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Accepting Our Limits Makes for a Stronger Alliance

I was part of a group of 59 politicians, scholars, and other observers invited to take part in the Atlantic Council and Foreign Policy Magazine's survey on the future of NATO. It was an honor to participate in this survey and a good opportunity for reflection as well as to think about some big questions.

In addition to 28 multiple choice questions, we were asked to complete four sentences and I believe there is a common theme in my answers:

NATO today is... the best "insurance policy" we have to remain free and secure, when (not if) we are once again surprised by a new threat.

NATO's biggest mistake in the past 10 years has been... giving up the light footprint policy in Afghanistan in 2003. We have since expended huge investment in the country out of proportion to our achieved objectives or the level of threat that Afghanistan poses.

NATO's mission in Afghanistan is... an important reminder of our limited capabilities for state and nation-building as well as for big expeditionary out-of-area missions.

The biggest problem with NATO today is... the constant pressure from many politicians and pundits to prove its relevance beyond the Article 5 guarantee.

An "insurance policy" sounds boring and could appear to some to be insufficient justification for NATO's existence, since Europe and North America are considered quite secure and risks like terrorism should be addressed by police, intelligence agencies and special forces rather than large militaries. I side with John R. Deni, though, who wrote for the Atlantic Council about "Interoperability in an Age of Austerity":


Former House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton was fond of highlighting the American success rate-which by his measure was near zero percent-over the last 40 years in predicting where the next armed conflict would occur. The only certainty, noted Skelton, was that there would undoubtedly be another conflict that would demand the application of skilled military force.

Since our analysts will probably miss the next geopolitical earthquake (as they did 9/11 and the fall of the Soviet Union), we need to have what NATO Secretary General Rasmussen describes as "NATO Forces 2020", "modern, mobile, connected forces able to operate together in any environment and to conduct complex joint operations at short notice, and equipped with the right mix of military capabilities." Don't get me wrong, NATO should avoid expensive out-of-area missions and not try to be a "global policeman", but it still needs to be prepared to defend the Allies when (not if) a conflict materializes in the future.

That's why I consider giving up the light footprint policy in Afghanistan as the biggest mistake of the last ten years. The West missed many early opportunities and wasted much of the good will and support of the Afghan people after toppling the Taliban. We should have done more in those early years in 2002 and 2003, but we did not understand Afghan culture sufficiently and we lacked the knowledge and skills for state-building, let alone nation-building. Germany and the EU, with all their much trumpeted development experience,
failed utterly in building up a police force, the vital element for any state. These mistakes were of a civilian nature; military harm like collateral damage with airstrikes only became a problem much later.

As a consequence of mission creep we now have huge investments which are out of proportion to our achieved objectives or the level of threat that Afghanistan poses. Thus I said that the mission in Afghanistan should serve first of all as a reminder of our limited capabilities for state-building and big expeditionary missions. We need to be more humble if want to avoid such failures in the future.

Besides, NATO does not have to constantly go out of area to avoid going out of business, as Richard Lugar argued in 1993. I believe this constant pressure from many politicians and pundits for NATO to prove its relevance beyond the Article 5 guarantee is the biggest problem NATO faces today, and is out of sync with the public views on NATO. Solid majorities of both Europeans and North Americans have considered the Alliance "essential" to their country's security in each of the last ten years according to the
Transatlantic Trends surveys.

This is an indication of NATO's success. To achieve security despite austerity, we have to get our priorities straight: let's avoid non-essential missions and focus on modernizing our militaries and improving interoperability, for when NATO, as a defensive alliance, is needed again.

Joerg Wolf is editor-in-chief of and would like to thank Dr. Jorge Benitez and Damon Wilson for including him in the expert survey and thereby motivating him to write this article.

Check out the survey results with the very interesting answers from 59 experts to the four open questions at Foreign Policy and to the 28 multiple choice questions at the Atlantic Council.

Crossposted from Accepting Our Limits Makes for a Stronger Alliance

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