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NATO 2.0: Reboot or Delete?

NATO 2.0: Reboot or Delete? by Sarwar A. Kashmeri. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2011, 232 pp.

In June 2011, then defense secretary Robert M. Gates said, “I've worried openly about NATO turning into a two-tiered alliance . . . between those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership . . . but don’t want to share the risks and the costs. This is no longer a hypothetical worry. We are there today.” NATO 2.0, by Atlantic Council Fellow Sarwar Kashmeri, brings into focus more than a decade of debate concerning the future of “the most successful alliance in history” and argues for solving the problems Gates highlighted through role delineation and cooperation with the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).

NATO’s difficulty executing military operations as a cohesive whole is well known to those who have participated in or observed the campaigns in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya. Kashmeri delves deeper into this subject by analyzing the alliance’s institutional limitations. He describes a persistent mismatch between NATO’s aspirations, as spelled out in its decennial Strategic Concept statements, and its fiscal and political realities. Setting fanciful objectives for missile defense while unable to resource sufficient trainers for the Afghan mission has led to a credibility crisis. Closer to home, NATO’s failure to invoke Article 5’s “all for one” commitment in response to the Russian cyber attack on Estonia has reduced “confidence in NATO and its Article 5 [guarantee].”

This crisis strikes at the heart of NATO’s value as a military alliance, as it was Article 5 that deterred Soviet interventionism and prevented the Finlandization of Western Europe. Belief in Article 5 enabled NATO’s rapid expansion eastward following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, a needed source of stability during the 1990s. That expansion has come to promote instability today, as it has shaped contradictory threat perceptions within the alliance: Western Europe looks beyond the continent to transnational threats; Central and Eastern Europe see Russia as the primary threat. The incentive structure has consequently changed. Western European states prefer negotiation and trade with Russia over confrontation, while Central and Eastern Europe support the missile defense agenda and further expansion to include Ukraine and Georgia. Divergent approaches have led to paralysis in an alliance predicated upon unanimity. It is no wonder NATO’s strategic communication service has difficulty promoting public understanding of the alliance when the member countries themselves are at odds over what NATO is and should be.

Kashmeri argues persuasively that it is these differences over threat perceptions and national interest, rather than a lack of commitment to defense, that has led to today’s “two-tiered alliance.” The Western European strategic vision is increasingly oriented toward intervention in small wars of greed and grievance. The United States, having been chastened by Iraq and Afghanistan, is in the process of refocusing on conventional superiority and deterrence. The Central and Eastern European tier largely shares those priorities for NATO, and the organization is well-suited to execute them. By contrast, the out-of-area roles embraced by Western Europe require cross-domain competencies that a purely military alliance is ill-equipped to provide. This is why Kashmeri advocates a formal division of labor between NATO and the CSDP, with the CSDP taking on a greater role than at present. The two alliances would comprise Europe’s high/low set of capabilities; in the vocabulary of the European Policy Centre’s Shada Islam, “NATO is defense. CSDP is security.”

Bridging the roles and capabilities of NATO and the CSDP will not be easy. It will require the formal acquiescence of the United States to a reduced role in European security. It would also necessitate the resolution of the conflict between the Turks (who have NATO’s second largest military) and the Greek Cypriots (who are EU members), as well as the thorny issue of Turkish membership in the EU. Lastly, it will require the rapid institutional maturing of the CSDP. The CSDP will have to grow its planning capabilities, currently dwarfed by NATO’s staff support, and avoid the paralysis-by-consensus effect that has hindered NATO. While the 2009 Lisbon Treaty did impose mutual defense obligations and consolidated the EU diplomatic and defense bureaucracy under a single High Representative, it remains to be seen whether the CSDP can do better than NATO at winning member support for robust out-of-area missions.

It is precisely this area—critically assessing the CSDP’s capacity to take on the role Kashmeri wishes for it—where NATO 2.0 is weakest. The author does an effective job cataloging the numerous missions undertaken by the CSDP in the past decade, but also concedes their modest scope. While the obstacles Kashmeri surveys are formidable, he omits substantive discussion of the EU’s requirement for unanimity in military and defense decisions, as well as the voluntary nature of member force commitments—limitations he emphasized with respect to NATO. Perhaps Kashmeri believes consensus is less of an obstacle when the goals are modest, but this hope is subverted by his discussion of Article 42 of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU), which provides a framework for the CSDP to underwrite mutual defense in addition to undertaking out-of-area security missions. Whether this should be so is debated within the EU (generally France and Germany are for it, and the UK, Poland, and Spain are not), but both paths undermine Kashmeri’s thesis: a “strong” CSDP would risk supplanting rather than complementing NATO, and a merely complementarian CSDP would do little to reverse the declining value of NATO’s Article 5 pledge. Arresting that decay will require concerted effort by the Atlantic community to achieve consensus on the Russian question.

Overall, NATO 2.0 serves as a highly readable introduction to one of the most important questions facing the West today. The urgency of this issue will only grow as leaders on both sides of the Atlantic digest the lessons of the recent Libya campaign and US policymakers reconsider our European force structure in the new age of austerity. This book will be of value to any service member or civilian official wanting to learn more about NATO’s origins, recent past, and uncertain future. Chapter 5’s primer on the CSDP is especially revelatory for those with only a general awareness of the EU’s evolution since the 1990s. The mild criticisms offered here do not alter the strategic and fiscal realities that preclude continuing duplication of roles and missions. The status quo cannot hold, and NATO 2.0 offers a timely, cogent proposal for revitalizing both institutions.

Capt Joe G. Biles, USAF

Minot AFB, North Dakota

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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