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Does NATO's Future Hinge on Afganistan?

Many analysts say the future of NATO and U.S.-European security relations now lie in Afghanistan. They warn that a failed mission in Afghanistan could unravel the Western alliance.

The Supreme NATO Commander, U.S. Marine Corps General James Jones recently acknowledged that the mission in Afghanistan is fraught with risks and tougher than anticipated. Should NATO fail in Afghanistan, many experts predict that the U.S. will likely turn to selective coalitions to promote its security, which could undermine the Western defense alliance that stood down the Soviet Union and has since gone through several successful transformations. Since the 1990s, NATO has expanded its membership in order to stabilize former communist Central Europe, brought an end to war in the Balkans and has reached out to Russia.

But Helle Dale, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation here in Washington, says a setback in NATO’s first military operation outside of Europe could fracture the alliance.

“I would say maybe not everything hinges on whether they do well in Afghanistan or not, but clearly it is considered a major challenge for NATO and one that people have some hopes for. The United States already in Iraq went ahead with a coalition of the willing and, I think, probably is increasingly inclined to go in that direction. It is unfortunate that this will somewhat diminish NATO’s relevance. But I think Europeans may have more doubts about the value of NATO in many ways, given the declining respect for American leadership, which is what NATO really exemplifies,” says Dale.

Conflicting Trends

According to a recently published survey of American and European public opinion, support for NATO is gaining ground in the United States, but is waning among Europeans.

John Glenn, Director of Foreign Policy at the Washington-based German Marshall Fund, which sponsored the opinion poll conducted in the U.S. and 12 European countries, says that between 2002 and 2006, European support for NATO fell from about 70 percent to 55 percent.

“Most troubling is that this decline has been driven by countries that have formerly been seen as strong partners in NATO like Germany, Poland and Turkey. The largest drop is, in fact, in Germany, where support went from 74 percent in 2002 to 56 percent in 2006. For the first time, French support is higher for NATO than German support,” notes Glenn.

He says this trend is in part due to disillusionment with American foreign policy, particularly the war in Iraq and that many in Europe see NATO as merely an extension of American power.

The good news is that the survey shows that Americans and Europeans have nearly identical views of what constitutes a global threat. But the bad news, cautions John Glenn, is that they differ on how to deal with those threats. He adds that the challenges for Americans and Europeans have to do with the use of force.

“For example, on Iran, we found that Americans and Europeans overwhelmingly agree that diplomatic efforts should continue. Very small percentages of Americans or Europeans think that we should use force on Iran now. But when you ask what should be done if diplomatic options fail, there you see a difference. More Americans than Europeans support the use of military force. If force becomes a serious option, we may run into some difficulty,” says John Glenn of The German Marshall Fund.

Skeptical “New Europe”

He points out that Europeans favor “soft power”, political versus military pressure to resolve international crises and engagement through multilateral institutions. On the other hand, Americans generally are skeptical of international organizations when U.S. national security interests are at stake and are far more willing to take military action alone, if necessary.

NATO specialist Stephen Szabo of The Johns Hopkins University in Washington notes that some Europeans have yet to understand the link between Europe’s long-term security needs and military operations in far away places like Afghanistan.

“In Eastern Europe, you have countries that came into NATO with expectations that NATO would be a shield and protect them from Russian pressure. And now they end up seeing NATO as essentially going increasingly out of Europe on missions that many of their people and politicians don’t understand. One Polish politician said the other day, 'Even the Russians didn’t ask us to fight in Afghanistan when they were there,'” says Professor Szabo.

But, he adds, many Western Europeans have a more realist view of Europe’s security priorities. “You see a little harder line on Iran and also having to deal with terrorism in Europe itself, they are taking this more seriously. As Europe is expanding its border and is enlarging, it has a neighborhood that’s relatively unstable, which doesn’t follow the same kind of rules that Europe follows. So I do think there is a growing realism among Europeans about the need to have at least some ‘hard power’ [i.e., military] component to ‘soft power,’” says Szabo.

Refocusing NATO

Most experts argue that unless NATO changes from a Euro-centric to a more global organization, it will be difficult for the transatlantic partners to reach consensus on how to respond to challenges in the 21st century.

Robert Hunter, Senior Advisor at the Washington-based RAND Corporation and former U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Clinton administration, says this November’s NATO summit in Riga, Latvia is a chance to refocus the Western alliance.

“In my judgment, the Riga people need to come up with some new ideas. One would be to deal with the problems of energy security. Secondly would be to work on problems of homeland security. And third is to build on the relationship with the European Union, where NATO and the E.U. have so much they have to do together -- not just in war-fighting, but particularly in nation building -- whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or some place else,” says Ambassador Hunter.

In addition, he says, the summit will likely result in NATO recommitting to Afghanistan, establishing a training base in the Middle East and discussing the creation of global partnerships for NATO with countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea who are already participating in some of the alliance’s anti-terrorist activities.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.