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Burkle Center Senior Fellow Gen. Clark on the Future of NATO

Newsweek, March 15, 2008

This article was first published in Newsweek magazine by Christopher Flavelle.

NATO Future: The Wimps And The Warriors

As NATO prepares for its summit next month in Bucharest, European governments are facing a high-stakes game of chicken. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned that unless European members increase their contributions to the war in Afghanistan, NATO risks becoming a "two-tiered alliance," divided between the willing and unwilling to fight. "Such a development," said Gates, "with all its implications for collective security, would effectively destroy the alliance."

Gates's message comes as NATO is still struggling to redefine itself nearly 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet threat it was designed to counter. The United States and Europe have been trying to create a more flexible alliance capable of responding to smaller threats from rogue states and terrorists. But if NATO can't unite in Afghanistan—arguably the global headquarters of the terror threat to the West—then where can it unite? The warning from Gates suggests the answer may be nowhere.

Gates is, however, being uncharacteristically melodramatic. NATO is an alliance of democracies, which will inevitably follow the will of their own people first. That's true of Germany, one of the countries Gates was alluding to. But it was also true of America in Kosovo, says retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 1997 to 2000 oversaw the war in Kosovo. "My instructions from the secretary of Defense were to take the least challenging sector in Kosovo … the one where we would have the least risk," says Clark. "If we had never done it, then I'd feel holier than thou. But we did do it. It's always been like that in NATO."

The "two-tiered alliance," with its image of wimps and warriors, may be a "catchy phrase" but it's nothing new, says retired Gen. James L. Jones, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 2003 to 2006 and the man who oversaw the extension of its Afghan mission. He says the United States has always "outcontributed" the other members, and that disagreements over missions are natural among democracies, and aren't getting worse in Afghanistan. "I wouldn't say it's any more difficult now than it was a year ago," says Jones.

Still, the future is unclear. Daniel Fata, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, says the alliance emerged stronger from spirited debate over Bosnia and will emerge stronger from the Afghan debate, too. Some experts, however, are now predicting that NATO is destined to become what Charles Kupchan, former director for European affairs at the National Security Council, calls an "alliance à la carte," in which members are freer to opt in or out of missions. What no one sees is NATO's destruction—that was probably just Gates's way of pushing Europe to do more. "I'm not concerned," says Clark. "NATO gets real cantankerous."

Burkle Center for International Relations