By John Feffer
WASHINGTON, May 17, 2012 (IPS) - It's not an easy time for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
This article first appeared on the Inter Press Service (IPS), 17 May
[Also read John Feffer's presentation at the Shadow NATO Summit in the German paper Die Tageszeitung - the English version will be posted to the NATO Watch website shortly]
The ongoing economic crisis is putting pressure on military budgets on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the Libya conflict revealed the stark limitations of the United States' military partners in Europe, virtually all the allies are heading for the exit in Afghanistan, and no country is eager to intervene in the Syrian civil war.
As it prepares to meet in Chicago, NATO faces both an existential and a fiscal crisis. Countries like the United Kingdom, Greece, and Spain are slashing their military budgets, and the United States is contemplating the first Pentagon reductions in over a decade.
The alliance is also struggling to identify a grand strategy that can serve as the organisation's new raison d'etre in the post-post-Cold War era.
In the past, "we've seen allies cut five to 10 percent of budgets, and this had an impact on the alliance, but it wasn't a serious blow," explained Julianne Smith, deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joseph Biden at a recent conference on NATO at the George Washington University in Washington, DC.
"What's changed now is that the cuts are now around 20-25 percent. That's where some tough choices have to be made. One can find some inefficiencies and waste. But there is a collective fear that it will create a new capabilities gap," Smith said.
In the lead-up to the Chicago summit, NATO has tried to put the best face on a difficult situation. It has stressed the importance of networking and "smart defence". This approach responds to military budget cuts by pooling efforts and reducing redundancy among the 28 member states. Compared to the "strategic concept" of the Lisbon summit in 2010, smart defence is less big picture than minor reframing.
"This summit will not be historic, will not be the summit that solves everything," predicted Andras Simonyi, the managing director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the School for Advanced International Studies. "Some summits just kick the ball further."
Still, U.S. officials continue to accentuate the positive. "Despite the fact that we've seen quite considerable cuts, we're not seeing nations pulling out of operations because of the financial crisis," continued Smith. "They're not leaving Afghanistan because they can't afford it."
Afghanistan is indeed the first issue of business in Chicago: to orchestrate a credible withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and pay for the security and development programmes that take their place.
It will cost four billion dollars a year just to finance the Afghan security forces after 2014, and the United States is pushing its European allies to cover one-third of the tab. So far, the only NATO country to come forward with an offer, of 110 million dollars, is the United Kingdom.
Rangina Hamidi, a human rights activist and president of Kandahar Treasure, the first women-run business in Kandahar, is disappointed by the conversation about Afghanistan that is taking place within NATO.
"I don't think the solution to terrorism is more killing," she told IPS. "There are more strategic ways to address it, and that would put NATO out of a job. There's diplomacy, looking at financial sources of terrorist training, working with Pakistan to stop harbouring terrorist training camps or groups on their soil."
The conversation in Chicago about Afghanistan will focus more on the country and less on the region.
"Whether it's NATO or the United States, the future of Afghanistan depends on how we address the future of the region, particularly Pakistan," Hamidi continues. "If they're going to just talk about Afghanistan as an entity, we're just going to waste more money, resources, and lives on the Afghan side and still not have a viable solution in 2013 or 2024."
The United States will be rattling a tin cup not only for contributions for Afghanistan. Washington will likely be asking its European partners to put up more money for a missile defence system whose price-tag runs into the tens of billions of dollars. Turkey, Spain, Romania, and Poland are among the countries participating.
Recent reports by a Pentagon advisory group and congressional investigators in the Government Accountability Office warn of technological problems and cost overruns associated with the system. Earlier this month, the National Academy of Sciences recommended eliminating the satellite-tracking component of the system.
Washington will also pressure NATO members to meet their obligation of spending two percent of GDP on the military. Only three countries – the United Kingdom, Greece, and the United States – met that goal in 2011, with France and Albania recently dropping below the threshold.
NATO officials complain of a capability gap. Last year's operation in Libya revealed that European partners lack the unmanned drones, surveillance capabilities, and air-to-air refueling required for the aerial attacks. Only eight of the 28 NATO members participated in the mission.
Even countries that have increased their spending have come under criticism. U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder recently singled out Canada, which increased its military spending from 15 billion dollars in 2005 to 23 billion dollars in 2011, for placing "an unfair burden on those who spend the resources".
As NATO struggles with problems of money and mission, it must also address the limits of force. NATO must ask itself "how to shift the conversation from power over to power with," explained Lorelei Kelly, research fellow at the New America Foundation.
"We have entered a world in which the military is moving from containment to sustainment, from military deterrence to credible influence so that other countries go into partnership with you."
NATO is all about partnerships: with Russia, the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. But without a clear purpose or the money to hold the alliance together, NATO remains adrift two decades after the end of the Cold War that birthed it.