NATO Muddles Through in Chicago

NATO Muddles Through in Chicago

An anticlimactic summit revealed most of the allies lack the will and the wallet to fulfill NATO's lofty promises.

The twenty-eight NATO heads of state just met for two days in Chicago and agreed that NATO was a very fine organization, indeed. They then kicked several cans down the road before posing for pictures and having a nice meal.

The Chicago Summit Declaration was mostly boilerplate, declaring commitment to the transatlantic bond, the Washington Treaty, the troops and each other. It's sixty-five points of very dim light.

Blind Spots

While the race to the exits on Afghanistan reached full stride with the election of François Hollande in France—which came with a promise to withdraw that pivotal nation's forces by the end of this year despite a commitment at the last NATO summit to maintain a combat presence until the end of 2014—the declaration pretended otherwise: “The irreversible transition of full security responsibility from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) is on track for completion by the end of 2014, as agreed at our Lisbon Summit.”

The statement actually doubled down, pledging “NATO is ready to work towards establishing, at the request of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a new post-2014 mission of a different nature in Afghanistan, to train, advise and assist the ANSF, including the Afghan Special Operations Forces”—despite it being far from clear who will pay for or staff this mission. But the allies nonetheless welcomed contributions and reaffirmed their strong commitment to the financial sustainment of the ANSF.

They paid homage to the successes of last year's Operation Unified Protector while conveniently ignoring the political debacle that remains in Libya, blithely declaring, “We commend the Libyan people for the progress achieved to date on their path towards building a new, free, democratic Libya that fully respects human rights and fundamental freedoms, and encourage them to build on that progress.”

In a separate thirteen-point Summit Declaration on Defence Capabilities, NATO leaders whistled past serious questions about said defense capabilities, defiantly declaring, “The success of our forces in Libya, Afghanistan, the Balkans and in fighting piracy is a vivid illustration that NATO remains unmatched in its ability to deploy and sustain military power to safeguard the security of our populations and to contribute to international peace and security” while ignoring the very real shortcomings laid bare by that operation. The European members simply couldn't have conducted that relatively minor operation, right next door, without America’s targeting personnel, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and air-to-air refueling capabilities—or, for that matter, simply keeping enough bullets and gas in stock.

The successes pointed to on the capabilities front are small beer, indeed: an “interim ballistic missile defence capability as an initial step to establish NATO's missile defense system;” the deployment of “a highly sophisticated Alliance Ground Surveillance system;” an extension of an air-policing mission over the Baltic States; and “steady progress” toward “improving our defenses against cyber attacks; extending NATO’s air command and control system; and augmenting our capabilities in Afghanistan for exchanging intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data and countering improvised explosive devices.”

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom and France are sharing a single aircraft career.

Get Smart?

The major initiative to bridge the capabilities gap is "smart defense," a still-vague idea that encourages “pooling and sharing capabilities, setting priorities, and coordinating efforts better.” But while some peripheral progress has been made on that score, the natural reluctance of states to give up sovereignty on core security issues, combined with political pressures to spend limited defense resources at home, have thus far proven insurmountable.

While the declaration states “maintaining a strong defence industry in Europe and making the fullest possible use of the potential of defence industrial cooperation across the Alliance remain an essential condition for delivering the capabilities needed for 2020 and beyond,” it spells out no concrete steps in that direction, beyond taking steps “to ensure that our Smart Defence and the EU's Pooling and Sharing Initiative are complementary and mutually reinforcing.” Considering that European NATO and the EU are essentially the same countries wearing different hats—and that the EU has made little tangible progress, either—this doesn't move the ball forward.

The biggest steps taken toward pooling and sharing are bureaucratic:

We will expand education and training of our personnel, complementing in this way essential national efforts. We will enhance our exercises. We will link our networks together even more. We will strengthen the bonds between NATO Command Structure, the NATO Force Structure, and our national headquarters. We will also enhance cooperation among our Special Operations Forces including through NATO’s Special Operations Forces Headquarters.

While these bureaucratic reorganizations will get the least attention, they are the most important outcomes. For all its flaws, the Libya mission demonstrated that NATO's biggest strength is simply the fact that it has existed for so long as a working organization. Despite huge differences in how the twenty-eight allies view the security picture and even the role of the alliance, NATO's command, control and coordination assets are still invaluable for joint operations. Libya was a NATO operation in name only, with only a handful of its members participating in a meaningful way in the fight—and several non-NATO members joining in. But having a NATO infrastructure that has been established and regularly exercised for over six decades made it much easier to fight as a team.

Muddling Through

At the conclusion of the previous NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, I wrote that, “Both the Strategic Concept and the words from all of the NATO leaders were pitch perfect. What remains to be seen is whether they will be followed by deeds.” It didn't take long to find out that they wouldn't. The commitment to the alliance in spirit was there, but most of the allies lacked the will and the wallet to actually fulfill their promises. This go-around, the words were closer to that reality.

NATO remains a values-based alliance, and the shared commitment to those values is steadfast. But in the midst of a global economic crisis and real worries about the collapse of the euro zone, few of the European allies can even pretend they're enthusiastic about the fight in Afghanistan, much less about cleaning up the mess in Libya or standing up to the ongoing brutality there.

Eventually, Western economies will rebound. Or a security threat that can't be ignored will emerge, forcing NATO to respond. Until then, the alliance will muddle through.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.