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NATO On Viagra: Ukraine Crisis Boosts Aging Military Alliance

At 65, NATO should get off its new meds and act its age. It’s time for downsizing and memoir-writing, not new military conflicts.
 
 
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A soldier during a NATO ally training exercise in Poland.
Photo Credit: U.S. Army Europe/Flickr

 
 
 
 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization just hit 65. That’s retirement age, especially for an alliance structure that was born, grew up, and prospered during a bygone era. The war in Afghanistan is winding down. European countries are, by and large, reducing their military spending. The United States is theoretically engaged in a pivot to the Pacific.

NATO should be getting the message. Someone in Brussels should be ordering a big cake, compiling the festschrift, preparing golden parachutes for the top brass, and getting the “mission accomplished” banner printed up. Maybe there’s a retirement community for military alliances somewhere in Florida. Some underling in the NATO bureaucracy should find out the current whereabouts of the Warsaw Pact and SEATO and see if there’s a spot open in the adjoining condo.

The problem is: NATO has long resisted retirement. It has been cooking up new mandates ever since the Iron Curtain unexpectedly melted away and with it the alliance’s raison d’etre. First it rediscovered its military mojo during the collapse of Yugoslavia. Then it got involved in “out-of-area operations.” September 11 offered a full-blown coalition effort in Afghanistan. And Libya was an opportunity to test out the “responsibility to protect” doctrine. Every time that NATO appeared to be on its way out, a new crisis convinced everyone of the alliance’s necessity. And there has also been a steady stream of aspiring members who want to shelter under the umbrella in case of rain.

Five years ago, when NATO was celebrating its 60th anniversary, I wrote  a brief for early retirement. The Afghan campaign was a failure on the ground, and it was driving a wedge between Washington and its European partners. The EU was considering beefing up its own independent military capabilities. And the more ambitious of NATO’s projects—“going global” by inviting in partners around the world—was looking increasingly untenable.

During its Cold War youth, NATO didn’t engage in military operations. In the post-Cold War era, when the collective defense of members had become largely moot, NATO justified its existence through combat. “It is still struggling with a Hamlet-like identity crisis: to attack or not to attack,” I wrote at the time. “The Afghan war has only underscored this central paradox. If the alliance doesn’t engage in military operations, everyone questions its ultimate purpose. But if it does go to war—and the war is unsuccessful—everyone questions its ultimate efficacy.”

Five years later, just when the testosterone levels seemed to be on an irreversible decline, NATO is back. The current crisis in Ukraine is the geopolitical equivalent of Viagra. “This is the age where giving up isn’t who you are,” the ads proclaim, and NATO has fallen for the copywriter’s hook.

There’s some disagreement over who slipped the pills into NATO’s medicine cabinet. I judge it to be a team effort, with the United States and Russia in a good doctor/bad doctor combo. The United States has urged NATO to get out more, court new friends, consider new relationships, become more expansive. Russia, clearly upset with this course of treatment, has favored a surgical intervention—on another patient entirely—to get NATO back up on its feet. And suddenly, NATO has returned to the preoccupations of its youth: staring down alpha males and providing collective security to the flock.

As part of this regeneration, NATO will also be getting a transfusion of new blood. Former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, the new secretary general who will be taking over in the fall, is perhaps an odd pick. He was once quite lukewarm about NATO, participated in anti-nuclear campaigns, and long ago threw rocks at the U.S. embassy in Oslo during anti-Vietnam War protests. He has since become considerably more mainstream in his positions. But he’s still a diplomat at heart, not a militarist. Maybe he can reinvent the alliance?

 
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