As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prepares for a summit meeting next month in Riga, Latvia, many observers are increasingly concerned about the organization’s ability to meet its many new missions outside of Europe. NATO’s burgeoning commitment in Afghanistan, now 30,000 soldiers and still counting, highlights the organization’s perilous overstretch.
The answer to this problem, however, is not to withdraw into Europe, but to recognize that since the challenges NATO faces are global, its membership should be as well.
NATO leaders are expected to call for a new dialogue with global partners in Riga. This is a good step in the alliance’s ongoing transformation. But it does not go far enough. To address the challenges of our age, NATO must become larger and more global by admitting any democratic state that is willing and able to contribute to the fulfillment of the alliance’s new responsibilities.
NATO’s ability to bring together countries with similar values and interests to combat global problems is constrained by the exclusively trans-Atlantic character of its membership. Other democratic countries share NATO’s values and many common interests – including Australia, Brazil, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Africa and South Korea – and all of them can greatly contribute to NATO’s efforts by providing additional military forces or logistical support to respond to global threats and needs.
Many of these countries have contributed to NATO operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan, to the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, and to peacekeeping operations around the world. But relying on ad hoc arrangements like these falls short of what is needed to create a more effective global-response mechanism.
NATO militaries are stretched thin by the many new missions they are called on to perform in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the Sudan, Congo and other parts of Africa. Realistically, European member states will not be able to increase the number of troops they can make available as NATO continues to expand its ambit.
Rather than continuing to wring our hands over this problem, we should recognize the benefit from having more – and more capable – partners to share the increasing demand for military engagement around the globe. When a crisis erupts, an expanded NATO with interoperable forces – as a result of joint planning, training and fighting – would operate much more effectively than another ad hoc coalition of the willing.
Skeptics argue that an enlarged NATO would be unable to act in a timely manner and that its collective defense commitments would weaken. But a NATO that fails to enlarge will become increasingly irrelevant in the 21st century.
Since 1999, NATO has added 10 new members from Central and Eastern Europe. Some feared that the alliance would become “diluted,” but its ability to act has not been degraded. One reason is that NATO has developed decision-making processes that allow for consensus without agreement. Rather than blocking a decision, dissenting states may append a footnote to it or abstain from contributing to whatever operation may ensue. Such practices would probably expand if the alliance’s membership were to become more global.
Critics of NATO’s eastern enlargement also worried about the need to come to the defense of countries like Poland and Latvia. Collective defense, enshrined in Article 5’s dictum that an attack on one member is an attack on all, must remain at the core of an expanded alliance as it has in the past. For the United States, such commitments elsewhere would not be novel, as it already guarantees, either formally or informally, the security of countries such as Australia, Israel, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.
Europeans may object to guaranteeing the security of distant countries, but one would hope that any NATO member would come to the assistance of another democracy that was attacked, whether it was a formal ally or not. Indeed, all NATO members contributed to the grand coalition that reversed Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which is not even a democracy. If Australia or Japan were attacked, would the European democracies simply shrug their shoulders?
The global threats we face cannot be tackled by a regional organization alone. NATO has worked well because its treaty demands that members commit both to the political and economic principles underpinning democracy and to common security challenges.
It’s a good idea to create a more formal dialogue with other countries that can make the same commitments and help confront new global challenges. Let’s hope that this dialogue will serve as a prelude to welcoming these countries formally into the alliance at future summits.