The Invisible Alliance? NATO's Future after the Prague Summit

This past Monday, I took part in a forum at Georgetown University, the purpose of which was to examine the implications, for both American and European security, of the enlargement of NATO.

This past Monday, I took part in a forum at Georgetown University, the purpose of which was to examine the implications, for both American and European security, of the enlargement of NATO. (1) The fact this event took place is itself not remarkable, given that the Prague Summit (at which the enlargement and transformation of the alliance will be discussed) is but a few weeks away; it is the near-total lack of public interest in this subject, however, that deserves comment.

The first round of post-Cold War NATO expansion provoked a great deal of debate, especially in the United States. Could new members afford the burdens of membership? Was NATO expansion necessary to stabilize east-central Europe? Would expansion dilute the nature of the alliance, transforming it from a security organization into a political institution? Would adding former Soviet bloc members to the alliance violate "understandings" reached with Moscow as part of the process of German unification, and would it risk fomenting a "new division" in Europe? (2)

Today, in contrast, nearly everyone accepts (or is resigned to) a second and even more dramatic expansion of the alliance, as it is expected that seven countries (including the three Baltic States) will receive invitations to join NATO. Other than a few voices calling for delay--to allow the alliance to sort out some of its difficult existential problems (including revamping what was a defensive alliance against the Soviet Union into a body capable of dealing with international asymmetric threats, such as terrorism; or coping with the "free rider" issue (3))--most NATO member-states seem to believe that enlargement and reform can occur simultaneously. Some maintain that the overall lack of concern over the second round is a sign that the kinks visible in the process during the first have been smoothed out.

The general lack of public discussion (notwithstanding the quiet, behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Bush Administration and the other NATO allies and aspirants) may be a more troubling sign--that there is little political will or public pressure in Washington or its leading European partners for tackling major issues. In 1999, most European states were not prepared to make the conceptual leap (followed by appropriate levels of investment) that NATO, having succeeded in preventing major wars in Europe, needed to become more active in coping with crises outside of Europe that might threaten the peace and stability of the Euro-Atlantic community. NATO had been created to forestall a massive Soviet drive through the Fulda Gap; it had never envisioned itself responding to crises in other parts of the world.

It is not clear whether, even in the wake of 9/11, those attitudes are likely to change. A NATO that remains configured to deter a large-scale invasion of Europe from Russian territory is not an alliance that is prepared to deal with the threats of organized crime and terrorism emanating from failed states along the Eurasian periphery. Nor is it likely that NATO could play a key role in helping to stabilize the Eastern Mediterranean by providing credible security to enforce peace settlements in Cyprus and Israel, as some have envisioned.

For its part, there is diminished interest in Washington for the United States to continue to invest treasure and personnel if the primary raison d'être for the alliance is to ensure that the United States continues to act as Europe's pacifier and protector. A diminished NATO, in turn, accelerates calls for the United States to simply strengthen bilateral ties with specific states able and willing to join Washington in ad hoc "coalitions of the willing." Interestingly enough, some of the east European states are more inclined to work directly with the United States on matters of shared concern; the Romanian contingent in Afghanistan, for example, is larger than some of the forces deployed by current NATO members.

What is apparent, however, is that NATO must openly and directly address two existential questions in the near future if it is to remain viable as a security alliance. The first revolves around purpose. European states need to collectively develop a rapid-reaction force with adequate deployment capabilities if Europe, as a whole, is to continue to function as a partner with the United States. Since it is unlikely that they will duplicate efforts, they must choose between housing such a force under the umbrella of the EU or that of NATO. Keeping such a force within NATO gives the United States a consultative role in how it is used, something that would not happen if it were housed within the EU.

The second is the future of Russia within the overall structures of European security. The NATO-Russia Council is only an interim measure. Russia will either eventually be considered for membership, or the alliance must make a clear decision to "end" Europe at the Baltic and western Black Sea coasts. It is still not evident, however, in what direction the U.S.-Europe-Russia relationship will evolve. How will the emerging U.S.-Russia partnership take shape--and how much of that partnership would (and should) occur within the framework of NATO? Will forces in Europe seek to draw Russia into closer cooperation with EU defense structures, eschewing Russian participation in NATO, as a way to balance the United States (for example, in the area of European theater missile defense, as the Greeks have proposed)?