How NATO Got Its Groove Back

And why Washington won’t like it.

Kofi Annan’s recent plea for Western military help to curb the carnage in Darfur, Sudan, is more than an expression of the uselessness of the United Nations. That much has been clear for some time. It points to a new “global think” permeating Western capitals. It also suggests that the trans-Atlantic front that preserved civilization for a half-century has hardly been subsumed by world events, as many so-called Atlanticists fear, but is evolving toward something new, something with a more European accent. It’s definitely not pre-emptive warfare, and it’s not exactly nation-building. It would be more correct to call this new trans-Atlantic cause célèbre “disaster containment.”

Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been searching for its raison d’être, unsure of whom to defend against but convinced that threats and instabilities were lurking somewhere in the near-beyond—the Caucasus, Central Asia, the ancient arc of Mesopotamian-North African peoples. Finding a justification for persisting, for not dissolving the pact of capitalist-democratic states, has been harder, in some sense, than defending New York, London, and Paris against ICBMs. Adapting to victory has forced a great, ontological void.

Now, finally, the treaty organization seems to have moved beyond this decade and a half of self-doubt. With a new world order emerging out of the post-Soviet, post-Sept. 11 murk; with the contours of a great, global, northern-liberal-constitutional civilization squaring off against a southern-medieval-theocratic one; the parameters of a new peace in need of defending have begun to take shape. The old uncertainty has been superseded by a rekindled fervor. NATO has a purpose once again!

But the new goal is not victory in any traditional sense. It is a much more limited end. Today, NATO looks increasingly like a rapid-response ambulance-slash-paramedic unit, shuttling between hot zones, propping up wobbly governments, filling in for the United States when Washington has decided it’s time to “internationalize” a conflict. It seems that the organization that skirted one gargantuan war with the Red Army for 40-odd years has delved headlong into many miniwars with fanatics and third-tier despots.

Consider that since wading into its first conflict, in Kosovo in 1999, NATO has deployed 9,000 troops to Afghanistan (and is slated to deploy another 6,000), opened a training center in Baghdad, and sent extensive logistical support to Darfur. It also helped channel relief to victims of Pakistan’s earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. Washington is lobbying NATO’s high command in Brussels to send forces to Iraq. There are even rumblings about NATO troops serving in other “out of area” war zones from South Asia to Latin America.

The treaty organization is also cobbling together a NATO Response Force, which is expected to comprise 20,000 to 25,000 troops from the alliance’s 26 member states. “That’s an odd number,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not enough to fight a war. But it is enough to respond to Darfur, Pakistan, even Afghanistan.”

The NRF, Shapiro said, is unlikely to take part in “high-intensity conflicts”—invading Middle Eastern countries, for example—and is more likely to contribute to post-invasion “stabilization operations.” That would include, presumably, helping to quell the insurgency in Iraq. If the United States takes the war on terrorism to Iran or Syria, it could, one imagines, include peacekeeping operations there, too.

Does this mean NATO is destined to be a multinational mop dispatched to smoldering battlefields once the Pentagon has taken care of the “high-intensity” killing? Will the French and the Germans (or the British, Italians, Poles, and Latvians) really agree to serve as glorified janitors and prison guards at the Americans’ behest?

Of course not. The French retain, in some lovely, cobblestoned cul-de-sac of their national consciousness, a lingering notion of themselves as global civilizers, bestowers of high culture; they resent, as they always have, the United States. The Germans, for their part, remain highly skeptical of sending troops to foreign countries; they resent, as they have for 60 years, their grandparents. Nor is there a line of eager Europeans unencumbered by a glorious (French) or dark (German) history waiting for Washington to give them their orders. The Europeans want stability: The Western Europeans want to preserve what they have—wealth and the ebbing illusion of a happy stasis devoid of war or social injustice—and the Eastern Europeans want to be like the Western Europeans, which means, above all, keeping the Russians in Russia.

The new NATO—the NATO that is emerging from Europe as opposed to the NATO that was imposed on Europe by the United States and, in a way, by the Soviet menace—will be just the opposite of a tool to be used by Washington when it is done bleeding men and lucre. The new alliance, with its new justification for existing (and expanding), will be a brake on U.S. power. At least, this is how many at the highest levels in Europe imagine it.

During her visit to Washington earlier this year, Germany’s new chancellor, Angela Merkel, made this clear. In a half-hour private meeting with President Bush, the chancellor stressed the need for shared understanding, a senior German diplomat said. “It is a good idea,” said the diplomat, explaining Merkel’s thoughts about modern-day warfare, “to go in and out together.” Does this mean NATO’s member states would enjoy a de facto veto over other member states’ military actions? This would mark a radical step. (Isn’t it the sacred duty of elected officials to protect the people who elected them, the rest of the world be damned?) But that appears to be the implication of Merkel’s remarks. In the name of unity and shared understanding, the Europeans, some of them at least, seek to contain American military ambitions—which many in Europe regard as perfectly moral given their contention that America’s war-making has imperiled the security of everyone on the planet.

Even the Lithuanians, among the United States’ closest allies in Europe, have hinted at the need for a more restrained American role abroad. Looking toward the November meeting of NATO officials in Latvia, Renatas Norkus, who oversees the diplomatic arm of Lithuania’s Defense Ministry, said, “We hope that at the Riga summit, the heads of state and government will provide clear guidance on, first, what the alliance must be ready to do in terms of collective defense of NATO territory; second, what the alliance has to be able to do in terms of crisis response in the periphery of the Euroatlantic area; and third, what types of missions the alliance should be able to undertake at a strategic distance. While, in our view, the first two objectives are undisputable, the third one, while also important, would always require an extensive political discussion and analysis of a particular situation before any decisions are made.”

For 15 years, the United States has overseen and, for the most part, encouraged the expansion of NATO. But leaders in both parties have failed to articulate a clear mandate for the alliance. Now that mandate is being formulated by Europeans alarmed by the Iraq war (and the president’s call for a seemingly horizonless war on terrorism) and emboldened by the growing influence of the “international community”—in the Middle East, in South Asia, and elsewhere. The all-important question facing the United States is whether this is the kind of transcontinental alliance it wants to belong to. The direction the newly revivified NATO is heading in suggests not so much a reiteration of a previous, asymmetrically American arrangement. It points to a largely European sense of self that serves a European worldview—be that disaster containment or international social welfare. That worldview may at times coincide or overlap with American interests. But its roots are European.