NATO at 70: It Is Time for Retirement

por GEES, 12 de abril de 2019

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent disappearance of the USSR, NATO has gone from bad to worse, walking like a zombie with no more strategic purpose than keeping the edifice in place. After losing its main enemy, the peace support missions, especially in the Balkans, came first, followed by the out-of-area missions, such as in Afghanistan and Libya. They were all not only of dubious efficacy, but these missions could not curb the strategic divergence among its members and the growing irrelevance of the organization itself.


NATO was a successful strategic venture while its objective was to deter the USSR. However, as an organization for combat, it has been a disaster. Its first war, in Kosovo, was barely won against a clearly inferior enemy; after seventy days of bombings that were highly questionable both regarding performance and efficiency, a rift emerged between the United States and the European allies that would never heal.


The 2003 Iraq War would further deepen the division among the allies, tearing the organization apart, which resulted in NATO’s lack of participation in what was the conflict of the century at that moment — and despite the security implications for Europe.


The intervention in Libya, spurred by the French and the British, was militarily backed by only eight member-States; the rest of them went between skepticism and criticism of a move that has ended up causing structural instability in Libya, whose future is in the balance right now in what seems to be developing into a full-fledged civil war. More than bringing peace to Libya, Operation Unified Protectorserved to highlight the lack of equipment among the armed forces of the European allies, as well as the scarce appetite of then President Obama to lead any military action, giving way instead to the "leading from behind" policy. NATO did not succeed in its efforts to reunite the country or to prevent new outbreaks of violence, leaving Libya in a state of semi-chaos since then. 


To the organization’s strategic absurdities, one should also add the 2008 war in Georgia when President Saakashvili was led to believe that the allies would support his desire to reoccupy South Ossetia. It never happened since Russian troops mobilized in order to prevent it. Not to mention the war in the Ukraine, a country that was offered an ambiguous NATO status with the false promise of further integration. This ambiguity was expeditiously exploited by Russia, first to get Crimea and then to create a de-facto independent zone in Donbass, now controlled by pro-Russian militias.


In short, since the 1990s, successive NATO summits as well as the grandiose institutional declarations of its leaders have come along with significant cuts in the defense budgets of member-States and, actually more consequential,  with the progressive vanishing of real military capabilities. The trite refrain of “doing more with less,” along with all its conceptual derivatives regarding "intelligent defense" et al., has been argued against the backdrop of reality: Today only the United Kingdom—and to a lesser extent, France—can carry out intense combat operations overseas. It is that simple and clear.


Not surprisingly, Donald Trump mistrusts his allies, accuses them of taking advantage of the U.S. military efforts, and is convinced that NATO is an obsolete organization (in spite of having softened his stance in public).


It has been seventy years since the creation of NATO back in 1949; ministers of the member-States have met again in Brussels in order to commemorate the historic role played by the Alliance and to celebrate the bright future still awaiting the organization. After two years of the pledge by all its members to invest at least two percent of their GDPs in defense, only the United Kingdom, Greece, Latvia, and Estonia have met this goal — iin spite of the promise by NATO’s Secretary-General to have seven European allies in 2018 exceeding that level of expenditure. Moreover, we know now that Germany has agreed to keep its defense spending at 1.25% of GDP until 2022. And let’s not even talk about Spain and its less-than-one-percent contribution. More than a summit, the meeting resembled a coven intended to bring a dead body back to life.


However, the mortal wound is not because NATO does not have the necessary means, an already serious issue in itself, but because of the lack of strategic vision about what to do, the challenges at hand, and what an organization such as NATO can contribute to the Atlantic security in a post-Atlantic world. The world in 2019 does not resemble the world in 1949, not even the world in 1991 or 2001. Just as any living thing, no matter how much they refuse to age, institutions end up reaching the end of their days. NATO did much for Western security during the Cold War. Yet it withered without a strategic rationale. No matter how much some insist, Putin's Russia, despite its aggressiveness, cannot take the place as the existential enemy that the USSR once was.


The Atlantic security is still important, particularly for the strategically indolent and militarily impotent Europeans; nonetheless, NATO is no longer the institution to safeguard our security. It is time to thank NATO for its services, acknowledge its shortcomings, and send it off into a well-deserved retirement. It is time to forge new bonds and alliances.