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NATO’s Hard Choices

Author: Charles A. Kupchan
March 31, 2009
New York Times

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NATO's 60th anniversary summit will surely be dominated by its mission in Afghanistan. And rightly so; NATO's ability to advance Afghanistan's security and stability has become the litmus test of the alliance's effectiveness.

But even as NATO confronts this immediate challenge, it must also open a searching debate about three over-the-horizon issues that it can no longer afford to push off--its relationship to Russia, its decision-making rules and its potential transformation into a global alliance of democracies.

Whatever the merits of NATO enlargement--and they are many--the eastward expansion of the alliance has unquestionably come at the expense of its relationship with Russia. To be sure, Russians themselves bear primary responsibility for the recent backsliding on democracy as well as their bouts of foreign policy excess, the war in Georgia most notable among them. But the perception among Russia's leadership and its public alike that NATO's continuing expansion impinges on their country's security and prestige has certainly not helped matters.

The way out of this bind is to find a formula for encouraging Russia to become a stakeholder in Europe's security order; a participant in, rather than an object of, NATO's evolution.

At this point, the immediate goal is not finding the precise formula for reaching out to Moscow, but beginning a strategic conversation that makes clear that NATO members are sincerely committed to anchoring Russia within the Euro-Atlantic community. The conversation can begin by exploring ways to make more of the NATO-Russia Council. NATO members should pick up on Moscow's call for fresh thinking about a "new European security architecture." This dialogue must be backstopped with concrete strategic cooperation on issues such as missile defense, access to Afghanistan and diplomacy with Iran.

Ongoing enlargement also forces the issue of decision-making reform. The alliance has 26 members and counting; as its ranks grow in number and diversity, continued reliance on consensus may well become a recipe for paralysis.

In addition, the more complex strategic landscape in which NATO operates has diluted the solidarity that NATO enjoyed during the Cold War. The sharp disagreements that have arisen over Afghanistan and over offering membership to Georgia and Ukraine are not fleeting differences that will soon disappear. They are by-products of the inevitable divergence of interest and threat perception that has accompanied NATO's adaptation to the post-Cold War world. Like it or not, NATO is growing more unwieldy and a consensus more elusive.

Such divergence hardly spells NATO's fracture, but it does mean the alliance must adjust how it reaches decisions. Members are unlikely to give up the consensus rule on matters of war and peace. However, the alliance should forge a more flexible approach to decision-making on most other issues.

Finally, members should debate the calls, primarily coming from American voices, to transform NATO into a global alliance of democracies. Recasting NATO's relationship with Russia and reforming decision-making require careful deliberation. The proposal for NATO to go global does not; it should be dismissed.

The mission in Afghanistan, coupled with ongoing commitments in the Balkans, is already testing NATO's resources and cohesion, making it hard to imagine that the alliance should contemplate tackling new challenges in Kashmir or the Gaza Strip. Moreover, extending NATO membership to the likes of India, Israel, Japan or Australia would not only prove uniquely contentious for the alliance but also saddle it with commitments likely to go unmet.

NATO should by all means forge strategic partnerships with countries and regional groupings willing to contribute to the common cause. But prudence requires that NATO focus on helping others help themselves--providing assistance and training, serving as an institutional model, on occasion partnering with local states in limited missions--all to the service of other security organizations around the globe that can be as successful in their own regions as NATO has been in Europe.

NATO's 60th anniversary comes at a time of challenge and strain for the alliance. Against the backdrop of the mission in Afghanistan, NATO would be wise to consolidate its gains by reaching out to Russia, updating its decision-making to reflect its broader membership and recognizing the limits of its own success.

 

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