U.S. President Barack Obama's debut NATO summit at the Franco-German border over the weekend was a triumph of style over substance. Although allies put on a public face of unity, they were unable to agree on any of the major problems facing trans-Atlantic security. As NATO marks its 60th birthday, the alliance is mired in a profound identity crisis offering little reason to celebrate.
The summit was dominated by the problem of Afghanistan and what to do about it. European allies heaped praise on Obama's new Afghan strategy, which sets benchmarks for progress in fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The new plan also imposes conditions on the Afghans and Pakistanis in order to prod them into taking more responsibility for quelling the insurgency and building lasting political institutions.
Obama's new strategy also calls for the deployment of 4,000 more American troops to train Afghan security forces, in addition to the 17,000 extra combat troops that Obama already ordered to Afghanistan shortly after taking office.
American allies, however, pledged only modest new troop contributions for Afghanistan, agreeing to send another 5,000 troops, but only on a temporary basis. An estimated 3,000 of them will be deployed to provide security for the Afghan presidential election scheduled for August. The rest are non-combat trainers. In practice, however, the number of new European troops actually deployed will be lower, because some of the "new" offers -- such as those from Germany and Italy -- have been "recycled" from previous announcements.
Obama put a brave face on the paltry results by saying they were a "strong down payment on the future of our mission in Afghanistan and the future of NATO." But
by providing only modest assistance in comparison to Obama's 21,000-troop surge, NATO as an alliance has essentially failed in Afghanistan. Indeed, the mission in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly Americanized: By the end of 2009, nearly two-thirds of the estimated 95,000 permanent foreign military personnel in Afghanistan will be American.
Trans-Atlantic differences over the mission in Afghanistan mirror the larger debate over the future role of NATO itself. The U.S. is seeking greater mutual responsibility, not only in Afghanistan, but on a wide range of security threats in the post-9/11 world. Many European allies, on the other hand, are reluctant to turn NATO into a global policeman, not least of all because that could compromise their ambitions for a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) that is independent of American influence.
Obama tried to reassure Europeans, saying, "I didn't come bearing grand designs -- I'm here to listen, to share ideas and, jointly as one of many NATO allies, to help shape our vision for the future." He added that "if NATO becomes everything, then it's nothing."
On the other hand, Obama said contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan should be dictated by military and not political needs, and reminded allies that al-Qaida poses an even greater threat to Europe than it does to America. "I think it is important," he declared, "for Europe to understand that even though George Bush is no longer president, al-Qaida is still a threat. We cannot pretend that because Barrack Hussein Obama got elected as president, everything is going to be okay."
The quandary over defining the future role of NATO also colored the debate over whether or not Georgia and Ukraine should become members of the alliance. Although the United States and several Central European countries are generally in favor of bringing those countries into NATO, Germany, France, and several other Western European countries are more wary. They are reluctant to antagonize Russia, which supplies them with oil and gas and views NATO enlargement as a threat. For example, Russia has warned that it will target nuclear missiles at Ukraine if it joins NATO.
At the NATO Summit, alliance members papered over their differences by keeping the door open for Georgia and Ukraine, while at the same time announcing plans to improve NATO-Russia relations, badly damaged after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008.
Even if the allies agreed to disagree on nearly all of the pressing issues of the day, they did produce at least a few clear successes. They welcomed Albania, Croatia and France as full partners, bringing the total number of NATO members to 28. And they unanimously agreed that the pro-American and pro-European Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is the right person to navigate NATO into the future.
What remains to be seen is whether and how the unity of surface on display at the summit can translate into unity of purpose for the strategic challenges ahead.