The End of NATO?

There is little sense of Afghanistan as being an international operation.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown

“This is a solemn moment for this House and our country,” said Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, while addressing the House of Commons last week. A hush fell over the room, and, according to a parliamentary sketch writer, the members of Parliament “ceased to fidget, a truly rare thing in the Commons.” Brown then began to read a list of names: the 37 British soldiers who had died in Afghanistan over the summer.

Just a week before, a parallel scene had unfolded across the channel. In Paris, a soldier wounded in Afghanistan over the summer died in the hospital. French Prime Minister François Fillon paid homage to the man and spoke of “the courage of our soldiers, their devotion and their professionalism,” which he said merited the recognition of “the nation.” In the United States, meanwhile, CNN featured the story of an American mother who flew home with the body of her son, who died in Afghanistan. He had died in what was described as “the deadliest battle for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since July 2008.”

When Poles die, when Dutch soldiers die, or when German soldiers die, the stories are often the same. The politicians, and often the national media as well, salute their heroism and express the thanks of the nation. There are patriotic songs played at the funerals, which are sometimes featured on the news. Usually a number is mentioned: the 221 British troops who have died in Afghanistan since 2001, the 804 Americans, the 131 Canadians, the 36 French soldiers, the 34 Germans, the 21 Dutch, the 22 Italians, the 26 Spaniards, the 15 Poles, and others.

Sometimes, a political outburst follows, too. In recent days, Prime Minister Brown has been attacked by one of his political opponents on the grounds that British soldiers are “fighting and dying for an Afghan government that is deeply corrupt.” President Nicolas Sarkozy has also just been forced to declare that although French soldiers will for the moment stay in Afghanistan, “not one more” will be sent in future. Rising summer casualties have led to an intensification of debate in the Netherlands. And, of course, the American argument rages on.

Only very, very rarely do the casualties of one country make it into the media, the political debates, or the prime ministerial speeches of another country. There has been an international coalition operating in Afghanistan since 2001. NATO has been in charge of that coalition since 2003. Yet to read the British press, one would think the British are there almost alone, fighting a war in which they have no national interest. The same is true in France and in the Netherlands. The American press hardly notes the participation of other countries, even though some—Britain and Canada—have borne casualties at a higher rate than the United States relative to the size of their contingents on the ground.

There is almost no sense anywhere that this is an international operation, or that there are international goals at stake, or that the soldiers on the ground represent anything other than their own national flags and national armed forces: Most of the European critics of the Afghan war want to know why their boys are fighting “for the Americans,” not for NATO. Most of the American critics dismiss the European contribution as utterly useless or else ignore it altogether. As Jackson Diehl pointed out in Monday’s Washington Post, the central debate about future Afghanistan policy is taking place in Washington without any obvious contributions from anybody else. Though, I’m not going to blame the U.S. administration alone for this: It’s not as if Europe has put forward a different plan—and there was certainly a moment, back at the beginning of this administration, when that would have been very welcome.

The fact is that the idea of “the West” has been fading for a long time on both sides of the Atlantic, as countless “whither the alliance” seminars have been ritually observing for the last decade. But the consequences are now with us: NATO, though fighting its first war since its foundation, inspires nobody. The members of NATO feel no allegiance to the organization or to one another. On its home continent, NATO does precious little military contingency planning, preferring to hold summits. Above all, there is no recognizable alliance leader who is willing or able to engage in the national debates of the various member countries, to argue in favor of the Afghan mission or any other. President Barack Obama could do this in theory, but I’m guessing the idea doesn’t fill him with inspiration.

None of this might matter much in Afghanistan, since the outcome of the current deliberations may well be some version of the status quo. But next time it’s needed, I doubt whether NATO will be there at all.