NATO is dead, long live NATO

Posted: May 24, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON--NATO is dead. Long live NATO. NATO died in Afghanistan--the very same place where that other top-heavy and obsolete multinational construction, the Soviet Union, expired. (History is not just cruel. It is witty.) The proximal cause of the Soviet Union's death was painful defeat in Afghanistan. The proximal cause of NATO's death was victory in Afghanistan--a swift and crushing U.S. victory that made clear America's military dominance and Europe's consequent military irrelevance. The gap in military capacity is so staggering that even professor Paul Kennedy, author of the highly influential ``The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,'' has now recanted the America-in-decline theory he fathered in the 1980s. Kennedy has been moved to express his awe at American resurgence: `` Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing.'' The important point, Kennedy notes, is less the gap between the U.S. and rogue states than between the U.S. and the rest of the great powers. Everyone knows that all the talk of the ``coalition'' in Afghanistan was a polite fiction. Europe, in particular, was reduced to the sidelines because its technology is so far behind America's that what little aircraft, munitions and transport it might have contributed would only have gotten in the way. For a continent that for 500 years ruled the world, this impotence is difficult to accept. It helps explain Europe's petulant complaints about American ``arrogance'' and ``unilateralism.'' It also explains why NATO, as a military alliance, is dead. It was not always so. For four decades the alliance fielded huge land armies that successfully deterred the Soviet Union at the height of its power. With the end of the Cold War, however, NATO lost its enemy. With the demonstration of its military irrelevance in the Afghan war, NATO lost its role. What to do? Madeleine Albright, never at a loss for offering yesterday's conventional wisdom, says that we should make clear to our allies that they must modernize their militaries. Why? Europe is a collection of democracies. And grown-ups. They make choices. Toward the end of the Cold War, they made the conscious, near-continental decision to radically reduce their military forces and turn inward in order to build ``Europe.'' They slashed defense spending and essentially demobilized. It was a perfectly reasonable response to the end of the Soviet threat. Why should we be hectoring them to reverse that, to divert money from their cherished welfare states to their militaries? So they can become America's junior partner in policing the world against ``axis of evil'' threats that they believe are exaggerated in the first place? To join us in wars that they have no desire to fight anyway? If Europeans want to rearm and join the posse, fine. But we should not be pressuring them. America neither resents nor inhibits European strength. On the contrary. For half a century, we supported the project of European integration and enlargement. For almost as long, under the rubric of ``burden sharing,'' we urged the Europeans to increase defense spending. They politely declined. Why should we be greater advocates of European power than the Europeans themselves? They have practiced international affairs long enough to know that diminished power means diminished influence--and a radically diminished NATO, their place at the decision-making table. NATO may still have a role in peacekeeping (especially in Europe's own Balkan back yard) but not in war-making. As a serious military alliance it is finished. But there is no need for a funeral. NATO can be usefully re-imagined. Its new role should be to serve as incubator for Russia's integration into Europe and the West. It is precisely because NATO has turned from a military alliance into a trans-Atlantic club of advanced democracies that it can now safely invite Russia in--and why Russia has so reconciled itself to NATO. Russia recognizes NATO's shift from a military to a political organization. That is why it has so muted its objection to NATO's expansion into the former Soviet republics of the Baltic states. That idea used to make the Russians apoplectic. But with NATO a hollow shell, they are relaxed about having us in, and we are relaxed about having them in. The unprecedented place at the NATO table recently offered Russia by the Bush administration is the correct next step in NATO's transformation. Join the club. NATO is dead. Welcome, Russia, to the new NATO.