The NATO identity crisis

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.”

But rather than close up shop with mission accomplished in the early 1990s, the 1949-founded pact took on a new purpose. Its membership expanded eastward to encompass former Warsaw Pact members, and the alliance was applauded for its 1995 and 1999 interventions in the former Yugoslavia.

In 2003, NATO took its operations outside of Europe for the first time in the form of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Today the NATO-led force includes nearly 50,000 troops from 40 countries, including all 27 of the NATO allies. President Obama recently called for an additional 17,000 combat troops to hunt Al Qaeda and eradicate the Taliban, as well as 1,000 trainers to build up the Afghan army and police.

Afghanistan will thus be at the very top of the summit's agenda in Baden-Baden and Strasbourg. Both NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and the U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, have explicitly called Afghanistan a make-or-break test case for NATO. The Obama administration will certainly ask the Europeans to commit more troops to southern Afghanistan where fighting is the heaviest.

The U.S. request for more troops, especially in combat regions, is not going to go down well with the Germans, who have 3,800 troops in northern Afghanistan. Opinion polls show that most Germans have tired of the war and are not in favor of boosting Germany's military contribution or sending troops into combat zones. The German government has talked about sending 600 more troops by summer, which is conspicuously short of what U.S. officials had been hoping for.

But an even bigger battle could be over the very nature and purpose of NATO in the 21st century. American officials in the Obama administration see NATO as the chosen institution to take on a raft of new global security threats, from patrolling the Artic ice caps to fighting cyber attacks. It has also pledged to continue expansion of NATO, not least further into eastern Europe, including to Ukraine and Georgia.

Many Europeans, however, emphasize that NATO is first and foremost a military organization responsible for security in the Euro-Atlantic area — a specific, limited portfolio that has increasingly taken a back seat to NATO's ever greater global concerns.

Inherent to NATO's raison d'etre is the question of its enlargement and relations with Russia. Top Europeans, among them Germany’s former foreign minister Joschka Fischer, have called for admitting Russia into NATO. Like others, Fischer stresses that there can be no meaningful collective security in Europe without active Russian participation. Chancellor Merkel has stressed the importance of good relations with Russia and refuses to put a date on Georgia's and Ukraine's membership.

The Germans, along with many other European states, would like to see disarmament higher on the summit agenda. "We have to find ways for the alliance to play an active role in creating a nuclear-free world," said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.