Happy 60th Birthday NATO; Time to Go Out of Business?

05/25/2011 01:10 pm ET
  • Robert Guttman Director, Center on Politics and Foreign Relations (CPFR), Johns Hopkins University

As President Barack Obama prepares to attend the 60th anniversary summit of NATO
in Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germany on April 3rd and 4th the question has to be asked among all the hoopla and celebration: Is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization still necessary?

Everyone will welcome France back to NATO's integrated alliance structure and a document will come out of the summit proclaiming the strong transatlantic unity and strong bonds of NATO. We will all agree that it was very successful in its initial goal of keeping the peace in Europe and Soviet troops from crossing into Europe.

But, the Soviet Union is gone and has been for a long time. The main threat from Russia comes not from their military but from their economic role as a provider of natural gas and oil to Europe. Europeans fear a cutoff of energy from Russia more than any type of military action.
NATO was successful in its original goal and Europe is a peaceful place these days; the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact no longer exist; and the European Union now encompasses most of the countries of Europe.

It is a completely different situation now than in the 1940s and during the Cold War years. NATO was successful and NATO was competent and NATO kept the peace but a new era is upon us and NATO is grasping for a new role and it may not have a role to play in 2009 and beyond.

The main threat today to Europe and the United States is the economic meltdown and the huge financial crisis we are all facing. Certainly we are facing terrorist threats but is NATO really the organization to keep terrorists at bay?

The crunch for President Obama will come in Strasbourg when he asks for more troops for the NATO mission in Afghanistan. And, the reply from many of our NATO allies will be sorry but we will not provide any more troops because we do not see Afghanistan as that large of a problem. Europeans are more inward looking today. They see no huge threat to their countries from Afghanistan.

President Obama is seeking more NATO troops from countries who do not want to provide them and if they do provide them have certain restrictions--not going into battle in the southern part of the country--that makes them almost useless.

We now have a military alliance where many of the members do not want to engage in military operations. This is hardly a recipe for a successful future for NATO.

When I interviewed NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer several years ago he told me: "We cannot lose in Afghanistan. We have to succeed in Afghanistan. If we fail, then who will have confidence in us again? Our credibility as NATO, as the Euro-Atlantic community is on the line. And our credibility is one of our strongest assets. To preserve it, we have no choice but to succeed. NATO has a tradition to keep. NATO has never made empty promises. So NATO should not make empty promises now."

Well, NATO is not succeeding in Afghanistan at the moment and the political will seems to be missing from many of our NATO allies to continue the mission in that war torn nation.
There are many military threats in the world today that will rear their ugly head and take over the headlines from the economic crisis in the near future but the question is: Is NATO the right military organization to deal with these crises?

Maybe we should call NATO a huge success, pat every one on the back and dissolve the military organization and move on. Could the European Union take on the military role?
Could a new military organization take the place of NATO?

Instead of planning new missions around the globe for NATO why not ask the basic question: Is NATO still necessary anymore?

NATO did its original job and the peace was kept in Europe and Soviet tanks did not attack during the Cold War--its goals were met and met successfully so why keep coming up with new out of area missions that do not have the full backing of most of the members.

Re-think NATO. It may be time to say happy birthday and goodbye.