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NATO At 60: Expand, Rebrand Or Disband?

An anti-NATO protestor holds a sign saying "No to NATO" during a demonstration at the NATO summit in Baden-Baden, Germany, on Thursday.
John MacDougall
AFP/Getty Images
An anti-NATO protestor holds a sign saying "No to NATO" during a demonstration at the NATO summit in Baden-Baden, Germany, on Thursday.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer delivers the keynote address at the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, on Thursday.
Lionel Bonaventure
AFP/Getty Images
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer delivers the keynote address at the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France, on Thursday.

For leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization gathered for their summit in Strasbourg, the 60th anniversary of the alliance might seem like a triumph of continued growth and renewal.

Albania and Croatia are officially joining NATO, and France is returning as a full member. But the alliance no longer faces the Cold War threat it was designed to combat, and some say it hasn't performed well in a challenge outside its boundaries: the war in Afghanistan.


Some say it's time for the alliance to re-think its purpose and to choose one of two fates: expand or disband.

The organization was formed in 1949 to defend Europe against the growing power of the Soviet Union. The original members were Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, France, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Canada, Portugal, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Iceland.

The first secretary-general of the alliance, the British General Hastings Ismay, joked that the purpose of the organization was "to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down."

Proponents of disbanding the alliance say that purpose was fulfilled in 1991, with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the alliance of the former Soviet Union and its satellite states. Andrew Bacevich, a professor of international relations at Boston University, says NATO has been trying for the past 20 years to re-purpose itself for some other mission.

"The evidence — and I'm referring to Afghanistan — suggests that it's not working," Bacevich says. "President Obama seems to think that NATO should try harder... but it seems to me unlikely that any sort of jawboning is going to help there."


Should The U.S. Opt Out?

Bacevich suggests that the U.S. could save the alliance by leaving it and letting it return to its original purpose.

"The mission to defend Europe is still there," he says. "I don't think that the Russian threat is in any way comparable to the old Soviet threat, but there is still a threat."

NATO sought to stay relevant in the 1990s by incorporating many of the former Warsaw Pact nations into its ranks, a policy that was seen by Russia as a threat. Bacevich says the policy of expanding NATO's territory has now reached an impasse. By invading Georgia, a putative candidate for NATO membership, Russia has signaled that it won't tolerate any more of what it sees as encroachment into its sphere of influence, he says.

A key element of the NATO charter, Article 5, states that an armed attack against any member shall be considered an attack against them all — and it says the allies will join together to resist the attacker. Some opponents of expanding NATO pointed to Article 5 and asked whether alliance members would have been willing to go to war against Russia in defense of Georgia.

Alain Deletroz, vice president of the International Crisis Group in Europe, says NATO members never fully appreciated how strongly Russia feels about NATO's expansion to the East. He says it's a widely held view among Russians that "basically the Soviet Union showed it was not aggressive toward Europe by withdrawing quickly from [former] East Germany and central Europe.... In history, you don't see any example of a great empire disbanding itself basically peacefully."

Deletroz says Russians felt betrayed when NATO began enrolling countries on their borders.

Should Russia Opt In?

Deletroz is among those who favor expansion of the alliance. He and International Crisis Group President Gareth Evans have called for inviting Russia to join NATO. Deletroz reasons thus: An offer of membership would put the ball in the Russian leaders' court, forcing them to stop treating the alliance as a bogeyman and an excuse for suppressing democratization at home. He says that if NATO membership were open to Russia, it would also ease tensions around the aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance.

Deletroz opposes any move to disband the organization.

"NATO remains very strong as a military alliance and as a political entity," he says. "We live in a very chaotic world today. NATO could become a military instrument that could be sent in by the U.N. as a very efficient body to help prevent crises as they occur.... With Russia in the alliance, it would be even stronger."

Mark Medish, adviser at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees disbanding NATO isn't the answer.

"We shouldn't walk away from institutions lightly," he says. "They're hard to build, hard to maintain. We've already made a big up-front investment."

But Medish warns against what he calls "institutional fetishism," the tendency to regard an organization as sacred and unchangeable. He favors "rebranding" the alliance.

Medish says NATO needs to restructure what has evolved into a two-tiered structure, in which some members are "serious players" and some are "back-benchers." He says it needs to deal with the failure of NATO engagement in Afghanistan and with the hostility that NATO expansion has engendered from Russia.

Should NATO Change Its Mission?

Medish says one role to consider for NATO might be as a force to intervene in crisis areas, such as Darfur, or in failed states, such as Somalia.

"Is there some role the new NATO could play in that?" he asks. "Yes, but it should be in the NATO mission statement."

Involvement in military action outside of Europe played a role in one of the NATO's biggest disputes, one which led to the withdrawal of French military forces from alliance control in 1966. French President Charles de Gaulle had sought to expand NATO coverage to the French colony of Algeria, to assist in the fight against insurgents there.

When other NATO members demurred, de Gaulle complained that the alliance was unwilling or unable to meet its Article 5 commitments. Under his leadership, France remained a part of the political alliance, but struck out on its own militarily, developing an independent nuclear force.

About 35 years later, some NATO members saw the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States as an attack triggering an Article 5 mutual-defense provision and justifying NATO involvement in Afghanistan. The Bush administration initially downplayed the need for NATO participation during the invasion, but later came back to ask for a larger NATO role when the war in Iraq began to strain the U.S. military's capacity.

That role has been played in a limited way by NATO allies such as Germany, France and Italy, which have been forced by their domestic politics to put restrictions on how and where their troops can be used.

Bacevich says the increasing economic strains on the U.S. mean that Washington has to re-think its military commitments and that the one in Europe is the one that's most obviously redundant. He acknowledges, though, that he doesn't expect to hear President Obama call for any reduction in the commitment to NATO.

"The national security elite in Washington — and by that I mean both parties — is so committed to the concept of global leadership and a global military presence," he says, "that they won't connect the dots between our national security policy and our economic crisis."

Since the crisis touches every NATO member, there may be more willingness to re-think the extent of the alliance's commitments, either at the meeting in Strasbourg or in the organization's coming 61st year.

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