When Western leaders gather in Chicago this weekend for the NATO summit, the public will be inundated with upbeat communiques. The assembled presidents and prime ministers will agree to march in lockstep on the way out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. They will point to last year’s military operation in Libya as a model for future alliance burden-sharing. They will embrace a new “Smart Defense” initiative that calls for member states to pool defense dollars and “specialize” in buying weaponry to insure that the whole of the alliance remains greater than the sum of its declining parts.
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Much of what you hear from Chicago, however, will be window dressing meant to cover an alliance caught in a moment of significant peril and decline.
In reality, the recent election of President Francois Hollande means France will agitate to follow Canada and the Netherlands to the exit door in Afghanistan, with other allies likely scrambling close behind. After Afghan security forces recently reached their agreed upon topline of 352,000 troops and police in order to battle a still potent Taliban insurgency, NATO officials who will have to continue fitting the bill have already begun talking about reducing their number to 228,000 by 2018. The once popular idea that such decisions as the withdrawal of allied forces and cuts in Afghan troop levels would depend on “conditions on the ground” has become downright quaint.
“Alliance leaders will almost certainly urge France informally not to speed up its withdrawal from Afghanistan, but I’m not sure that’s possible given French politics,” said James Dobbins, director of the Rand International Security and Defense Policy Center, and a former special envoy for Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration. “Even if France does accelerate its withdrawal it won’t collapse the NATO mission, but it will set an unfortunate precedent that puts additional pressure on other allies to do the same.”
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Last year’s successful NATO operation to oust former Libyan strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi, during which Washington pressured France and Great Britain to take the lead in air operations, also revealed serious shortcomings in the defense capabilities of European allies. Coupled with the Obama administration’s announced troop reductions in Europe and “pivot” to Asia, the “Libya model” makes new Central and Eastern European member states nervous about the United States continued commitment to NATO.
Meanwhile, the Smart Defense initiative that will be launched with much fanfare at the Chicago summit is largely a rationalization for doing more with less, as European allies slash already inadequate defense budgets. The template is a bilateral deal reached in recent years between Great Britain and France, two NATO stalwarts that have slashed defense spending so deeply that the erstwhile world powers will be sharing a single aircraft carrier for much of the next decade.
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“The Chicago summit won’t represent the milestone for Smart Defense that officials had initially hoped, mainly because the actual agreed-upon initiatives are very modest and the money saved won’t come close to matching the size of European defense cuts,” said Clara Marina O’Donnell, a Fulbright Fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. “NATO officials will announce some small improvements as window dressing, but the bottom line is still an overall deterioration in European defense capabilities.”
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Of course, critics have singled out unbalanced trans-Atlantic burden-sharing and inadequate European defense budgets for almost as long as NATO has existed, and the “NATO faces uncertain future” story has been a perennial since the end of the Cold War. The overarching point of the Chicago summit may simply be that the alliance continues to march on.
Indeed, the last time NATO leaders met in the United States was in 1999, with the alliance engaged in a month’s long air war over Kosovo that some worried would fracture the alliance. More than a decade later, NATO has managed to hang together despite the stresses of an unpopular ground war in Afghanistan that has dragged on for many years.
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“It’s easy to be disappointed with European cuts in defense spending, and it’s true that the Smart Defense initiative probably means trying to do more with less, but at the end of the day there still is no other institution in the world that the international community can turn to for action in times of crisis,” said James Goldgeier, dean of American University’s School of International Service. “We just have to be realistic in our expectations of the alliance.”
Said Michael O’Hanlon, a longtime defense expert at the Brookings Institution: “NATO is the worst alliance in the world -- except for all the others.”
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