an excuse for a bureaucracy; it must serve some practical function. 

When I was in college, and unsure of my postgraduate career path, a number of well-meaning individuals counseled me to attend law school, even though I had no interest in practicing law.  "It doesn't matter," they replied.  "You can use a law degree in so many different fields--you can teach, write, work for the government…" In my mind, however, that missed the point.  The primary purpose of attending law school is to prepare one to practice law, no matter what the subsidiary benefits may be.  So I am worried when people try to find new justifications for NATO if its primary rationale for existence is no longer clear, by citing the (very real) benefits of interoperability and joint training and the possibilities for creating "coalitions of the willing."  (An argument put forth by my colleague John Hulsman in the virtual pages of this magazine some months ago, at

However, as I observed last June: 

The recent Afghan campaign … convincingly demonstrated the degree to which NATO has become irrelevant as a traditional military alliance. The United States did not need to turn to other NATO members to provide technologies or capabilities that it lacked in order to successfully carry out its operations. At the same time, neither Kyrgyzstan nor Uzbekistan needed to be admitted into NATO in order for the U.S. to obtain bases. Indeed, America's bilateral ties - especially with Turkey and Great Britain - are much more critical to U.S. security interests than the multilateral alliance. (