Can the leaders of history’s most successful military alliance meet without anyone really noticing? You wouldn’t have thought so given the record of past NATO summit meetings. In 1991, the NATO leaders met in Rome to adopt a new Strategic Concept to guide their Alliance in the post-Cold War world. In 1997, they came to Madrid and invited three former Warsaw Pact countries to join an organization originally created to defend its members against a Soviet-led attack from these very countries. Two years later, NATO’s leaders met in Washington to celebrate the Alliance’s 50th anniversary and to underscore its continued relevance at a time when it was engaged in its biggest military operation ever in Kosovo.
This week, NATO leaders are meeting once more. Most of them, though, seem to be determined to get in and out of Riga, Latvia, without leaving much a trace, let alone a legacy. Many of the key leaders attending have lost the confidence of their own publics, making it harder to pursue an ambitious agenda. A Labour Party resuscitated by Tony Blair nearly a decade ago has turned on the prime minister, forcing him to step down next summer. Jacques Chirac is a lame duck, and much of France has turned its attention to the battle between its next generation of sparkling, ambitious leaders who are battling to succeed him. And George W. Bush has been dealt the biggest political shellacking of his career by an American electorate clearly fed up with his administration’s incompetence in Iraq, New Orleans, and elsewhere. Angela Merkel must be wondering if there is anyone to work with.
Political paralysis at home affects what NATO can do abroad. As its leaders meet, they confront the specter of failure in the Alliance’s biggest and most important military operation in Afghanistan. NATO set itself a tall order — to stabilize a country wrecked by more than a quarter of a century of civil war and a standard of living that ranks tenth from the bottom among all countries in the world. Afghanistan’s economy depends heavily on opium production, its politics remain paralyzed by the deep divisions, and its security is increasingly challenged by the resurgence of Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces.
NATO took on this mission, knowing that it would be difficult and require extraordinary effort. Unfortunately, it hasn’t provided the means necessary to succeed. Some countries have failed to provide even the troops and capabilities promised, while others have placed such severe restrictions on what their forces can do and where they can be deployed that their presence is practically useless. Yet, even with a full complement of troops and without national “caveats” on what these forces can do, the operation will likely fail without a much greater effort by the Alliance members. Unfortunately, with the United States mired in Iraq and European militaries stretched thin, the Alliance may have bitten off more than it can chew.
There is a temptation in some circles to believe that NATO should think smaller — and once again focus its efforts on the core mission of securing Europe. Indeed, aside from Afghanistan, the main topics of conversation in Riga will likely concern issues close to home — the effort to stabilize the Balkans, reaching out to key neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia, and sorting out the relationship between NATO and the European Union.
These are important issues — but they don’t go to the core of what ails the Alliance. Far too many of its members still think of NATO as primarily a regional — and European — defense organization. But the threats all of the Alliance members face today are global, not regional. Whether it is terrorism or weapons proliferation or failing states, the main challenges confronting Europe and the United States stem from beyond the north Atlantic region. That, after all, is why NATO is in Afghanistan.
So rather than thinking smaller and more regionally, NATO must think bigger and more globally. It must develop a strategy that meets these global challenges head on. NATO needs to develop and procure military capabilities that will enable it to project military power over great distances and at rapid speed. And it must enhance its collective capacity to operate globally by endorsing President Bush’s proposal to create a global partnership with other democratic countries, like Japan, Australia, and South Korea. Indeed, these non-European democracies should down the road be invited to join the Alliance as full members.
The Riga summit provides NATO leaders with an opportunity to set a new course — one that makes success in Afghanistan a first step towards making the Alliance an increasingly relevant actor on the world stage. Realizing this transformation will take time — and likely will require a new set of leaders — but the effort must begin with a new mindset, one that deals with the world as it is, rather than as it once was or as some would still wish it to be.