The Washington Post Column

Can Michael Flynn overhaul NATO?

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.”

– Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, April 4, 1949

Throughout the more than 60 years of its existence, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has only once invoked Article 5, the provision that calls for the signatories to defend one another – follow the proper consultations – if attacked. Only once.

The date was Oct. 3, 2001, three weeks after 9/11. By then it had been determined that the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been “directed from abroad,” in the word of Lord Robertson, the NATO secretary general and a former British defense minister. He declared that the entire alliance would take collective active in response — in defense of the United States.

NATO duly created the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), one of the largest military coalitions in history. The force served in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, and at its height it included 130,000 troops from four dozen nations. There were notably large British, Canadian, Dutch, Polish, German and French contingents, as well as contributions from NATO partners such as Georgia and Australia.

More than 1,000 non-American soldiers died fighting for ISAF in Afghanistan, and hundreds more were wounded. For many European countries, the Afghan war was the first military conflict that they had fought in since the Second World War. Their sacrifice has never been widely described or acknowledged in the United States, most of whose citizens remain unaware that it ever took place.

Yet they fought. Why? Out of loyalty to, and out of friendship for, the United States. Because European governments understood that al-Qaeda was threat to all of them. Because the North Atlantic Treaty was never just a military pact; it was a recognition of a common commitment to peace, security, the rule of law and freedom, as well as an acknowledgement of U.S. leadership, both political and military.

Usually, I write my columns for the readers of The Washington Post. This one I am writing for the new administration, and especially for the man who may become the leader of the National Security Council, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. He has complained – as has every single U.S. president for the past two decades – that not enough NATO countries were, as he put it, “paying their bills.” But he went further: “We continue to give, give, give and get nothing back in return.” He spoke of “contracts” and “reciprocity” –- as if NATO were a business transaction, not an alliance that has already sacrificed soldiers in the name of U.S. security.

He did not mention NATO’s role in Afghanistan. He did not acknowledge that for many Europeans, the experiences of that war as well as the war in Iraq – which, as a war of choice, did not lead to the invocation of Article 5, although many Europeans fought – were not positive. Those wars are remembered as poorly conceived, costly and worse: The Iraq War is now blamed for the Syrian war, which has led to the worst refugee crisis since 1945. Flynn did not mention that although NATO expanded to include Central Europe in the 1990s, the United States did not hold any exercises in the region until 2013, now leaving it very vulnerable to a Russia that has rebuilt its military and uses it as a threat.

Flynn was right about one thing: NATO needs a major overhaul. I once hoped, wistfully, that President Obama might use his last years in office to revitalize the alliance, even that he would browbeat recalcitrant members into investing more. But such a project can only succeed on the basis of mutual respect and commitment, and with the understanding that the United States also benefits – economically, politically and in other ways – from its transatlantic military leadership. Such a project cannot succeed if carried out with arrogance, by a man who does not seem to know the history of the alliance at all.