By Majid Mahmood
Outgoing US secretary of Defense Robert Gates paid his last official visit to NATO head quarters at Brussels. The secretary gave a speech on the contemporary state of NATO, the challenges and its future prospects. The Speech reflected US frustration and strategic exhaustion on the state of affairs of NATO and these expressions were transmitted in an unambiguous manner by secretary Gates to powerful European elites in June 2011.
It is imperative to investigate the contemporary geopolitical environment in which NATO is operating. The alliance, under US leadership, was created in 1949 primarily for continental security of Europe against a Soviet aggression. It also represents US influence in shaping the security of Europe. With Soviet Union dissolving into Russia and ceasing to be an existential threat, NATO engaged itself into Balkans in 90’s and then other regional theatres in the 21stcentury, first in Afghanistan and now in Libya.
Afghanistan and Libya represents the failure of the transatlantic alliance where competing political objectives, operational short comings and stalemate at the battle field have raised serious doubts over the relevance of NATO as a primary western military tool to further transatlantic interests.
In Afghanistan there is little or no political appetite in NATO states to contribute further in terms of additional troop deployment which has resultantly frustrated and irritated US. In other words, the Afghan war has become Americanized and the situation is compounded by the fact that US led mission has failed to bring the Afghan resistance to manageable level.
North Africa, a predominantly Muslim area, forms a region vital to European interests which out flanks the NATO from the South. It provides the much needed alternate source of energy for Europe against the Russian energy supplies from the North. This is precisely why European powers have struggled to retain political supremacy in North African affairs. The popular uprising engulfing the Middle East was triggered in a small North African country, Tunisia, and has challenged the grip of United States and Europe over the affairs of Arab Muslim world.
The European response to the crisis in Libya has exposed political divisions within NATO states and its limits of using military power to steer the political discourse in Libya. The NATO’s bombardment over Ghaddafi’s forces was only possible once United States nodded in UNSC and assisted in military operations as a facilitator.
This assistance was short lived, however, as United States is itself stretched thin in the Islamic world and when US “transferred” the mission to NATO, significant operational difficulties are being faced in carrying out the mission. Not to mention the fact that less than half of the NATO states are participating in the “operation odyssey dawn” while France and Britain sharing most of the burden. Gaddafi, although loosing half of its Eastern country, still remains intact as the ruler over Libya.
The political equation in Europe is also a challenge for the survival of NATO. The Euro zone crisis has further deepened the divide between developed and under developed states. It was IMF and not the European bank that issued first bailout package for Euro zone economies. Significant defense cuts are being executed in all NATO countries to meet the domestic challenge of debt crisis.
Germany is distancing itself from major European initiatives in economic and strategic affairs. For example bailing out Euro zone is a major domestic issue and concern for Germany as they persist that as to why they should pay for bad monetary policies of PIGS countries (Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain). Germany has also distanced itself away from contributing in Operation Odyssey Dawn and refrained from providing the mission with political support. Resurgent political influence of Russia and its increasing harmony with Germany has the potential to shape the balance of power in European continent and in extension to the future of NATO.
Although for United States a unified Europe runs contrary to its interest but a sustainable and effective military alliance serves American strategic interests both in Europe and abroad. The fundamental reason is the limitation of US military which requires alliances both at regional and global level to act decisively. This necessity rather than passion drives US involvement and steering the course of transatlantic security architecture and will remain so in a foreseeable future.
For the forces of status co, i.e. the protectors of global liberal order, the transatlantic fault line serves as a wearing shield against future powers which will challenge the prevailing order on the basis of an alternate ideas. The contemporary emerging power centers pose no threat to the order itself except the fact that they would be more demanding in sharing global responsibilities with existing global powers.
In either case, United States will have to concede more to emerging players even to the extent of being dethroned from the global power status. Looming failure of transatlantic partnership constitutes a failure of western liberalism. This was the message amplified unambiguously by Robert Gates to European elites.
Majid Mahmood is from Islamabad, Pakistan and is currently working as a Research Fellow at the South Asian Strategic Stability Institute (SASSI) in Islamabad