NATO is irreplaceable, but must quickly shore up its military might


Meeting of the NATO-Georgia Commission at the level of Foreign Affairs Ministers, April 2, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • At NATO's September summit in Wales, leaders must renew investment in eroded military capabilities

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  • NATO integral to operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Libya and stabilizing post-Cold War Europe

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  • Vulnerable states on Europe's periphery are looking to NATO for security

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WASHINGTON — It wasn't that many weeks ago in both Europe and in the United States that meetings were being held to discuss what the agenda might be for the coming NATO summit in early September in Wales.

Indeed, the conversation about what was next for the alliance following the end of the allied combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014 had the subtext of "we're not sure." NATO once again looked like an alliance in search of a mission to justify its continued existence. However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and Putin's continuing belligerent and revanchist rhetoric, NATO's security guarantees to Eastern and Central European allies are no longer just pledges on a paper.

NATO's relevance to American and Western security is not a new question. At the end of the Cold War, there were numerous voices here and on the continent doubting NATO's continued importance. With no overriding Soviet threat to hold capitals together, how, it was asked, would NATO ever be able to act in concert?

But precisely because the alliance was principally a coalition of like-minded liberal democratic regimes, what bound states together was always more than just the specific menace posed by the Warsaw Pact. And events since the Cold War have shown just how important these ties remain.

Lest we forget, NATO has gone to war three times over the past decade and a half: first, in Kosovo in 1999, then Afghanistan in 2001 and in Libya in 2011.

Moreover, many of these same allies, in a show of solidarity, joined in the United States in coalitions that pushed Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait in 1991, helped stabilize the Balkans after the wars there in the 1990s and contributed significantly to the American-led campaign to remove Saddam from power in 2003 and end his tyrannical and beastly rule.

Indeed, we've just witnessed Afghans by the millions braving suicide bombers to vote to choose a new president and local governing councils. This was only made possible by the tens of thousands of allied forces that helped keep the Taliban at bay while America focused its effort on Iraq from 2003 until 2008.

Did our NATO partners decisively defeat the Taliban when they moved to reassert themselves into Afghanistan in 2006-08? No. But they did help to hold things together until we had the troops available to deploy there.

Closer to home, it was NATO, in conjunction with the European Union, which helped stabilize post-Cold War Central and Eastern Europe. In 2012, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union with the Prize committee chairman stating that it was the EU that was key to making "a continent of war" become "a continent of peace."

But this ignores the role NATO played in establishing the very security conditions for the EU to be born, to grow and to mature into the entity it is today. Whatever "soft power" the EU has been able to wield in making former enemies, like Poland and Germany into cooperative nation-states, it rests firsts on the bonds created under the NATO banner.

An alliance with such a varied history in helping meet the West's strategic needs is not something to be dismissed summarily.

Yet the fact that NATO has survived the end of the Cold War and has been an important element in addressing Western security concerns, doesn't mean that it will remain so.

Certainly the citizens of Estonia, Poland and Romania are hoping that it will. But, for that to happen, first and foremost, Washington, Berlin, Paris and London will have to take the lead in reversing the alliance's decline in military capabilities. And there is no better place to start than this fall's NATO summit in Wales.


Gary Schmitt is a resident fellow and co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Readers may write to him at AEI, 1150 17th Street, Washington, D.C. 20036; website:

This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

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