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Is NATO Relevant
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On June 10th out-going US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke to the Security and Defense Agenda, a think-tank in Brussels and in doing so, spoke candidly about the future of NATO.  Gates went out of his way – perhaps because he is leaving – to say that NATO risks “irrelevance.” 

He spoke about the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Libya and the “shortcomings” in our transatlantic cooperation noting “the military – and political – necessity of fixing these shortcomings if the transatlantic security alliance is going to be viable going forward.”  He also spoke openly about the “growing difficulty for the U.S. to sustain current support for NATO if the American taxpayer continues to carry most of the burden in the Alliance.” Currently, the US share of NATO defense spending is 75% having risen from 50% not too long ago and American taxpayers and politicians are frankly, getting tired of shouldering most of the burden. 

Regarding the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, Gates spoke bluntly about “the inability of many allies to meet agreed upon commitments and, in some cases, wildly disparate contributions from different member states.”  He might as well have said he was speaking about Greece: currently, Greece, a country of 10 million and a long-time NATO member, has 162 troops in Afghanistan.  Macedonia, a country of two million which has earned membership in NATO but is being held hostage by Greece, has 163 troops in Afghanistan.  Bravely serving and standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Vermont National Guard, Macedonian troops have been in the combat zone, fighting.  Greece’s troops, on the other hand, are not.  A June 24, 2008 Wikileaks cable from the US Embassy in Athens notes “Afghanistan: Greece is underperforming in Afghanistan,” and further states that Greek troops are limited to being within 60 km of Kabul.

Greece can hardly be counted on for NATO support.  The UK’s Independent reported on June 10th that “The Libyan regime has been negotiating a secret deal with Greece to use $20bn (£12bn) of its funds that are frozen abroad for humanitarian relief to benefit both sides in the civil war. Officials in Tripoli say the move is intended to pave the way for the opening of peace talks.”  The talks were held in Libya by Greek diplomats close to Prime Minister Papandreou and the Libyan Prime Minister but that a memorandum of understanding had been negotiated but not signed because “diplomatic sources said, of warnings by the French government to the Greeks that any such agreement would appear to give Muammar Gaddafi legitimacy as Libya's ruler and undermine the policy of the Western coalition to keep him isolated.”

Greeks are inherently anti-NATO and a Wikileaks cable from the US Embassy in Athens dated May 16, 2008 states that “the Greek public is instinctively suspicious of NATO and equates NATO with the U.S.” and that the Embassy is expecting “An increase in the number of Greek policy elites who share the popular perception that NATO is ‘anti-Greek,’ coupled with heightened negative linkage of the United States with NATO” due to an unpopular NATO decision that year.

Back to the Gates speech: he stated that the mission in Afghanistan has “exposed significant shortcomings in NATO – in military capabilities, and in political will,” and that he worries about NATO becoming a “two-tiered alliance.” “Between members who specialize in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping, and talking tasks, and those conducting the ‘hard’ combat missions. Between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership – be they security guarantees or headquarters billets – but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today. And it is unacceptable.” 

Gates concluded his speech by stating “What I’ve sketched out is the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the transatlantic alliance.”  I would submit that in an era of austerity, it is understandable that many of our European allies are happy to cut back on their defense spending believing that Uncle Sam will take up the slack.  But that is unacceptable.  I would also submit that an alliance that is willing to allow one of its own members – and a questionable one at that – to blackmail the rest of the organization and hold hostage a potential and worthy member – I will submit that that alliance is already irrelevant and unworthy.   

The Alliance has already abandoned its commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington, DC on April 4, 1949 in which the preamble states that “The Parties to this Treaty reaffirm their faith in the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations and their desire to live in peace with all peoples and all governments.”  Article 1 of the UN Charter honors the right of “self-determination of peoples.” Apparently, however, this does not apply to the Macedonians and NATO can hardly claim to “reaffirm” its faith in the purposes and principles of the UN Charter if it is willing to tolerate the churlish behavior of one of its members which refuses to acknowledge the self-determination of the Macedonians.  

In the final analysis Gates is correct: NATO risks “irrelevance” not just because of money but more because of will power.  NATO risks irrelevance because like a man with a wife and several mistresses, NATO has abandoned its first love, freedom.  In her place, NATO has instead taken on competing interests – offensive wars, humanitarian wars, nation building – all vying for its attention, satisfying none of them and in turn, giving less and less attention to its raise d’être, collective defense.  In this atmosphere, it is time to either severely reform NATO or retire NATO.

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Jason Miko
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