A NATO for the 21st century

In Afghanistan a couple of years ago, I flew in one plane with a Portuguese pilot and another plane with a German pilot. I met a Turk who worked in NATO’s Kabul headquarters and a Dutch woman who lived on a NATO base in the south. During the course of a very short visit, I also met Frenchmen, Czechs and, of course, Americans. When the International Security Assistance Force leaves Afghanistan in 2014 or thereabouts – as last weekend’s NATO summit has agreed – NATO’s soldiers can return home having proved, if nothing else, that the Western military alliance still exists.

Not that future historians will call NATO’s Afghan mission an unqualified success: NATO wasn’t prepared to fight in Afghanistan and at first had no leadership and thus no clear objectives in Afghanistan, either. Some countries put large numbers of troops on the ground and fought hard. Others hid behind national “caveats,” which dictated where, when and how their soldiers were allowed to fight. Almost all of the alliance governments avoided an honest discussion of the war with their voters.

NATO didn’t fail, in other words, but neither did it shine. To save the alliance’s honor – and possibly to save the alliance – its soldiers should therefore come home, unpack their duffel bags and start planning their next mission: the defense of democracy in Europe.

This, of course, is what NATO was set up to do. But while NATO has enlarged itself seven times since its creation in 1949, most recently in 2009, the placement of NATO forces and institutions has hardly changed in two decades. The alliance now has 28 members, including almost all of the states that used to be the Warsaw Pact, but the three joint forces commands are all still in the south and the west of the continent, in Portugal, southern Italy and the Netherlands. American forces are dispersed in odd ways as well. More than 50,000 U.S. troops are based in Germany – a country now surrounded on all sides by NATO allies – while Poland and Norway, countries with long, non-NATO borders, have 100 and 80, respectively.

The alliance could also update its military plans for a new era. Europeans and Americans already cooperate over terrorism and are rightly adding cyber-terrorists to their list of joint enemies. NATO does now have contingency plans for the defense of some of its newer members, notably Poland and the Baltic states (the latter drawn up this year after the Obama administration finally noticed their absence).

But the alliance has not held serious military exercises for more than a decade. Once upon a time, NATO conducted a major annual exercise called “Reforger” (“Return of Forces to Germany”) designed to prove that the United States could still move troops quickly into Europe if necessary. The last, anemic version of that exercise was conducted in 1993.

In times past, such exercises were meant to scare Russia. Now they should be renewed, not to scare Russia but rather to ensure that NATO’s military establishments remain integrated, that American generals get to know their European counterparts and vice versa – and so that NATO’s members and neighbors continue to believe that the alliance is real. The alliance’s strength lies in its ability to project the image (and to maintain the reality) of strength, confidence and integration. Exercises, in reality and in cyberspace, can help achieve this. I can even imagine Russia being included, at some date. Who knows? One day we may find ourselves helping Russia defend its borders against China, so we might as well start practicing. It looks as though Russia has tentatively agreed to join in a missile defense pact, whatever that means.

Institutions should do what they are good at. And the expansion of NATO is one of the few true post-Cold-War foreign-policy success stories. By including some of NATO’s old enemies inside its security umbrella, we ensured, at a minimal cost, the political, economic and ideological “Westernization” of an enormous swath of the continent.

We could continue that process. The stakes are lower – 2010 is not 1990, and the countries outside NATO are poorer and more turbulent than even those that have recently joined. Nevertheless, the very existence of a credible Western military alliance remains – yes, really – an encouragement to others on Europe’s borders. This is a uniquely propitious moment. Right now there is a pro-Western government in Moldova; Ukraine’s geopolitics are up in the air; elections are due to take place in Belarus in December. We in the West might have gone sour on ourselves, but Europeans on our borders still find us magnetically attractive. But we will only remain so if we try.

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