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Opinion: Hello, NATO, goodbye

Despite predictions of a "global NATO," the alliance’s days of growth are numbered.

NATO peacekeepers attend the Kosovo Force change of command ceremony in Pristina, Sept. 8, 2009. (Hazir Reka/Reuters)

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.