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Keywords:

  • NATO;
  • Afghanistan;
  • Bush;
  • Obama

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. NATO before Bush
  4. NATO during the Bush Administration
  5. NATO after Bush
  6. Conclusion
  7. About the Author
  8. Bibliography

During the Bush years, NATO exhibited in stark form two trends which have long characterised its development: periodic exposure to crisis and division, and a subordination to American leadership. Despite signs of American indifference towards the alliance, talk of the Bush administration levering a break with NATO was always overstated, particularly so during its second term of office. Views of NATO after 2004 were shaped by Afghanistan giving rise, in fact, to a return to the alliance on America's part. NATO remains important to Bush's successor but on terms which are as demanding as those of his predecessors. NATO, in other words, is valued in so far as it accords with current US foreign policy priorities. The safest assumption in this regard is that Obama will continue to favour the trend towards a global NATO pursued by the Bush administration. However, retreat (or defeat) in Afghanistan could hasten a contrary trend towards a consolidating NATO with a renewed concentration on the wider Europe.

NATO's fortunes have always been closely tied to the preferences and priorities of American foreign policy. In many ways this has served the alliance well, consolidating its status as the central institutional mechanism of the transatlantic relationship and breathing life into the missions which have defined its purpose. Equally, however, this dependence upon the US has left the alliance exposed to alterations in US preferences. In the aftermath of the cold war it seemed NATO would remain central to the US. The Clinton administration, vacillation in the Balkans notwithstanding, was firmly committed to alliance renewal and enlargement, and continued to set some store by the principle of allied solidarity. The coming to power of George W. Bush and the catalytic impact of 9/11 changed this position in seemingly fundamental ways. The standard interpretation here is that the Bush administration regarded NATO as militarily dispensable and considered its alliance partners as no longer worthy of privileged diplomatic treatment. Further, whereas NATO's strategic development—whether in the cold war or during its reorientation towards non-Article V crisis management in the 1990s—had been built upon allied consensus, no such settled view obtained in Bush's agenda of gearing NATO up for global missions and ‘the war on terror’. NATO, in other words, was left sidelined and divided as US strategy ploughed ahead regardless (Andrews 2004).

It is certainly the case that some initiatives of the Bush administration were intolerant of NATO and it is also true that the Bush years coincided with a lot of talk of NATO being in irremediable crisis. The standard view does, however, require qualification on two grounds. First, NATO's experience under Bush was not unique. Before 2001, it had also experienced profound, even existential problems of adaptation, while subject also to the vagaries of American instrumentalism and caprice. Second, the Bush administration was not entirely indifferent to NATO's fortunes. The first Bush term was marked by considerable scepticism but even then the US pushed NATO's ‘transformation’ agenda. During the second term, spurred by events in Afghanistan, US policy was characterised by a return to the alliance.

A fundamental continuity remains, namely that NATO has and will continue to be shaped by American influence. That said, the global agenda which US policy favours could well be NATO's undoing. Surveying the post-cold war period, the further ‘out of area’ the alliance has gone the worse its problems have become, a state of affairs that has culminated in the imbroglio of Afghanistan. As with previous crises in its 60-year history, NATO will no doubt live to fight another day, but where and how it does so remain open questions.

Proceeding from these observations, the analysis of NATO below will be considered by reference to three periods: before Bush, during Bush and after Bush. Such a periodisation clearly implies that the Bush presidency had a singular effect upon NATO; as we will see, this has been tempered by longer-term trends which stretch across all three periods.

NATO before Bush

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. NATO before Bush
  4. NATO during the Bush Administration
  5. NATO after Bush
  6. Conclusion
  7. About the Author
  8. Bibliography

NATO in Crisis?

The first historic trend of note concerns NATO's exposure to internal crisis. NATO has, in fact, been held to be in decline almost since its inception. During the long years of antagonism with the Soviet Union the alliance experienced a succession of deeply controversial issues: the 1956 Suez Crisis, French withdrawal from NATO's integrated military structures 10 years later and ongoing problems of nuclear strategy stretching from ‘flexible response’ in the 1960s to the deployment of Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) in the 1980s. Each of these episodes was met with scholarly and journalistic accounts of a NATO that was at best divided and, at worst, on the brink of dissolution. On each occasion, however, it survived (Thies 2007).

The most straightforward reason for its longevity was the cohesion provided by the common task of facing off Soviet communism. With the end of the cold war, NATO's crises thus acquired a new quality. As rapprochement with the Soviet Union gathered pace from the late 1980s there was a widespread expectation that NATO would disappear. West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, for example, expressed the hope in a speech of March 1990 that eventually both NATO and the Warsaw Pact would be superseded by a pan-European security organisation modelled on the Conference for Security and Co-operation in Europe. French President François Mitterrand similarly put forward the idea of a European Confederation, alluding to a future Europe without NATO. These expectations, however, went unfulfilled. The so-called ‘architecture’ debate of the early 1990s witnessed a successful championing of NATO on the part of the UK and the US and a reassertion of the alliance against a French preference for a European defence structure centred on the Western European Union (WEU) (Schake 1998).

NATO's continued centrality was premised on adaptation to changing circumstances. As the cold war wound down, NATO responded with a set of initiatives aimed at forging partnerships with its former adversaries and, of longer-term significance, articulating a new mission. The new Strategic Concept adopted in 1991 recognised the replacement of the Soviet threat by a ‘new strategic environment’ in which risks to Allied security were ‘multi-faceted ... and multi-directional’. Some elements of the alliance were still seen as unchanging—NATO would continue to be the principal institution for transatlantic relations, it would continue to promote the strategic balance in Europe and it would ‘deter and defend against any threat of aggression against the territory of any NATO member state’. Equally, however, NATO would seek to promote security through dialogue, co-operation, conflict prevention and crisis management, and would set in train a review of force deployments, command structures and capabilities requirements including a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons (NATO 1991).

These grand intentions, however, were soon confronted with further presentiments of failure. Divisions within NATO over how best to respond to Bosnian Serb aggression led to what one former Clinton official described as ‘the worst crisis within the Atlantic alliance since 1956’ (Daalder 2000, 33). Within a year, however, NATO had reasserted itself once more. Operation Deliberate Force (at the time the largest military operation in NATO's history) launched in August–September 1995 helped pave the way for the Dayton Peace Accords of December and by the start of the following year some 60,000 NATO peacekeeping troops had been deployed to enforce its provisions. Bosnia may not have been NATO's finest hour, but it had emerged with more credit than other international bodies such as the WEU, the EU and the UN, all of which had been involved in the crisis with little to show for their efforts. As Beverley Crawford (2001, 55) argued,

NATO's successful show of force and the demonstration of its ability to co-ordinate military action when it was finally permitted to do so ... combined to place NATO in a position of institutional prominence. By the time the agreement was initialled in Dayton, NATO had been strengthened beyond anyone's wildest hopes or fears. In Bosnia, the NATO alliance established itself as Europe's only meaningful security institution.

The crisis over Kosovo some four years later initiated a similar debate. Charles Dick (1999, 14–15) claimed at the height of Operation Allied Force that ‘a NATO failure ... could spell the end of the alliance, save perhaps as a formal shell with no real substance’. Allies, he continued, would be reluctant to commit to an organisation tainted by a failure of this sort and so, in the long term, would rely increasingly on national efforts and selective responses to regional crises. In this context, NATO would wither away and Europe could well return to the catastrophic instabilities of the 1930s. Yet once more this bleak scenario did not come to pass—as the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Wesley Clark (2002, 422, 430), argued, the conflict over Kosovo ‘became a test of NATO's role in post-Cold War Europe’ and in the event the alliance proved a capable if imperfect instrument of force. It achieved an unambiguous victory, took no casualties and maintained a high degree of internal cohesion. It was, according to Clark, ‘a true Allied operation [... and] a pattern for the future’. Operation Allied Force was, however, flawed in many respects. It was the occasion for the deepest rupture in relations with Russia and China for a decade, embroiled NATO in contentious legal and normative arguments centred on its using force without Security Council authorisation and relied controversially on a military strategy of aerial bombing where casualty aversion was an ethic applied to one side only (MccGwire 2000, 17–18). Further, as a portent of NATO's future, the alliance had embarked upon a campaign for which it was poorly prepared, one which lasted far longer than expected and which ended up demonstrating a military imbalance within the alliance so worrying to European allies that they were compelled shortly after to begin a process that would, in effect, convert the European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) housed within NATO to the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) attached to the EU (Henriksen 2007, 3–28).

American Dominance

No one would deny the reality and significance of American dominance within NATO. There are at least three ways in which this has been manifest over time. The first is of historic interest, namely the manner in which the US set the terms of NATO's formation—watering down NATO's collective defence clause (Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty) and ensuring the entry of Portugal and, somewhat later, Turkey and Greece to the alliance in the face of Canadian, Danish and Norwegian objections.

Second, once NATO was established, the US would come to play a leading role in its institutional development. The initial watershed in this regard was the Korean War. The fear, however misplaced, that war in Asia portended Soviet destabilisation of a divided Germany, galvanised the allies towards greater force integration (a process symbolised by the creation of the supreme allied command in Europe—SHAPE), force planning (hence the Lisbon Force Goals of 1952) and organisational coherence. All of this was, in turn, backed by a substantial reinforcement of the American military presence in Europe. The subsequent institutional development of the alliance would come to entrench US influence. Attention in this respect is usually given to NATO's political structures—and principally the North Atlantic Council (NAC). Here, American influence has been clearly apparent if somewhat hidden behind (and sometimes frustrated by) the formalities of consensus decision-making. Much more striking has been the exercise of influence in planning and operational matters. The starkest example of this has lain in the role of NATO's two supreme commands. Since its inception, SACEUR has always been held by an American and, with the exception of its first incumbent, the role has been double-hatted with that of Commander-in-Chief of US forces in Europe. SACLANT (NATO's other supreme commander until its relabelling in 2003) has, similarly, been double-hatted with the office of Commander-in-Chief of US Atlantic Command. Real power within NATO lies, according to Guillaume Parmentier (2000, 100), in these positions. SACEUR was dubbed ‘the prince of Europe’ by US military officials under Clinton (Halberstam 2001, 392–393) and, in practice, has been a figure of influence to rival both the chair of the NATO Military Committee and the office of Secretary General (both of whom have usually been European).

The third way in which US dominance has been exercised concerns NATO policy initiatives. Here, the facts are stark: almost every major change has been the consequence of American action and no change has been possible without American support. The manner in which this role has been played out has varied. In some cases—NATO's adoption of ‘flexible response’ in 1967 or periodic force modernisation goals—a NATO position has been the culmination of an extended exercise in American persuasion; an attempt, in other words, to convince sceptical or indifferent European governments of the need for action. In other cases, the US has made a decisive intervention in order to galvanise a divided alliance—such, for instance, was the case in Bosnia, when a reversal of nearly three years of policy prevarication by first the Bush (senior) and then the Clinton administration led to Operation Deliberate Force and the stationing of IFOR (Daalder 2000, 31–36, 81–189). In other cases still, the US has given practical expression to an existing consensus or majority view that accords with an American preference; here, its superior diplomatic and political resources have served to shape and implement the policy. Such, for instance, has been the story of NATO's post-cold war enlargements, the development of partnerships with Russia and Ukraine and, from an earlier era, the twin-track decision of 1979 on theatre nuclear forces. Finally, there are instances where the US has, in effect, utilised NATO to set the parameters of European defence autonomy—cases in point being three related initiatives of the latter 1990s: ESDI, Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTFs) and the ‘Berlin-plus’ mechanism agreed at NATO's Washington summit in 1999.

The exceptional position of the US within the alliance, coupled with its standing as a global power, has meant that American foreign policy, while often made by reference to NATO, has never been subordinate to it. Indeed, the US has for decades acted in ways which have demonstrated an aloofness from the alliance. The Clinton administration, for instance, unilaterally set the terms of NATO involvement in both the Bosnian and Kosovo crises by its public insistence that it would not commit American troops to ground operations. And in the case of Operation Allied Force, the US saw fit to mount a quite separate effort (Joint Task Force Noble Anvil) that not only excluded all other allies but, with the possible exception of the British, was not even known to them (Henriksen 2007, 13–17).

American dominance of NATO has given rise to transatlantic tensions. On occasion European governments have regarded the US as an unreliable and capricious partner whose dedication to European defence could not be guaranteed, while the US (and Congress especially) has viewed the allies as free-riders, unappreciative of America's global concerns. The latter is of some significance in light of recent developments. Throughout the cold war, NATO did undertake consultations on a variety of ‘out-of-area’ issues and by the late 1980s these figured often in NATO declarations and communiqués. Yet such statements did not reflect much in the way of policy co-ordination or operational activity. Indeed, the further NATO strayed away from its core concern with the Soviet Union, the more likely it was to disagree. Hence the split over the Suez Crisis and American indignation at allied indifference to Israel during the 1973 Middle East war. NATO, moreover, figured in neither the Carter doctrine of American force projection into the Gulf region nor the Reagan doctrine of support for anti-communist insurgents in the developing world. Operation Desert Shield/Storm in 1991 broke the pattern only marginally. Considerable logistical and political support was provided by individual allies to the US-led coalition and a NATO operation was mounted in support of Turkey. None of these measures, however, involved a NATO command option for forces undertaking the key mission of ejecting Iraqi troops from Kuwait (Taft 1991).

Attitudes to NATO under Clinton

An instrumentalist view of NATO persisted right up to Bush's election in 2000. National security statements of the Clinton period painted a picture of a NATO regarded as subordinate to US national interests. Consistent throughout was a view of a dangerous and fluid security environment but one in which the US enjoyed an ability to shape events through the application of its ‘unparalleled military capabilities’ (Office of the Secretary of Defence 1997). True, this ability was seen as not without limits. The sheer range of security tasks (deterring large-scale aggression, dealing with asymmetric threats and responding to regional crises) coupled with the need for the US to act globally required that US forces be used selectively and with a view to minimising ‘costs and risks’ (Clinton 1997, section II). In order to lighten its load and attract political legitimacy, the US, the administration argued, should also be willing to act ‘in coalition or alliance with other nations’ (Office of the Secretary of Defence 1997, section III). Yet these limitations aside, the clear view was of a US able and willing forcefully to pursue its preferences. Collective response, it was asserted, ought not to be a presumption of action. The US, the 1999 National Security Strategy stated, ‘must be willing to act alone when our interests demand it’. And when joint actions were required, these were viewed as acceptable only in so far as they affirmed US leadership—the US should seek to leverage its ‘influence and capabilities through international organisations ... and alliances’ or lead ‘ad hoc coalitions formed around a specific objective’ (Clinton 1999, iv, 3).

Such formulations held clear implications for NATO. On the one hand, the Clinton administration retained a clear commitment to the alliance; it took the lead in advocating NATO's transformation towards carrying out non-Article V tasks (if required, outside Europe) and argued that only the US possessed the military resources and political leadership necessary to see this reorientation through (Clinton 1996; Yost 1998, 243–244). Yet on the other, it held to an assumption that the alliance was an instrument of choice for the US, not one of necessity. The 1997 Quadrennial Defence Review (QDR), for instance, omitted NATO from its list of ‘critical enablers’, or ‘capabilities and assets that enable the worldwide application of US power’ (Office of the Secretary of Defence 1997, section III). The National Military Strategy produced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1997) failed to reference the alliance in any context.

NATO during the Bush Administration

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. NATO before Bush
  4. NATO during the Bush Administration
  5. NATO after Bush
  6. Conclusion
  7. About the Author
  8. Bibliography

The discussion so far has suggested two important continuities in respect of the US and NATO. First, talk of crisis in the alliance is not new but has been endemic throughout its history. And second, an instrumentalist approach towards the alliance has characterised successive US administrations. Both these continuitiescharacterised the Bush presidency. Each, however, took a new form. The ‘NATO in crisis’ debate came to centre on issues beyond the Euro-Atlantic area.

American instrumentalism, meanwhile, focused much more sharply on NATO's operational purposes as a framework for missions defined by post-9/11 contingencies. The consequent reorientation which NATO experienced under Bush was far-reaching but it has bequeathed to his successor a weakened organisation.

The Bush Administration's Attitude towards NATO

The view of NATO as subordinate to US national security objectives was articulated openly under Bush. This position was not, however, as path-breaking or as robust as some have claimed. Certainly, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz made a number of statements which were seemingly demeaning of NATO, the most memorable being Rumsfeld's well-known phrase that ‘the mission determines the coalition, and the coalition must not determine the mission' (Washington Post, 21 October 2001). Given practical effect by American disregard of NATO in its attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001, this formulation, however, simply put a new spin on an old idea (one previously acted out in the Korean and Gulf Wars)—the assumption that the US was at liberty to gather allies for military purposes in a manner which it saw fit. Given the exceptional nature of 9/11 (the event which formed the backdrop to Rumsfeld's formulation) it was little wonder that this assumption would be articulated in forthright terms. But the US position still retained a commitment to the alliance. Wolfowitz (2002), for instance, in articulating the coalition principle as a cornerstone of the ‘war on terror’, was nonetheless at pains to stress that NATO itself should continue to play an important role in meeting the ‘[n]ew challenges to national security’. Indeed, in the year after 9/11 administration officials—the Afghan adventure notwithstanding—continued to regard NATO as a central plank of US strategy; now, however, with the important caveat that the alliance should be transformed in light of this emerging agenda (Rhodes 2003).

The Iraq crisis of 2003 and the consequent crack in the transatlantic relationship temporarily put paid to these sentiments. Iraq was, in Elizabeth Pond's felicitous phrase, NATO's ‘near-death’ experience as the allies divided between a majority led by the US willing to initiate defensive support of Turkey and a minority involving France, Germany and Belgium that for some three weeks withheld alliance consensus on the matter. NATO, according to Pond, ‘faced potential obsolescence’ at this juncture as ‘[s]ome in Washington were so angry at the French ... that they were ready to punish Europe by themselves helping to demolish NATO’ (Pond 2004, 72). This was, however, only a minority position within the administration and the chastening experiences of the Iraq occupation and operations in Afghanistan were to result, in Bush's second term, in a rapprochement with the alliance. As the 2006 QDR noted, America's ‘vision’ of security could only be achieved ‘by maintaining ... the United States' enduring alliances’. Bodies such as NATO, it continued, ‘make manifest the strategic solidarity of free democratic states, promote shared values and facilitate the sharing of military and security burdens around the world’ (Office of the Secretary of Defence 2006, 6).

Yet Bush officials were far from born-again multilateralists. Support for NATO continued to be qualified by two conditions. First, NATO required continuing reform and reconfiguration—it had to increasingly look ‘outward, to dangers that ... have roots far beyond Europe’, in turn, requiring new partnerships and new capabilities in support of global missions (Fried 2007). Second, NATO was only one alliance (albeit an important one) among several which involved the US. The 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) had emphasised the alliance's role in Article V contingencies through ‘coalitions under NATO's own mandate’ and contributions to separate ‘mission-based coalitions’ (Bush 2002, 25). The updated 2006 NSS changed the emphasis to ‘conflict interventions’ but retained its assumption that coalitions of the willing as well as NATO proper were viable instruments of intervention (Bush 2006, 8, 16, 35, 48). Similarly, the QDR of 2006 placed NATO alongside ‘bilateral alliances with Australia, Japan, Korea and other nations’ and the ‘unique relationships with the United Kingdom and Australia’ as means for dealing with ‘new threats to international security’ (Office of the Secretary of Defence 2006, 6). The Bush administration had not discounted the alliance as the institutional framework for mustering a supportive coalition, but its value was to be judged against demanding criteria of change and relevance.

Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, in a valedictory speech to the 2008 Munich Security Conference, reflected upon the significance of these themes. ‘Overall’, he noted,

the last few years have seen a dramatic evolution in NATO's thinking and in its posture. With all the new capabilities we have forged in the heat of battle—and with new attitudes—we are seeing what it means to be expeditionary. What is required is to spread stability beyond our borders. We must now commit ourselves to institutionalize what we have learned and to complete our transformation (Gates 2008).

In short, the Bush position demonstrated important continuities with the Clinton period. It was, however, more forthright in its insistence that NATO adjust its capabilities to the demands of new threats, be ready to act wherever ‘the[se] new challenges to global peace are rooted’ (Burns 2004a) and, when necessary, be a framework for coalition war fighting.

Change in NATO during the Bush Administration

Between 2001 and 2008 NATO underwent a significant transformation; one shaped, in large measure, by the preferences of American foreign policy. During this period, the alliance increased its membership through the ‘big-bang’ enlargement of 2004, an episode which was widely regarded as the consummation of the administration's desire (expressed by Bush as early as June 2001) to see a NATO stretching ‘from the Baltic to the Black Sea’ (Bush 2001). NATO also witnessed a reconfiguration of its relations with Russia with the creation in May 2002 of the NATO–Russia Council, an event which owed much to the warming of the bilateral US–Russian security relationship following 9/11.

Both enlargement and NATO–Russian relations shared a pedigree that went back to the early 1990s. Somewhat different was the Bush administration's pursuit of initiatives authorised at NATO's Prague Summit in December 2002 directed at perceived challenges of the post-9/11 world. Part doctrinal (the Military Concept for Defence against Terrorism) and part practical, progress in implementation subsequently was mixed. NATO's new streamlined command structure, for example, had by 2008 failed to achieve an efficient working relationship between its two supreme commands—respectively, Allied Command Operations (formerly SHAPE) and Allied Command Transformation (formerly SACLANT), while the Prague Capabilities Commitment (PCC)—‘part of the continuing Alliance effort to improve and develop new military capabilities for modern warfare in a high threat environment’ (NATO 2002, para. 4c)—were judged as being only three quarters achieved (House of Commons Defence Committee 2008, 45). A similar patchy record also pertained to the headline innovation at Prague, the NATO Response Force (NRF). An idea initially proposed by Donald Rumsfeld at NATO's Defence Ministerial in September 2002, this was intended to provide NATO with a high-readiness expeditionary force that would be interoperable with US forces and which would spur European force transformation along American lines. Although the NRF was declared fully operational at the Riga Summit in November 2006, as of mid-2008 it had been deployed on only two occasions, both of which were short-term humanitarian missions (relief efforts in Kashmir and in the wake of hurricane Katrina in the US). The NRF, further, played no role in force generation for NATO's ongoing missions in Afghanistan and Kosovo, and reflecting its increasingly marginal status, was scaled back at an informal meeting of NATO defence ministers in October 2007 (Kaitera and Ben-Ari 2008, 5).

Afghanistan

The biggest changes to NATO during the Bush period occurred as a consequence of its involvement in Afghanistan. NATO's role there was path-breaking in three significant respects. First, it marked NATO's first sustained large-scale mission outside the Euro-Atlantic area. Second, NATO became involved for the first time in ‘kinetic’ operations—counter-insurgency and ground combat, in other words. And third, the Afghan mission has come to be seen as the test case of alliance credibility.

During the Clinton years, NATO's involvement in Bosnia and Kosovo was a seemingly positive response to Senator Richard Lugar's warning that the alliance would have to go ‘out-of-area or out of business’. Yet having risen to this challenge, the terms required of NATO shifted once again at the onset of the new century. Writing in 2002, Lugar argued that the ‘old distinctions between “in” and “out of area” have become irrelevant as the US and its allies [have] confronted problems of terrorism and WMD proliferation’ (Lugar 2002, 10–11). The catalyst here was, of course, 9/11. In response to the al Qa'eda attacks on New York and Washington, the NAC took the historically unprecedented step of invoking Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO's actual role was, however, severely circumscribed. The US launched Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan but did so (as noted above) outside NATO structures. Article V did give rise to some important logistical support and the initiation of what would become NATO's longest-standing naval operation, Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean, but the alliance was absent on the battlefield. Contributions from allies (notably on the part of the UK and Canada) were bilateral and placed within a coalition framework that also involved non-NATO states such as Japan and Australia (Lansford 2004, 117–125).

With the removal of the Taliban from power, the US did see the virtues of a NATO role in the more protracted business of stabilising the country. The formal entry of the alliance into the affairs of Afghanistan occurred in August 2003 when it assumed command of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Prior to this, the UK, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands had provided rotating national commands for ISAF's limited role in Kabul. UNSCR 1510 (2003) authorised an extension of ISAF's responsibilities beyond the Afghan capital in order to allow the UN and other agencies to conduct humanitarian and reconstruction work in a secure environment. ISAF's geographic reach was then extended in stages. With the launch of Stage Four in October 2006, its remit covered the whole of the country.

ISAF's mission was wide-ranging, but two features are worth noting. The first is counter-insurgency. Stages Three and Four entailed movement into southern and eastern Afghanistan where NATO forces worked alongside and, in some cases replaced, US troops attached to Operation Enduring Freedom fighting Taliban and other insurgents. The second relates to Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), 26 of which were spread throughout Afghanistan by the beginning of 2008. The official ISAF website describes these as ‘the leading edge of the Alliance's commitment to reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan’.1

Such initiatives suggested a seemingly firm commitment on NATO's part, one which persisted in the face of adverse circumstances. Whereas in Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO took only a handful of casualties, between 2001 and early 2008 some 750 fatalities had been registered among NATO countries serving in Afghanistan.2 As of June 2008, there were 52,700 troops serving in ISAF involving all 26 NATO allies and a range of partner countries. The impact of this force has been viewed as positive in some respects. According to a March 2008 report of the UN Secretary General, ISAF had facilitated reconstruction, disarmament and repatriation, and had proved ‘an effective vector for the Afghanization of security’ through its mentoring of the Afghan National Army (United Nations 2008, 6, 9, 12–13). Yet for all this, NATO had presided over a deteriorating security situation: Afghanistan had acquired the features of a failing state, characterised by rising insurgent attacks, ballooning narcotic production and a Taliban presence in over half of Afghan territory (Senlis Afghanistan 2007, 5–7). Given the range of international actors engaged in the country and the gravity of Afghanistan's historical legacy, this cannot be regarded as NATO's failure alone. That said, problems inherent within the alliance—a lack of strategic coherence (differing conceptions among allies on the purpose of ISAF), inadequate force generation (troops and equipment levels below those required to carry out ISAF's mission) and the prevalence of national caveats (qualifications imposed by allies on their national contributions and roles on the ground)—certainly impeded its mission (House of Commons Defence Committee 2008, 31–41). Despite an airing of these issues at NATO's Bucharest summit in April 2008, SACEUR General Bantz Craddock noted in July that allies were still failing to meet their commitments (ABC News, 28 July 2008).

NATO's problems in Afghanistan were mirrored in official views in Washington. During its early stages, assessments of ISAF were largely positive (Burns 2004b), although as early as 2004 Bush administration officials were accusing NATO of ‘dithering’ over Afghanistan (Washington Post, 14 July 2004). In a step redolent of the troop ‘surge’ in Iraq, in the early months of 2007 the administration announced an increase in reconstruction funding for Afghanistan and extended the tour of duty of some 3,200 US troops in the country. An additional deployment of 3,200 US marines was announced in January 2008. As the US commitment was increased, however, so Washington became more demanding of allied efforts. Secretary Gates was particularly outspoken. He argued that the failure of ‘many allies’ to share the burden of ISAF combat operations threatened the entire mission and that NATO as a whole was still incapable of properly organising counter-insurgency operations (The Guardian, 17 January 2008). In a further broadside, he argued that ‘[i]f an alliance of the world's greatest democracies cannot summon the will to get the job done in a mission that we agree is morally just and vital to our security, then our citizens may begin to question ... the utility of the 60-year-old transatlantic security project itself’ (cited in Senlis Afghanistan 2007, 12). NATO, Gates suggested, risked becoming a ‘two-tier’ alliance in which some are ‘willing to fight and die ... and others ... are not’. This, he continued, ‘puts a cloud over the future of the alliance’ (Financial Times, 7 February 2008).

By the end of the Bush period, then, NATO faced a further existential crisis, this time over Afghanistan. Here two fundamental challenges were present. The first was military. NATO by this point faced the real possibility of either defeat (the first in its history) or (and perhaps more likely) an enduring ‘strategic stalemate’ in which it controlled the capital and certain outlying regions but insurgents remained permanently active in large swathes of the country (Senlis Afghanistan 2007, 48–49). The second challenge was political and related to NATO's long-term future. As a report co-authored by former SACEUR General James Jones noted in January 2008, failure in Afghanistan would undermine NATO's broader out-of-area ambitions and result in even greater reluctance on the part of the US ‘to turn to the Alliance in a crisis’. ‘This’, he continued, ‘could lead to a moribund Alliance ... reduced to geopolitical irrelevancy and marginalization’ (Strategic Advisors Group 2008, 5). Although this crunch point had not been reached, it was clear that Afghanistan had become the main driver of the alliance's future in American eyes (Fried 2008).

NATO after Bush

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. NATO before Bush
  4. NATO during the Bush Administration
  5. NATO after Bush
  6. Conclusion
  7. About the Author
  8. Bibliography

What type of NATO will develop after the Bush presidency and how will the US respond? There are at least three ways to address this question and all point to important continuities.

The first concerns the NATO agenda which the incoming president will have to face. NATO's 60th anniversary summit scheduled for April–May 2009 will be the first set-piece occasion involving the new president and one which will provide a rare opportunity to advertise a progressive advance in alliance solidarity should France make a full return to NATO's military structures. Yet, the summit will also reflect NATO's ongoing difficulties. It will once more be required to face up to the challenge of Afghanistan and will also review a number of policy initiatives aired at Bucharest. These include an Action Plan to bolster NATO's ‘comprehensive approach’ to crisis management (involving greater co-ordination between NATO, the EU, UN and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the Balkans and Afghanistan) and a ‘Declaration on Alliance Security’ that will ‘further articulate and strengthen the Alliance's vision of its role in meeting the evolving challenges of the 21st century’ (NATO 2008a, paras 3 and 11). Neither document will be trouble-free; the latter, for instance, is, owing to differences of opinion among allies, a second-best substitute for a full revision of NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept.

Further, the summit will also be required to affirm a position on Georgia and Ukraine. At Bucharest the US strongly supported Membership Action Plans for these two states but the alliance failed to reach a consensus on the matter owing to opposition led by Germany and France. The summit statement that ‘these countries will become members of NATO’ was widely seen as a fudge, affirming a general principle but avoiding specifics. It was agreed that a NATO ministerial of December 2008 would reach a more definite decision. The intervening Georgian crisis of August added urgency to the matter but did not resolve it. The rhetorical commitment to Georgia stiffened both in the Bush administration and, interestingly, among one-time sceptics such as Germany. In mid-September, a NATO–Georgia Commission was established to deepen co-operation, to assist in post-conflict reconstruction and ‘to supervise the process set in hand at the Bucharest Summit’ (NATO 2008b). And in a sign of solidarity with the Shaakashvili regime, NATO also suspended meetings of the NATO–Russia Council. Yet none of these measures brought membership any closer. As NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer conceded, the alliance remained divided on how soon and under what circumstances Georgia might accede (De Hoop Scheffer 2008).

Enlargement, therefore, is a continuing conundrum—one which, following the events in Georgia, presents NATO with testing versions of some long-standing problems, not least how to accommodate membership aspirations in the face of active Russian hostility. Tellingly, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev declared shortly after the cessation of hostilities that Russia would have intervened in Georgia even if the country had been offered a Membership Action Plan (The Guardian, 13 September 2008).

The second way of viewing the US and NATO relates to the views of the incoming president. Barack Obama had, prior to the 2008 election, offered pointers to how he would position himself on NATO if elected. Obama supported continued enlargement (including to Georgia and Ukraine) so long as NATO criteria were met, a ramping up of the US military presence in Afghanistan (accompanied by admonitions that the allies should make greater efforts) and the consolidation of the alliance as ‘a global partnership for peace and security’ (Obama 2008). He also referred intriguingly to the possibility of organisational innovation in NATO—'streamlining the decision-making processes, and giving NATO commanders in the field more flexibility', although what this might entail was left unspecified (Obama 2007). His foreign policy advisers included a significant number of former Clinton officials (including erstwhile National Security Adviser Tony Lake) known for their support of NATO as a tool of US liberal interventionism. Thus, according to Robert Dreyfuss (2008), the alliance formed a central plank of an Obama foreign policy of ‘muscular multilateralism’.

Obama thus continued to regard NATO in recognisable terms, as an interventionist body in service of American national security interests, subject to US leadership and in need of ongoing adaptation. Preserving the transatlantic relationship in general, and NATO in particular, will thus remain a central rhetorical plank of US foreign policy. Warm words will continue to be accompanied by the pursuit of unilateral gain, not necessarily in competition with allies but sometimes at odds with allied preferences and sometimes ahead of them. In this sense, at least, the alliance is unlikely to be threatened by American indifference.

A third perspective, finally, concerns the playing out of longer-term trends. These all point to the continuation of a divided and existentially troubled alliance. In the first place, nearly two decades after the cold war ended, it is clear that NATO is unlikely ever to return to the narrowly circumscribed agenda which characterised its first four decades. NATO has, since the end of the cold war, become exposed to what Christopher Coker (2004, 64) has referred to as the ‘globalization of risk’, and unlike the Soviet threat this risk environment is permanent. NATO's move out of area, and beyond the Euro-Atlantic, simply exposes it to these problems in an even more acute form. Terrorism, regional conflict, proliferation and so on are problems without end, which at best can only be contained, confined and dissuaded but never eradicated. NATO's viability thus requires an almost permanent revolution of fluid organisational change and intellectual readjustment. Further, because risks affect allies in very different ways, the achievement of consensus and theinstitutionalisation of common response (the core principles of NATO multilateralism) become increasingly difficult. NATO has thus developed as a framework in which two seemingly contradictory tendencies coexist. It acts both as a forum for managing disagreements among allies and as a framework for the building of coalitions (Rynning 2005, 175; Williams 2008, 71–72). Robert Gates' fear that NATO would develop as a two-tier alliance thus contains only a partial truth; NATO has, in fact, always been multi-tiered and this has become more pronounced as the post-cold war period has extended. As Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan have all demonstrated, the alliance is not just differentiated in terms of those who are willing to fight and those who are not, but also by virtue of capabilities, political influence and a readiness to side with the US (Kaplan 2008).

American leadership has, in turn, become the subject of vexed debate and will remain so after 2008. Again, this is a problem exacerbated by NATO's burgeoning agenda. During the cold war, the necessity of leadership and reliance on American military strength was constantly reaffirmed. Crises such as those over Berlin, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Soviet SS-20 deployments and martial law in Poland served as a constant reminder of why NATO was founded and why the Europeans needed it as a route to American security reassurance (Kaplan 1999, 176). During the 1990s, Balkan instability acted as a surrogate for the Soviet threat and eventually galvanised NATO towards a new purpose that was assisted (belatedly perhaps) by decisive US interventions. Crises beyond Europe, however, have far less resonance. Declarations by the US of the urgency of the task facing the alliance carry much less weight because for many in Europe the risks are distant, abstract and ones for which NATO may not be best suited.

The American preference for a NATO able to act beyond Europe is, in fact, a central dilemma for the alliance. Taken together, the summits of the Bush period in Prague, Istanbul, Riga and Bucharest saw NATO shift its attentions beyond the traditional Euro-Atlantic area. As well as in Afghanistan, missions (albeit small scale) were also pursued in Iraq, Sudan and Kashmir; force transformation was premised on expeditionary, out-of-area interventions; and relationships were developed with geographically dispersed countries through an enhancement of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Mediterranean Dialogue, a revamping of bilateral relationships with Russia and Ukraine and the pursuit of new initiatives with the so-called Contact Countries (Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea) and states in the Gulf region covered by the Istanbul Co-operation Initiative (ICI).

As noted above, both Obama and McCain have endorsed a NATO that is globally orientated. Such a trend has, however, simply multiplied NATO's problems. It has also opened up a new divide in the alliance (no other ally shares America's enthusiasm for a global NATO and it has been expressly opposed by France and Germany), has added to suspicions of NATO in Russia and China and has received only a lukewarm response among intended beneficiaries in the ICI and among the Contact Countries. While a globalisation of the alliance does at least serve the purpose of keeping the alliance relevant to the US, NATO has, in any case, probably reached its functional and geographic limits. The imbroglio of Afghanistan (as well as an ongoing and significant commitment in Kosovo) precludes other large-scale NATO interventions, while the worst-case scenario of a retreat or defeat in that country could well create an ‘Afghanistan syndrome’ ruling out kinetic or nation-building operations for the foreseeable future. Couple this with an exhaustion of the enlargement process following the likely accessions of Albania, Croatia and Macedonia (membership for Georgia and Ukraine still seems highly unlikely), and the case could well be made that consolidating NATO will probably consume allied efforts over the next 10 years as much as expanding it did in the 1990s and 2000s.

Although seemingly at odds with the public positions of the two presidential candidates, a consolidating (as opposed to a global) NATO could nonetheless play to a post-Bush administration in two complementary ways. First, a NATO of this type is likely to embark on a ‘return to Europe’, refocused on the tasks of Balkan stabilisation, the integration of eastern Europe, working with ESDP and dealing with Russia. A NATO agenda of this sort has not figured large in US foreign policy since the Clinton years. However, an alliance re-centred on European stability would continue to relieve the US of this traditional burden, thus allowing it to concentrate on areas of greater concern in the Middle East, and Central and East Asia. Second, a consolidating NATO would be attractive in the sense that some of its traditional and less controversial roles would regain prominence. This, in some ways, would turn the position of the Bush administration on its head. NATO's relevance would no longer be judged by its ability to stand on the front line of the war on terror or the long war. Commensurate with a probable reining in of the US' own interventionist impulse in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, the appeal of NATO to the US would lie elsewhere, in its more tried and trusted functions of defence co-operation, transatlantic political consultation and deterrence and response under Articles IV and V of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. NATO before Bush
  4. NATO during the Bush Administration
  5. NATO after Bush
  6. Conclusion
  7. About the Author
  8. Bibliography

9/11 was the defining moment of the Bush presidency. This event has usually been regarded as a watershed in American foreign policy, and it is true that in policy towards NATO the US from that point pursued a more assertive stance on how the alliance could best be utilised to serve the emerging agenda of countering ‘new’ threats. But the Bush period also demonstrated important continuities. An instrumental attitude to the benefits of NATO has characterised successive administrations and it is entirely probable that an incumbent other than Bush would have sought to reconfigure the alliance towards new, expeditionary missions in much the same way. The coalition formula which animated US attitudes towards NATO under Bush was a predictable response to the differentiated capabilities and foreign policy interests of an enlarged alliance. Although seen by some as politically, even normatively, at odds with NATO's core identity, it was hardly path-breaking either in the practice of US-led intervention (see the 1991 Gulf War) or as an operating assumption within the alliance (the interventions in both Bosnia and Kosovo were, in effect, coalitions of the willing within NATO).

The continuities of the Bush period accorded with longer-term trends which will also weigh down upon his successors. Throughout its 60-year history, NATO has presented to the US enduring benefits (Layne 2006, 94–117) and it is likely to remain the principal instrument of America's security relationship with Europe. Clearly, it is not the only instrument—the US has a significant role in the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty process, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN Security Council (crucial in the Balkans, the South Caucasus and the Greece–Turkey–Cyprus triangle); it also enjoys significant bilateral relations with certain NATO allies (the UK most obviously and increasingly Poland) and states outside (Ukraine, for instance). While Europe has diminished in strategic significance for the US, it has not become marginal—and NATO will continue to sustain a route of influence, oversight and involvement not otherwise available. Whatever troubles the US has had with alliance decision-making and whatever the gap that exists in European and American capabilities, the convenience to it of an organisation with a vast experience of routine co-operation, interoperable capabilities and force planning will nonetheless remain. As the leading power within the alliance, the US also enjoys the enviable position of being able to utilise these benefits when and how it likes: drawing on NATO resources when convenient, cajoling allies to greater efforts when its own burden needs lightening and sidelining NATO when it is regarded as superfluous. Successive US administrations have adopted an instrumental attitude towards the alliance although the Bush administration was more brutally honest than most in its approach. Certainly the atmospherics will change after 2008 but the instrumentalism and the presumption of leadership will not.

About the Author

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. NATO before Bush
  4. NATO during the Bush Administration
  5. NATO after Bush
  6. Conclusion
  7. About the Author
  8. Bibliography

Mark Webber, Department of Politics, International Relations and European Studies, Loughborough University, Loughborough LE11 3TU, UK, email: m.a.webber@lboro.ac.uk

Notes

Bibliography

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. NATO before Bush
  4. NATO during the Bush Administration
  5. NATO after Bush
  6. Conclusion
  7. About the Author
  8. Bibliography