The Feckless Alliance

The Feckless Alliance

Although Obama thought he could convince them otherwise, our NATO allies are content to cheerlead while we do all the heavy lifting in Afghanistan.

The White House spin machine is working overtime to portray the agreement regarding Afghanistan reached at the weekend NATO summit in Strasbourg as a great victory for U.S. foreign policy. Obama himself expressed satisfaction that "our NATO allies pledged their strong and unanimous support for our new strategy."

The reality is far less reassuring. In fact, Obama failed in his effort to get the European members of NATO to commit significant numbers of additional combat forces to Afghanistan. Instead, what he got was a commitment to send a mere five thousand additional personnel. Even worse, virtually all of them are police officers or military trainers who will be stationed in areas of Afghanistan that experience little, if any, fighting. The European allies steadfastly refused to dispatch any more combat troops. In fact, some NATO members (most notably the Netherlands) plan to withdraw some of the forces they had previously sent to Afghanistan.

Contrary to the Obama administration's official cover story, the outcome of the Strasbourg summit was disappointing. It was little more than a European diplomatic sop to Washington. America's allies seem determined to persist in their policy of making symbolic rather than meaningful military deployments in Afghanistan. Germany and other countries have placed so many restrictions on the use of the forces they have already committed that U.S. generals express frustration bordering on fury. Several NATO governments insist that their troops be stationed far away from the principal combat areas in southern Afghanistan, or confined to noncombat roles entirely.

Allied pledges of "strong and unanimous support" at Strasbourg are simply more of the same. Michael Mandelbaum once skewered the Clinton administration's approach to world affairs as tending toward "foreign policy as social work." NATO's European members have gone one step farther, apparently viewing military policy as social work. With the partial exception of the British, their contribution to the mission in Afghanistan is increasingly focused on vague "stabilization" efforts and barely disguised nation-building fantasies.

Washington needs far more than cheerleading and symbolic military deployments from its supposed NATO partners. The willingness of the European allies to wave their pompoms and express diplomatic support for the Obama administration's new approach in Afghanistan will do precious little to defeat al-Qaeda fighters.

The outcome at Strasbourg ought to increase skepticism in the United States about the military utility of NATO going forward-and not just with respect to the Afghan mission. Even some perceptive European officials had previously warned against the kind of feckless behavior evident at the summit. In January 2009, British Defense Secretary John Hutton blasted European governments for failing to bear their fair share of the collective defense burden, particularly in Afghanistan. He issued an especially pointed rebuke to Germany and other allies who seemed to believe that humanitarian and nation-building tasks were an adequate substitute for combat responsibilities. "It isn't good enough to always look to the U.S." to assume dominant security responsibilities, Hutton admonished. "And this imbalance will not be addressed by parcelling up NATO tasks-the ‘hard' military ones for the U.S. and a few others and the ‘soft' diplomatic ones for the majority of Europeans."

Hutton was right, but if the results at Strasbourg are any indication, his warnings have been ignored. America now has an alliance with nations that apparently believe that posturing and symbolism are adequate substitutes for meaningful military measures. That is a very bad bargain indeed for America, and it is high time that our leaders make a fundamental reassessment of our relationship with such irresponsible security partners.


Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books and more than four hundred articles and policy studies on international issues. His latest policy study is "NATO at 60: A Hollow Alliance." He is also a contributing editor to The National Interest.