Obama's NATO Challenge

President Obama came to office pledging to restore America’s image abroad and to invigorate its relationship with its NATO allies.  Clearly Obama has done this with America’s image -- he obviously is much better liked in Europe than Bush was.  Yet, it’s not clear that we have seen all that much in terms of "revitalizing" the Alliance – and certainly not if we’re defining revitalization as any major policy convergence in Afghanistan.  Last month’s collapse of the Dutch government and the announced withdrawal of Dutch forces from ISAF has triggered a new wave of fears that more European states will abandon the effort in Afghanistan. 

This isn’t sitting well with Washington. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was notably blunt in his response: "The demilitarization of Europe — where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st." Gates noted that only five of the 28 NATO member states are living up to their defense spending commitments.  He warned that the Alliance faces "very serious, long-term, systemic problems."

Tough words. Indeed, the prevailing discourse in Washington (and throughout the US for that matter) is that Europeans are shirking their global responsibilities.  There clearly is growing frustration in the Obama administration with the limited commitments from the Europeans and with the national caveats the Germans, Italians, and others place on their forces operating in Afghanistan.  Even the transatlantic elites from Europe are taking aim at the Europeans.  In a speech last month in Washington, Lord George Robertson, former NATO Secretary General, assailed the lack of European leadership and European "wobbling of commitment" to Afghanistan. 

But while Gates and Robertson and many Americans focus on the "systemic problems" posed by the Europeans, there is far less public discussion of how the US continues to contribute to the tensions within the alliance. Let’s face it, we live in a unipolar world.  The US may want the Europeans to step up, but what exactly are the current incentives for them to do so and, perhaps more importantly, what are the incentives for the US to defer to Brussels in any meaningful sense?  European security is tied to American power, but American security is not fundamentally tied to European power.  This means that the structural incentives for the US to act with limited input from the Europeans are just as strong as the incentives for the Europeans to free-ride. 

The U.S. dominates global defense expenditures – it will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $700+ billion on defense in FY 2011 out of a global defense budget somewhere around $1.4 trillion – meaning that the US will spend about as much on defense as all other countries in the world combined.   This isn’t just a quantitative advantage, but a qualitative one as well: US expenditures on research, development and testing of new defense technologies is somewhere around 70% of the global expenditures.

This fundamental power differential allows the US to call most of the shots on global security strategy. The Obama administration came to office pledging to abandon the Bush-era unilateralism. It is clearly more engaged diplomatically with the Europeans and appears to want greater cooperation and consultation with Brussels (as well as greater material contributions from its NATO partners). But at the end of the day, the US still determines the what, where, and when of international security.

In Afghanistan, ISAF remains an American-run show.  NATO, the Afghan government, and the rest of the world waited on President Obama last fall to decide on General McChrystal’s recommendations for the Afghan surge.  For all the administration’s talk of multilateralism, General Petreaus and General McChrystal defined the strategic objectives, order of battle, and the configuration of necessary forces for the next year in Afghanistan.

In addition, the Obama administration has acknowledged stability in Afghanistan will require a far more comprehensive approach with improved civilian-military integration and greater international coordination on institution building and improving governance.  But, because of the exigencies of on-going operations coupled with significant asymmetries of US-to-European force contributions inside Afghanistan today, both the US military and the diplomatic corps on the ground often find it easier to act first and coordinate with international partners later – all of which makes it even harder to convince a reluctant European public to step up their support.

This current tension over NATO’s future in Afghanistan comes amid the on-going process to develop NATO’s new Strategic Concept, due to be released at the Lisbon conference in November.  The Strategic Concept is intended to offer strategies for a broader long-term revitalization of the Alliance and is likely to include strategies on how to define and meet out-of-area threats, how to improve force generation, and how to integrate mechanisms for better intra-Alliance coordination and for improved consultation with other international organizations and NGOs. 

Herein lies Obama’s NATO challenge.  While the new Strategic Concept will be released with significant fanfare – and no doubt significant American support -- the fundamental challenge for NATO will remain.  Given the asymmetries in capabilities and differences in conceptions of interests and threats that now exist between Washington and Brussels, even a committed multilateralist US administration will find it difficult to navigate the short run demands for control over strategic decision-making within the Alliance in –– while simultaneously negotiating the challenges to breathe new life into the Alliance, in any meaningful sense, over the long term.