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NATO's Biggest Threat No Longer U.S.S.R. but Internal Dissent - 2003-09-29

Two NATO members, the United States and Britain, went to war against Iraq despite the strong objections of NATO members France, Belgium and Germany. Another NATO member, Turkey, which borders Iraq, denied use of its air bases in the Iraq war. Today, arguments divide NATO members over what their roles in rebuilding Iraq will be, how Iraq's reconstruction is being conducted and who will pay for the reconstruction. The lack of harmony over Iraq exposes NATO members' difficulties in deciding on the alliance's future role in the world.

Experts have different views on NATO's future. Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a public policy research organization in Washington, says NATO is no longer necessary:

“The United States should not remain in NATO. NATO as an institution should cease to exist. NATO was created to prevent the Soviet Union from invading Western Europe from forward bases in Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union is gone. The bases in Eastern Europe are gone. And most of the Eastern European countries once home to Soviet troops are now either members in NATO or at least firmly ensconced in all of Europe so the whole principle behind NATO ceases to exist. We should have had a parade in roughly 1991 or 1992 and then brought everyone home.”

But David Ochmanek, senior defense analyst at another private research organization, the Rand Corporation, takes an opposite view. He believes that although the Cold War is over, NATO members still are bound by other common objectives and NATO can play a useful role meeting those objectives: “I view NATO as the institutional expression of some profoundly common interests and habits of cooperation that the United States has with its major allies. If you look across the board at the values of our society, at the kinds of problems we face, at what this nation as a whole is trying to achieve in the world, irrespective of the disputes and differences of view we may have of had over specific policies over the last couple years.”

Other experts add that NATO can still make significant contributions in Europe, such as peacekeeping in Kosovo, and play a positive role outside Europe, as well. In August 2003, NATO set up peace keeping operations in Afghanistan, NATO's first military operation outside Europe.

NATO is also becoming involved in Iraq. Leo Michel, senior fellow at the National Defense University, in Washington, points to Poland's growing role in Iraq: “There is some NATO involvement even today in Iraq. Poland, a NATO ally, has taken command of a multi-national division. It's working in Southern Iraq. And under that multi-national division there are a number of other countries, some are allies, some are members of the partnership for peace, a few are actually not even allies or members of the partnership for peace but it's a multi-national division under Polish command. And NATO agreed, actually as of last June, but now that these troops are beginning to arrive there is NATO assistance. And NATO agreed on (June) 19th to provide this assistance to the Poles.”

But the Cato Institute's Christopher Preble doubts whether NATO is the right vehicle for sending international troops into war zones:

“I don't disagree that there are times in international relations, international politics, where it makes sense for countries to band together to deal with a problem that may be out of their area. But it is not clear to me why NATO should be that institution. Remember, the most important part of NATO is Article 5, which says that an attack on one country is an attack on all. Because we continue to be bound by that provision in the NATO Charter, we essentially are committing ourselves to defend a number of countries that are no longer directly threatened by a power that also threatens us.”

If NATO continues to exist as a military alliance, it faces critical issues besides determining its mission. These issues include: how to decide who is in command of combat operations, managing NATO's rapid growth in membership, figuring out new ways of making decisions and the costs of modernizing military forces.

The question of “who is in command” of combat forces remains unanswered. The answer to the question of command was crystal clear during the Cold War. When the Soviet Union threatened Western Europe, NATO countries understood that if a major war broke out, an American Army general would be the supreme commander of NATO's combat forces. This understanding made it easy and quick for a single commander to take charge of the defense of Europe. Today, the question of "who is in command" of NATO forces deployed outside Europe does not have a definite answer.

The issue of command may become more troublesome as NATO adds members. NATO plans to expand from its current 19 member counties to 26 members by May 2004.

When the Soviet Union threatened NATO, member countries worked hard behind the scenes to maintain a united public front. In 2003, harsh quarrels among NATO members call into question NATO's ability to reach agreement on important matters. The National Defense University's Leo Michel has studied the way NATO makes decisions. He argues that NATO's tradition of making decisions by consensus will serve the alliance in the future, despite its current quarrels and plans for expansion:

“NATO makes a lot of decisions, all of its decisions, which range from talking about defense planning, how NATO plans its capabilities to do things, or how it runs its management or how it runs its budget up to the most sensitive which is how it runs operations, military operations. All of these decisions are taken either directly or indirectly by consensus, meaning everyone has to agree or at least nobody objects.”

Whether NATO survives another 50 years may depend on the outcome of a single issue: how to pay for the costs of force modernization, maintenance and restructuring. Many longtime NATO members have forces designed to slug it out with the Soviet Union in a massive ground war. Other NATO nations are slashing military spending or have almost no military forces. Thirdly, NATO countries may need to buy new equipment and institute new training procedures so that troops can be deployed outside Europe.

Mr. Ochmanek, of the Rand Corporation, has a suggestion for coping with the new military costs: “Should we be thinking about role specialization for countries in NATO. That is, people have argued that the alliance would be better off if certain countries would accept specialized roles and focus on those rather than trying to cover the whole waterfront with their limited defense budgets.”

For four decades, an external threat, the Soviet Union, was the reason for NATO's existence and solidarity. The biggest threat to NATO's future may be an internal problem, the possible unwillingness of legislatures in member countries to pay the costs of building and maintaining military forces.