NATO and the War on Terrorism: A Changing Alliance

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

June 1, 2002

Less than 24 hours after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, America’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization came together to invoke the alliance’s Article 5 defense guarantee—this “attack on one” was to be considered an “attack on all.” When it came time to implement that guarantee, however, in the form of the American-led military campaign in Afghanistan, NATO remained on the sidelines—by U.S. choice. The Americans decided not to ask for a NATO operation for both military and political reasons—only the United States had the right sort of equipment to project military forces halfway around the world, and Washington did not want political interference from 18 allies in the campaign.

In light of these decisions, some observers have begun to wonder whether NATO has any enduring role at all. And there are, in fact, serious reasons for concern about the future of the alliance if leaders on both sides of the Atlantic do not take the steps necessary to adapt it to changing circumstances. The Afghanistan campaign revealed large gaps between the war-fighting capabilities of the United States and its allies and reinforced the perception in some quarters in Washington that it is easier to conduct operations alone than with allies who have little to offer militarily and who might hamper efficient decisionmaking. Moreover, the U.S. decision to increase its defense budget by some $48 billion for 2003—an increase larger than any single European country’s entire defense budget—will only make this capabilities gap worse. To the extent that the war on terrorism leads the United States to undertake military operations in other distant theaters, and to the extent that the Europeans are unwilling or unable to come along, NATO’s centrality will be further diminished.

Yet to conclude that NATO no longer has an important role to play because it was not used for a mission for which it was not designed would be perverse and mistaken. The alliance remains the primary vehicle for keeping the United States engaged in European security affairs. Through its enlargement process, NATO is playing a critical part in unifying a continent that had been divided for almost 50 years. It brought peace to the Balkans, where it continues to deploy tens of thousands of troops, without whom the region could easily revert to the horrible conflicts of the 1990s. Through its Partnership for Peace, the alliance has reached out to and promoted military cooperation with partners in Central Asia, some of which made essential contributions to the campaign in Afghanistan. NATO also continues to promote military interoperability among the allies, so that they can cooperate militarily with each other even when NATO itself is not involved—as they did during the 1990-91 Gulf War and in parts of the operation in and around Afghanistan. As the international community considers ways to stabilize Afghanistan in the wake of the war, NATO planning and command-and-control capabilities may well prove the best option for maintaining a long-term, Western-led security force. In short, while the war on terrorism does indeed suggest that NATO is no longer the central geopolitical institution it was during the Cold War, it would be premature and extremely short-sighted to conclude that its mission is over and that it has no future role to play.

The Prague Summit

Instead of giving up on NATO, the North American and European allies should use their upcoming November summit in Prague to adapt to current security challenges. Just as the end of the Cold War and the conflicts in the Balkans obliged the alliance to find a new footing, September 11 and the ensuing conflict require NATO leaders to think boldly and creatively about how to keep the alliance relevant.

How should NATO adapt at Prague? First, alliance leaders should make clear that new threats such as international terrorism are a central concern to NATO member states and their people. NATO leaders had already recognized, in the 1991 Strategic Concept, that “Alliance security must also take account of the global context” and cited “other risks of a wider nature, including proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, disruption of the flow of vital resources and actions of terrorism and sabotage.” In its 1999 Strategic Concept, the alliance moved “acts of terrorism” to the top of the list of “other risks.” This is not to say that any act of terrorism or threat to energy supplies can or should be treated as an Article 5 contingency that obliges all allies to contribute troops. It does mean, however, that all recognize that global developments can imperil their common interests and values, a point made dramatically clear by the attacks on Washington and New York. Even if invocations of Article 5 will no longer necessarily mean a formal NATO operation under NATO command, the concept that “an armed attack” from abroad must trigger solidarity among the member states must be maintained and reinforced.

Second, NATO members, particularly the European allies, must ready their military capabilities for new missions. At the April 1999 summit, the allies adopted a Defense Capabilities Initiative to improve allied forces’ deployability, mobility, sustainability, survivability, and effectiveness. They identified some 58 areas in which to fill specific gaps in allied capabilities. But the initiative has never had political visibility, and few of its goals have been fulfilled. At Prague, European allies should pare this list to some 3-5 critical categories—perhaps precision-guided munitions, airlift, secure communications, and in-air refueling—and commit to fulfilling their goals. Not only do the European allies need to improve their capabilities to join effectively with the United States in the antiterrorism campaign, but also the EU weapons-development process needs to be coordinated with NATO’s. Otherwise the current interoperability headaches will only get worse. Europeans have had legitimate complaints about not being fully involved in the first stages of the military operations in Afghanistan, but the problem will grow far more intractable if American and European military capabilities continue to diverge.

Third, NATO should continue to enlarge its membership, both to develop strong allies capable of contributing to common goals and to consolidate the integration of Central and Eastern Europe. Just how many new members should be accepted in Prague will depend in part on how successfully candidates sustain their political, economic, and military reforms until the summit, but at a minimum NATO should accept all candidates that have demonstrated that they are stable democracies committed to the values of other NATO members. The new relationship between Russia and the West stemming in part from the common battle against terrorism should help ensure that NATO expansion, even to the Baltic states, does not undermine relations with Russia.

Fourth, NATO should build on recent progress in NATO-Russian cooperation that is evident in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparently new attitude of acquiescence to NATO enlargement and the spring 2002 agreement to set up a new NATO-Russia forum that would allow for extensive consultations and possible joint decisionmaking. Moscow has also agreed to get NATO’s help in restructuring its armed forces, a move long resisted by Russia’s conservative defense establishment, but an area where NATO has much to offer, as it has with other former Soviet bloc states. Russia and NATO could usefully cooperate on civil defense, special forces training, collaborative armaments programs, missile defense, peacekeeping, and NATO-Russia joint military exercises. In the wake of September 11, the prospect that Russia could feel that it is part of the West—rather than threatened by it—is an opportunity not to be missed.

Finally, NATO must develop its capacity to deal with terrorism despite resistance from European allies who worry about giving the alliance too great a “global” or “political” role. The part NATO can and should play in this area is strictly limited—issues of law enforcement, immigration, financial control, and domestic intelligence are all well beyond NATO’s areas of competence and should be handled between the United States and the European Union. Still, NATO allies can and should share information about nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missile programs; develop civil defense and consequence-management planning; develop theater missile defenses; and better coordinate various member-state special forces, whose role in the antiterrorism campaign will be critical. The alliance should even consider a new Force Projection Command that would be responsible for planning out-of-area operations. During the Cold War, few could have imagined the need for American and European special forces to travel halfway around the world and execute coordinated attacks, but today that need is very real. Although NATO was not used for the military response to the September attack on the United States, it is not hard to imagine a cataclysmic terrorist attack on a European city for which a NATO response would be appropriate.

Even with all the right reforms, NATO will probably not again become the central defense organization it was during the Cold War or even during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But it remains an essential tool with which the United States and its key allies can coordinate their militaries, promote the unification of Europe, maintain peace in the Balkans, and quite possibly fight major military operations anywhere in the world. The Prague summit should be used to revitalize and adapt a still-essential organization, not to announce its demise.