February 6th, 2012
03:00 PM ET

NATO: From military alliance to talk shop?

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.

France intends to withdraw its troops from NATO-led operations in Afghanistan by 2013. This is earlier than the previously agreed deadline of 2014. This announcement, coupled with signs that other allies - including the United States - may be rushing to leave Afghanistan, threatens to humiliate the alliance, with severe consequences for trans-Atlantic security.

Every generation of Western politicians has dreaded the possibility of NATO's demise. In the 1960s, governments assumed that the anti-Americanism generated by the Vietnam War would tear the alliance apart. A decade later, there were worries that detente would produce the same result. When the Cold War ended, politicians feared that the 'glue' provided by the Soviet threat would disappear. Yet NATO defied these predictions and survived with an increased membership and enhanced reputation.

Still, pessimists claim that recent conflicts raise much more difficult questions about the future of the organisation. In Libya, for the first time, the United States pushed NATO into a military operation, but then took a back seat, leaving it to the Europeans to do most of the fighting.

In Afghanistan, the alliance waded into a conflict without a clear idea of what it wanted to accomplish, inadequate coordination between contributing nations and almost no discussion about the endgame. The result was heavy casualties and huge political tensions. There is a real danger that countries will follow the French example and 'rush for the exit' in Afghanistan; a botched NATO-led war could turn into a debacle that might seal the alliance's fate.

However, this is unlikely to be the outcome. Far from considering it a failure, the U.S. administration regards the Libya operation as precisely the kind of division of labor which the alliance will apply in future conflicts: NATO will act as a conduit for resources required by a group of countries that feel threatened enough to commit their forces.

Afghanistan is a trickier problem, but not one which should destroy NATO. Provided governments coordinate their withdrawal - still the most likely outcome, despite the French announcement - and provided the Afghan government survives for a decent interval afterwards, NATO should emerge relatively unscathed. Even the Soviet-installed puppet regime in Afghanistan survived for two years after that withdrawal, and there is no reason why a similar scenario could not happen now. Furthermore, no member-state wants to engage in recriminations, if only because none wishes to admit that its own casualties in Afghanistan were in vain.

NATO as such is unlikely to disappear - if only because, as the Libya operation showed, Europe's Common Security and Defense Policy is not and cannot be an alternative to the alliance. The Europeans will not acquire any capabilities to conduct autonomous military operations, so they will need logistical support and access to enormous U.S. military capabilities.

The United States itself is unlikely to give up on the alliance; it has no comparable multinational military structure anywhere else in the world. However, the alliance will increasingly become a looser 'talking shop' where security issues are debated but not necessarily resolved.

While NATO members disagree as to its future role, none has any interest in disintegration. Although stresses within the alliance will come up at the NATO summit in May in Chicago, the alliance will survive - at a minimum as a venue for articulating political controversies, and probably in a more organized way than before.

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Topics: NATO

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. George Patton

    What a pleasant surprise here! The fact that France intends to pull out of Afghanistan by next year is indeed good news. I only wish that it would be this year. The sooner NATO leaves Afghanistan, the better!!!

    February 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  2. USMC Forever

    If this unholy alliance does dissolve, it will be no great loss to the world. In fact, it will probably benefit it. Unfortunately, that will never happen. much to my chagrin!!!

    February 6, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      So far the Dutch gov't has suffered from the Afghanistan war mplboers. In the UK, Afghanistan may or may not be a factor in their current election cycle. Time will tell. As to the UK election, it is awful to think that the Conservatives there might be elected back into office. They have three parties there, their third party is stronger than any third party here. And there have been comments that a vote for the third party Liberal Democrats will be a vote to put the Conservatives in power. Reminds me of here and the spoiler third party votes. You'd think they would see a similarity to here, and they do pay attention to U.S. politics. For me, when I read their news on politics, I see the same B.S. being spewed by the Conservatives and Cameron there that I hear from the repugnants here. But their third party appears to be hurting the Labour party more, whereas here the third party active right now here, the Teabagger Party, seems to be hurting the repugnants more. And in France, there is an election. And in the U.S. we'll have our own election in November.

      March 11, 2012 at 10:00 pm | Reply
  3. pmcdonald

    It will be great. China needs to step up and help its neighbour Afghanistan get back on its feet by opening trade routes and supporting infrastructure and FDI. Only China has the capacity to do this and to maintain Afghanistan as a peaceful nation.

    February 7, 2012 at 1:15 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    No, the NATO will be around as long as Europe exists. It aims at safeguarding "the freedom, common heritage and civilisation" of its members and promoting "stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area". Members agree that an armed attack against one is seen as an attack against them all, and that they will come to the aid of each other. It explains why its forces are fighting America's war on terror in Afghanistan. The only antagonist NATO has is Russia. The confrontation between the U.S. and Russia became less due to the relationship between Obama and Medvedev. Now with Putin back in power soon, there will be more tensions between NATO and Russia in the future.

    February 7, 2012 at 5:19 am | Reply
  5. patod

    a taxi driver in brussels once told me (as i was on my way to NATO) that the acronym stood for "No Action, Talk Only." i thought that was funny. then i thought, it is good we have all those countries together who CAN talk to each other. some will agree, some will disagree, but at least they are talking. although Russia is not part of NATO, they do have a representative there.

    February 7, 2012 at 10:13 am | Reply
  6. Frank

    Bad enough we're there. Worse that we are ihntung down the whistleblowers. Ugh. Here's a new rule: If you find out from someone you're doing something bad, stop doing the bad thing and THANK the person who pointed it out.The Hope-Change is getting more Aw-Crap (my motto during the Bush-years-from-hell) all the time. It's beyond frustrating.

    March 13, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Reply
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