Heads of state and government have descended on Washington this weekend for the ostensible purpose of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Atlantic Alliance. This was to be a celebration of NATO’s past and present achievements—including winning the Cold War without firing a shot, enlarging its membership to include three former Warsaw Pact states, and bringing and maintaining peace in Bosnia for the past four years.
The summit was also to be an opportunity for NATO and its European partners to look forward by:
- Adopting a new strategic concept to guide NATO operations in the next century;
- Setting the stage for continuing the enlargement process by agreeing to a membership action plan;
- Rebalancing responsibilities between the North American and European partners of the alliance by enhancing Europe’s capacity to decide on and act militarily without direct U.S. participation, and
- Improving defense capabilities that are most appropriate for the new tasks NATO faces in the new century.
But the war in Kosovo now places the summit in a new light—both by underscoring the importance of the transformation NATO is embarking on and by making clear that what NATO does in practice is far more important than what it can agree on in theory.
Kosovo is a defining moment for NATO. If the allies succeed in accomplishing the goals they have set themselves—including removing Serb forces from Kosovo, securing the return to safety of all refugees, guaranteeing self-government for the Kosovar Albanians, and establishing an international security presence to protect all of Kosovo’s inhabitants—they will have solidified NATO’s reputation as the preeminent security organization in Europe.
So how has NATO fared to date?
On the key issue, not well. So far, NATO has failed to achieve even its minimal objective in launching airstrikes, which was to protect the Kosovar Albanians and prevent a humanitarian nightmare. A half million refugees living in squalor, another 700,000 Kosovars on the run to save their lives inside the province, and countless murders, summary executions, rapes, and other atrocities simply add up to a failure of massive proportions. The air war has been slow in making any impact on the battlefield in Kosovo and, barring a miracle in Belgrade, it is unlikely to be able to achieve even NATO’s minimal objectives. Nothing less than the deployment of ground forces and the willingness to forcefully remove Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo can guarantee NATO victory in its first war.
Continued failure will have dire consequences for NATO at the summit and beyond. After all, if NATO cannot defeat a tin-pot dictator in the middle of Europe, what good is it for? Certainly not to defend against such global threats as proliferation, terrorism, interruption of energy supplies, or major regional wars as many in and outside the Clinton administration hoped NATO would do in the future. It is even doubtful that a NATO that fails in Kosovo could continue to fulfill its minimalist purpose of providing a credible hedge against a possibly resurgent Russia.
If NATO cannot afford to lose in Kosovo, it must devise a way to win. Its involvement in the air war over the past month suggests that there are reasons to hope that the alliance still has the mettle to pull this off in the weeks and months ahead. Although NATO is losing its first major military engagement—its first war in 50 years—it is noteworthy that the allies have demonstrated a remarkably degree of unity.
Who’d have thought that an alliance composed mostly of left-wing governments—and led by a man (Javier Solana) who opposed his own country’s entry into NATO in 1982—would remain united through four-plus weeks of intense bombing? And who’d have guessed that the number one cheerleader for NATO bombing was the German foreign minister, Joschka Fisher, leader of the Pacifist Green Party and a man who built his career on denouncing NATO and its decision in the late 1970s to deploy Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe? Indeed, one notable aspect of this operation is the emergence of Germany as a “normal” power—standing tall next to its allies, no longer afraid that the people at home and abroad might view its confident use of military power as a threat to their own security.
Despite some disquiet in some corners (notably in Athens and Rome) about the conduct of the war, including some second-guessing about what targets NATO bombers could hit, the 19 allies allowed their military leaders to do the job in the manner they see fit. For all the fears that the addition of new members would dilute NATO decision making and that fighting a “war by committee” would prove ineffective, Brussels has hardly interfered in the operation.
Where there have been delays (as in deciding to send Apache helicopters) or hesitation (as in considering the use of ground forces), the problem has been in Washington rather than Brussels. It is therefore all the more remarkable that NATO has remained both united and strong in the absence of the clear and decisive leadership from Washington that most allies openly resent but secretly welcome.
This suggests that NATO’s future success in Kosovo—and thus its future success as a major military alliance—depends less on the decisions that are made in Brussels than the decisions that will be made in Washington. If the Clinton administration were to do what its predecessors have always done—that is to lead the alliance—the NATO allies will eagerly follow.
The NATO summit provides the perfect opportunity for Europe’s leaders—for Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac, and Gerhard Schroeder—to remind Bill Clinton of two salient facts: First, that NATO cannot afford to loose its first war, and therefore will have to deploy ground forces sooner rather than later. And, second, that a NATO decision to deploy ground forces will be coming as soon as the U.S. president indicates that he is prepared to lead that effort.
The NATO summit will be a success if the United States and its allies agree to do what is necessary to win the Kosovo war. Anything less will only guarantee failure—in Kosovo and for NATO.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.