Connect to share and comment

The NATO identity crisis

How Germany views the alliance differently than the Americans do.

BERLIN — Before it really even got started, the Obama administration's honeymoon in Europe could be speeding to an abrupt end.

On the heels of the G20 summit on Thursday, which is certain to highlight contrasting approaches to the global financial crisis, NATO will hold its 60th anniversary summit in France and Germany April 3rd and 4th. The summit could be the most divisive ever for an alliance that is struggling for coherency and purpose in light of setbacks in Afghanistan, prickly relations with Russia, and fundamental questions about the alliance's size and scope.

Even though France intends to officially rejoin NATO's integrated military command after 43 years on the sidelines, there are already signs that the new U.S. administration and the Europeans will lock horns on key issues. In remarkably straightforward language, German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently announced that Berlin does not envision a "global NATO" and reiterated that Germans understood the way forward in Afghanistan in terms of civilian tasks — including police training and reconstruction — more than in strictly military terms.

NATO, Merkel said, has to strive for a "comprehensive approach" to security, namely a combination of military and civil strategies that includes close cooperation between armed forces and non-military organizations such as the United Nations, the pan-European Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and non-governmental organizations. Merkel emphasized the need to address non-traditional security threats — like climate change and energy imbalances — that can destabilize whole regions and cause states to fail.

According to analyst Henning Riecke of the German Council on Foreign Relations (an independent think tank), the Germans resist turning NATO into a “global policeman": “The Germans see NATO in a very traditional way, namely as a security provider for the European neighborhood," he said. “This doesn't exclude missions abroad, but it has a narrower conception of what they should be. Certainly, it rules out the idea that NATO should be a global alliance of democracies. The Germans are for strengthening NATO from within, not expanding it."

There is no disagreement across the Atlantic that NATO is sorely in need of a new security concept and consensus on its direction. This is an uncomfortable position for an organization that arguably — at least until Afghanistan — had an unblemished record of success. It helped the West win the Cold War without firing a shot (on the European continent). NATO’s job, as then-British Secretary-General Lord Ismay famously put it in 1967, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”