NATO faces challenges amid successes

This weekend’s NATO summit in Chicago is cause for quiet celebration of the world’s most successful alliance. For 40 years NATO has deterred conflict in Central Europe. After the Cold War, NATO accepted missions beyond its own borders, to stabilize urgent security situations in Bosnia and Kosovo and later in Afghanistan. In that warn-torn land NATO has succeeded in staying committed to a heartbreakingly difficult mission. Last year’s mission in Libya, now in the history books, was a remarkable success.

And yet, beneath these achievements, NATO as an organization faces the very same challenges that have marked it from the beginning. And these must be dealt with, even as new challenges emerge.

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The first of these continuing problems is the level of defense commitments, or as it is termed in NATO-speak, burden-sharing. No one should get a “free ride.” Since its inception, members of the alliance have been quarreling about how some members have shortchanged their commitments. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, as the first NATO supreme allied commander, complained in his reports that the British and French were falling short. Today, most nations are not meeting the modest goal of keeping defense expenditures up to the level of 2 percent of their gross domestic product, much less growing these expenditures. The results are forces that lack critical capabilities or scale, or that are simply not keeping up with key modernizations. So, once again at the summit there will be talk of commitments and obligations, designed to pressure heads of state to squeeze out the vital resources.

There will also be continuing efforts to standardize and pull together at least a few carefully defined procurements. Initially, many nations used surplus U.S. equipment, but all soon wanted to rebuild their own defense industries. Commonality declined and the new standard became “interoperability.” So, we sought to build commonality around a common core of procurements, which began in the 1960s with the multilateral force, an allied nuclear effort designed to enable allies to share the nuclear burden. When it collapsed, it almost destroyed the alliance. We realized we had to work more carefully, so we began again with the Airborne Warning and Control System, back in the early 1970s, and are now working on a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, which proved so necessary in Libya. And NATO will procure a modest fleet of vehicles.

Interoperability remains a challenge as nations modernize and upgrade at different rates and with different and sometimes non-interoperable items of communications, or other systems. And underneath these programs is an even deeper problem: intelligence collection and intelligence-sharing. The alliance has always been heavily dependent on U.S. national assets — this puts an unfair burden on the United States and also dis-empowers smaller states. But some states have a different view of intelligence, and they aren’t permitted the same level of access as others. And this in turn weakens the alliance’s cohesion. Key targeting decisions have been and will likely remain in U.S. national channels.

There is also the issue of strategic breadth: How far beyond simply directing military forces can NATO reach? Can it really work together in defeating terrorism, by efforts like synchronizing national terrorist information databases? Or by agreeing to common policies for interrogation and information-sharing? Can NATO engage in long-term conflict prevention and national development programs? Can it coordinate weapons sales and technology agreements with Russia and China? Can it coordinate broader economic efforts in research and development or industrial investments? Can it achieve greater commonality among different platforms, communications systems and hardware, and do so without undercutting the national economic incentives that make NATO possible? All of these axes of effort have been discussed and discussed, and each has been worked repeatedly.

And then there are the large policy issues surrounding the wave of NATO expanasion over the past decade. Can NATO keep the door open to further enlargement, with countries like Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Jordan? And then, can relations with a Putin-led Russia be strengthened in some way?

And finally, there are the ever more pressing new challenges, such as cyber warfare. The alliance is fully aware of this daunting problem, but solutions require technology, policy and strategy decisions that are quite difficult and resource intensive. In particular, NATO must find a way to protect increasingly vulnerable civil infrastructure.

NATO has always been an incredibly robust organization. No doubt, beneath the solemn commitments and ringing praises echoing from this year’s summit, some challenges will remain around the margins. For NATO is itself a mechanism for synergizing national interests, sometimes imperfectly. But, there should be no doubt that the fundamental principle of the alliance — that each member nation would consider an attack upon any member an attack upon all members — has proved powerful. And in an unsteady world, NATO remains one of  the strongest foundation stones.


Clark is the former NATO supreme allied commander Europe. He is currently a senior fellow with the Burkle Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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