How long will the NATO alliance last?

The 50th anniversary of the NATO alliance in 1999 was a celebration of the successful defense of the free world. Just ten years later there are signs of serious trouble within the alliance.

by Paul Kieffer
September 17, 2009

One month before being officially nominated as the Democratic party candidate for President in 2008, then Senator Barack Obama visited Berlin, Germany and gave a speech to a crowd of some 200,000 Germans at the Victory Column, located one mile west of the Brandenburg gate. At the time, some opinion polls indicated that a number of Germans would rather have Obama as their own chancellor instead of Angela Merkel.

Obama's speech in Berlin on July 24, 2008 was well received by the enthusiastic crowd. However, the next day some commentators wondered whether people had really understood the implications of what Obama had said. He mentioned the threat of terrorism and emphasized that "no one nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone," and he praised "Europe's role in our [America's] security and our future."

The portion of the speech that really got news analysts' attention was Obama's reference to Afghanistan: "In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more – not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security . . . The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation."

With his speech in Berlin, Obama had served notice that as President he would expect Germans – and America's other NATO partners – to contribute their fair share of the resources needed for NATO's mission in Afghanistan.

An increasingly unpopular war

America's NATO allies in Europe are confronted by the challenge of meeting their obligations to the alliance's mission in Afghanistan in the face of growing public discontent over the war. Germany is no exception. According to public opinion polls, two-thirds of the German people doubt that a military victory can be achieved in Afghanistan. The same percentage of Germans oppose a continuation of their country's military presence in Afghanistan.

When German troops were first sent to Afghanistan, the German government insisted that they be stationed in northern Afghanistan instead of the southern part of the country. Officials emphasized repeatedly that Germany's NATO troops were limited to the official NATO mission in Afghanistan, described as assisting "the Afghan Government in exercising and extending its authority and influence across the country, paving the way for reconstruction and effective governance" (quote from the NATO website). By contrast, American troops in southern Afghanistan were also fighting terrorism by going after the Taliban.

In their early deployment to northern Afghanistan, German troops experienced only occasional direct resistance by Taliban fighters. In recent months, however, the number of German casualties has increased as the Taliban have begun to target German patrols. It seems as if the Taliban are now engaging America's NATO allies like the Germans in an attempt to influence public opinion back home.

If so, their tactic is working. Public outrage in Germany was intense during the first week of September after a German NATO commander called for American air support to recapture two hijacked fuel trucks. The air strike reportedly killed as many as 70 civilians and prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to issue harsh criticism of the German commander: "What an error of judgment! More than 90 dead all because of a simple lorry that was, moreover, immobilized in a riverbed. Why didn't they send in ground troops to recover the fuel tank?"

Aside from the backlash from incidents like this one, German participation in NATO missions outside the geographic boundaries of NATO member countries is a continual domestic challenge. Each military deployment requires the approval of the German parliament, the Bundestag, and approval has to be renewed at regular intervals. Despite growing public opposition to the war in Afghanistan, it has not yet become a major political issue, largely because Germany's membership in the NATO alliance is supported by all major parties. However, an increase in German casualties will no doubt lead to greater public clamor for an end to Germany's involvement in Afghanistan. As the Vietnam War proved, public opinion can be a key factor in deciding whether to continue or curtail military deployment.

Other European countries involved in Afghanistan are also facing domestic pressure to withdraw. Just days after the botched air strike on the fuel trucks, Britain, France and Germany proposed a conference to discuss how the Afghan government could take on greater responsibility for its own security, thereby lessening the need for NATO troops in the country.

Who's the bad guy now?

When the NATO alliance was formed 60 years ago by the United States, Canada and European nations, it was clearly defensive in nature. NATO countries were obligated to support any member nation attacked by an aggressor. The potential aggressor was clearly the Soviet Union, and the alliance's purpose was to prevent westward expansion of the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe.

Of course, during the Cold War there was occasional friction among NATO members or between the United States and European NATO countries. However, the overriding goal of preserving western Europe's freedom and economic system provided a common interest strong enough to override temporary differences of opinion.

The demise of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact alliance has changed all that. Europe is no longer threatened by an ideological "continental divide." Former Warsaw Pact countries have now joined the NATO alliance (and the European Union). The defensive nature of the NATO alliance still exists on paper, but not in practical application. Instead, the alliance has also assumed responsibility beyond its own borders in fulfilling United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Events of the last ten years have shown that America and Europe – and even European nations among themselves – are not always unified in their assessment of strategic threats. A prime example is former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's characterization of the "old" and "new" Europe during the crisis over Iraq and the Iraq war. Aside from some exceptions – most notably Britain – western European nations ("old" Europe) were reluctant to support U.S. President George Bush's "coalition of the willing", in contrast to eastern European nations ("new" Europe).

More recently, European NATO members disagree over how to deal with Russia. Dependent on natural gas deliveries from Russia, NATO members in western Europe generally support a cautious, conciliatory approach. By contrast, eastern European NATO members prefer a more confrontational style. It was no surprise when eastern European NATO members supported the Bush plan to install a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. In the summer of 2008 treaties were signed between the United States and both countries for the installation of a radar system in the Czech Republic and ten missile silos in Poland.

President Obama's decision in September to stop the implementation of the project upset eastern European allies. Their disappointment was best expressed by former Polish president Lech Walesa in a television interview: "The Americans are always concerned only about their own interests and just take advantage of everyone else." Walesa urged Poland to reassess its relationship with the United States. Analysts now expect eastern Europeans to see the need for better cooperation with Brussels on security issues. President Obama may have contributed to "new" and "old" Europe becoming more closely aligned.

Who pays the bill?

During the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to force Serbian troops out of Kosovo, then German chancellor Gerhard Schröder voiced disappointment over America's reluctance to share spy satellite intelligence with its European allies. In his frustration Schröder suggested that Europe should have its own spy satellites. He admitted, though, that America could do as it pleased since it was supplying over 90 percent of the equipment used for the Kosovo military intervention.

America's call for more equitable burden-sharing within the NATO alliance did not begin with Senator Obama's July 2008 speech in Berlin. With the Soviet threat gone, the unfulfilled desire to have Europe pay a larger share of its defense bill seems more futile now than at any time during the last 60 years when Europe enjoyed protection via America's nuclear shield.

Defense spending levels of NATO's main European members have declined in recent years, with a corresponding weakening of military capabilities. Germany, for example, today has 40 percent fewer soldiers and 50 percent fewer combat aircraft than it did at the end of the Cold War 20 years ago. Similar developments have taken place in key NATO nations like Spain and Italy. The decay of European NATO military forces has reached the point that U.S. military officials are concerned that joint operations are becoming difficult and may well become impossible if the trend is not reversed.

Like the Kosovo intervention, the war in Afghanistan reflects unequal burden sharing, irritating even some European officials. In a speech last January, British Defense Secretary John Hutton had harsh criticism for European governments that fail to bear their fair share of the burden. "Freeloading on the back of U.S. security is not an option if we wish to be equal partners in the transatlantic alliance," he warned in language less diplomatic than Obama's Berlin speech. "Anyone who wants to benefit from collective security must be prepared to share the ultimate price."

Hutton also appeared to question Germany's approach and that of other allies who believe that humanitarian and nation-building tasks are a fair substitute for combat duty. "It isn't good enough to always look to the U.S. for political, financial, and military cover. And this imbalance will not be addressed by parceling up NATO tasks – the 'hard' military ones for the U.S. and a few others (including Britain) and the 'soft' diplomatic ones for the majority of Europeans."

European NATO members would respond by saying that NATO's ISAF mission in Afghanistan is nation-building, not combat in support of Washington's "war on terror."

The beginning of the end?

American military commanders believe that the coming months will be crucial for the ultimate success or failure of the NATO mission in Afghanistan, which for them means a military victory over the resurgent Taliban. Likewise, the NATO mission in Afghanistan itself may well decide the future of the alliance itself. If NATO cracks over Afghanistan, a short-sighted view would be that Europeans got tired of being pressured to do more fighting in America's war far from Europe and that America got tired of paying the lion's share of NATO's bills for European freeloaders. However, America did put up with the unequal burden-sharing within NATO during the Cold War because it was in her own strategic interest to do so.

A realistic assessment would be that NATO is no longer a serious alliance with an overriding common strategic purpose as it existed throughout the Cold War. Defending western Europe against Soviet expansion served America's strategic purpose, and supporting America's efforts to do so was obviously in Europe's own best interests.

In the absence of a sustained response to an ongoing common immediate threat, NATO has become an alliance without a real purpose. Europe's strategic interests are no longer as closely aligned with those of the United States, as evidenced by the Iraq war, relations with Russia and energy and environmental policies, to name just a few. History shows that the eventual demise of an alliance that has served its purpose can only be a question of time.

If Bible prophecy is our guide to understanding world events, the rift already evident within the NATO alliance can be viewed as a precursor to future events. Europe and the United States will eventually move in opposing strategic directions and become competitors instead of achieving an equal partnership. Out of Europe will arise a final resurrection of the Holy Roman empire, whereas America's destiny – and her future relationship with Europe – will be determined by her unknown heritage linked to the biblical patriarch Abraham.

Want to know more? Order our free booklets America and Britain in Bible Prophecy and You Can Understand Bible Prophecy. They will provide you valuable insights concerning the future of Europe and the United States.

• Paul Kieffer, September 17, 2009