Ausgabe 14/2009

The Reluctant Globocop What Is NATO's Role?

NATO is celebrating its 60th birthday this week at a summit co-hosted by Germany and France. But the ceremonies cannot disguise the fact that the alliance, despite its successes, is facing huge challenges in Afghanistan and its dispute with Russia.


NATO has rarely succeeded in striking the right tone. In fact, the world's most important defense alliance has always come out on the shrill side -- musically speaking, at least.

For the ceremony marking the organization's establishment, in Washington on April 4, 1949, the organizers chose George Gershwin's "It Ain't Necessarily So." And the ceremony to mark the acceptance of seven nations from the former Soviet bloc into NATO in 2004 was accompanied by the soundtrack to the film "Titanic."

With this track record, it can be counted as progress that music by Georges Bizet will be on the program when NATO leaders attend the ceremony to celebrate the alliance's 60th birthday in the German spa town of Baden-Baden on Friday. Barack Obama will be attending the event, which will be held in the city's famous Kurhaus building. The US president will be accompanied by the co-hosts, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and two dozen other heads of state and government.

The renowned German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter will perform extracts from Bizet's opera "Carmen," and the building's famous casino will remain closed for the duration of the event. At least this landmark NATO ceremony won't be accompanied by a musical faux pas, with the possible exception of the sad demise of the title character, a Gypsy woman who places her future in the hands of a fortune-teller and meets her death.

In the French city of Strasbourg, and across the Rhine River in the German town of Kehl and in Baden-Baden, there will be much talk of the pact's impressive achievements over the last six decades. There will be talk of the alliance's important role as a peacekeeper, both for the West and the rest of the world. And there will be talk of the historic achievement of having kept so many important countries in line during stormy periods, and of the formally successful expansion of NATO from its original 12 founding nations to include a group of 28 members by the end of this week, when Albania and Croatia are set to join the party as full members for the first time. These are all reasons to celebrate for an alliance that skeptics once claimed would not last longer than the 20-year term of the treaty signed by its original members. Indeed, the Washington Post wrote at the time that the ceremony was probably more impressive than the act of formation itself.

But all improvements aside, this year's summit is still unlikely to be completely free of dissonant tones. Behind the scenes, and beyond the feel-good photo ops and self-congratulatory eulogies, all signs point to trouble on the horizon. There will be fireworks between the "Old Europe" of the West and the "New Europe" of the East, and, despite all of Obama's efforts to remain open and willing to participate in consultations, between the dominant United States and the also-rans, i.e., the rest of NATO.

The alliance must be "relatively revolutionary" in seeking a new orientation, and it must adjust its strategy to confront new challenges, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a government statement on Thursday. Merkel also pointed out that the alliance will have to cooperate more effectively with civilian organizations in the future. "Germany owes a debt of gratitude to NATO and the solidarity of its allies," the chancellor said. With the exception of the far-left Left Party, everyone in the German parliament, the Bundestag, seemed to agree. The trans-Atlantic defense alliance has been a success story, as evidenced by the impressive number of candidates waiting in line for membership.

Nevertheless, the alliance faces an existential crisis that could tear it apart. This is not because NATO faces disbandment for reasons of irrelevance or idleness. In fact, the opposite is the case: NATO doesn't know what to do next, and it runs the risk of stretching itself beyond its capacity. Either it claims the role of the world's policeman for itself, or it will unintentionally slide into this function. And it will do so without sufficient finances, personnel or weapons -- not to mention a lack of acceptance by the population in most NATO members of the alliance's role as a global fire department.

Graphic: NATO's members

Graphic: NATO's members

Some praise the trans-Atlantic defense alliance for having "won" the Cold War. It is undeniable that NATO, in the years of its sharp ideological conflict with the Warsaw Pact states, did not fire a single shot, and that the mutual nuclear and conventional deterrent worked. Then, at the end of the 1980s, came the collapse of communism and, on Sept. 11, 2001, a terrorist strike against the heart of America -- and with it, the need to redefine the alliance.

Today, NATO is involved in several different military operations. It is waging a bitter war in Afghanistan and its soldiers are securing the peace in Kosovo, a new country that has not even been recognized by NATO members Spain and Greece. It is patrolling the Mediterranean in the search for terrorism suspects, it is helping to combat pirates off the Horn of Africa and it is training Iraqi security forces.

Should NATO really be doing more, as some of its military masterminds demand -- such as protecting the West's energy supply with armed force? Should it hunt down al-Qaida terrorists worldwide and take military action against serious human rights violations in places like Darfur as a subcontractor to the United Nations -- or perhaps even as a rival?

And how should NATO handle an increasingly self-confident, aggressive Russia -- by accepting Ukraine, with the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is still based today? By welcoming a gambler like Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who could trigger the alliance's obligation to come to the aid of one of its members by provoking Russia, and possibly force the West into a military conflict with Moscow? Where should NATO's borders be drawn -- geographically or conceptually?


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