Opinion: Hello, NATO, goodbye

EVANSTON, Ill. — Amid problems with fragile economies across the globe and regional strife from Africa to central Asia it might escape notice that NATO, a cornerstone of United States strategic power for six decades, has begun to crumble.

In February, The Netherlands announced it was withdrawing its 2,000 troops from Afghanistan after the coalition government collapsed when the Labor Party refused to prolong participation of the Dutch contingent in the alliance’s International Security Assistance Force beyond this summer.

Canada, supplying 2,800 troops to ISAF, is determined to pull out next year, despite pleas by the Obama administration. Germany, which forbids its 4,415 troops stationed in northern Afghanistan to engage in combat, is undergoing agonizing domestic debates about whether Germans should be engaged at all.

Those developments stand in glaring contrast to the policy of the United States, which is in the process of augmenting its forces in Afghanistan by 30,000 troops.

ISAF might draw some consolation from the fact that tiny countries like Montenegro and Macedonia, aspiring to join the alliance, have come forth with contributions — respectively — of 31 and 160 soldiers. But that is hardly compensation for the loss of support from countries like Canada and The Netherlands that have been stalwart members of NATO since its inception in April 1949.

Since 2002, the 15 NATO contingents assisting the Americans have had 700 casualties in Afghanistan. This has had repercussions in their homelands.

Two years ago, Germany, France, Turkey and Italy refused to deploy their troops in combat zones in southern Afghanistan, prompting Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to remark that NATO might become an alliance “in which some partners are willing to fight and die to protect people, while others are not.”

That situation has not improved. In a recent speech at the National Defense University, Gates complained that “the demilitarization of Europe — where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st.” NATO, he said, “faces very serious, long-term systemic problems.”

Just five of its 28 members spend the required NATO minimum of 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense. (The United States spends more than 4 percent of GDP on the military.)

Almost from its beginning, a premise of NATO’s strength was the ability to expand, which it has done seven times in six decades. It is scheduled to grow again with the addition of several Balkan mini-states.

But its eastward push starting in 2004 to swallow up pieces of the former Soviet Union appears to have stalled. In December alliance foreign ministers declined to invite either Ukraine or Georgia to become members.

In March the coalition backing Ukraine’s newly elected pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, announced legislation that would bar the country from joining any military alliance. Under its previous “orange” leadership. Ukraine slavered to join NATO. Georgia’s Mikhail Saakashvili still does, but it may be too late.

The alliance’s engagement in Afghanistan — where Russian forces had come to grief in the 1980s — seems to have happened almost by accident. Interpreting for the first time in alliance history NATO’s Article 5 of its founding charter that an attack on any member is “considered an attack against them all’,’ the United States in 2001 invoked Afghanistan-based Al Qaeda assaults as grounds for bringing in the allies. (NATO’s only previous engagements — bombing Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and Serbia itself in 1999 — were ordered and justified by President Bill Clinton as cases of “humanitarian intervention.”) Among recent signs of NATO weariness are some mixed messages:

Lord (George) Robertson, the former secretary general of NATO, argued in February for a new “European security and defense policy” to enable “the Europeans to act if it wasn’t appropriate for NATO and the Americans to act.” This was amplified in March by a Canadian military study that contended that “the enormous military assets tied to the territorial defense of Europe need to be redirected to face global threats.”

At the same time Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor, published an essay arguing: “The United States should dare to do the unthinkable: allow NATO to devolve into a European organization directed by Europeans to serve European needs, upholding the safety and well-being of a Europe that is whole and free — and more able to manage its own affairs.”

As if to underline the irony of such proposals, the West European Union, the defense alliance established in 1948 which was the precursor of NATO but never dissolved, announced in March that its 28 members were closing up shop.

Then there was Admiral James Stavridis, NATO commander for Europe, announcing new global operations by the alliance to combat cyber attacks on computer networks and missile threats from Iran.

From Germany came a call from former military leaders including Defense Minister Volker Ruehe to “open NATO’s door for Russia’s entry” because “the way it is constructed now it is not up to the tasks facing it.” At the same time NATO’s current chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said, “we will explore every opportunity to cooperate with Russia,” especially on missile defense.

My guess is that the alliance’s days of growth are numbered and that its days of shrinkage are approaching, despite predictions of it growing into a “global NATO.”

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is chairman of a “NATO Group of Experts” tasked to draft recommendations in May to create a new “strategic concept” for the alliance.

Visiting Moscow in February she hinted that NATO might supersede the U.N. in security operations. “We are talking about how we can have some coordinating mechanism for all the various organizations that exist in the world.’’ She added that the question was “which organization can make the biggest difference” and answered scornfully, “While I am a great admirer of the United Nations, I know what it can and cannot do.”

David Binder was a correspondent, specializing in Europe, for The New York Times from 1961 to 2004.