Thursday, December 20, 2007

NATO In Afghanistan And Beyond

This Middle East Times editorial on NATO's faltering efforts in Afghanistan is throught-provoking for the questions it raises (and largely leaves unanswered) about the broader impact the alliance's first out-of-theater deployment might have on its future. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan seemed like an ideal test-case to define the post-Cold War NATO's role as a multi-lateral global security organization.

Six years later, with the mission having evolved from nation-building to a counter-insurgency campaign that is fraying the alliance's cohesion and commitment, that initial optimism seems near-sighted. And while most attention has focused on how the lack of resource commitment on the part of member nations has limited the campaign's effectiveness, less has been paid to the structural problems that plague the NATO/ISAF effort, in particular the incompatible rules of engagement among the various country's contingents.

Meanwhile back in Europe, dramatically different perceptions of how to deal with Russia have divided the alliance along the lines of the former Iron Curtain, with attitudes reversed from those of the Cold War-era. Now it's Eastern European capitals, with memories of Soviet domination, that advocate a more aggressive containment strategy in the face of Russia's resurgence, while Western Europe struggles to find ways to smooth relations with Moscow. America's clumsy handling of its Eastern European-based anti-missile defense system, as well as its aggressive base-procurement policy among former Eurasian Soviet republics, has only exacerbated the tension.

But in many ways, NATO's identity crisis reflects the degree to which the current global geopolitical situation is beginning to take on the aspects of another major paradigm shift for which the post-War 20th century multi-lateral institutions -- from the UN Security Council to the IMF/World Bank to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty to NATO to the EU -- are no longer adapted. As recently as a month ago I was arguing here that America's standing in the world could be re-established with a modest, determined course correction by the next administration, as opposed to a dramatic about-face.

But re-establishing our standing, ie. our image, is a modest goal in and of itself. The fact is, as someone I interviewed for an upcoming article put it recently, there's simply no inherent reason why the Arab world should be anti-American, and I think the point can be generalized to the world writ large. We have an enormous amount of goodwill capital that it takes quite an effort to override.

On the other hand, to strategically situate ourselves in order to effectively advance our interests will now demand a fundamental strategic re-evaluation of how best to adjust our own orientation towards the various emerging poles of power around the globe, how best to reform the multi-lateral institutions to better reflect that emerging geopolitical reality, and how best to harmonize the two. There's absolutely no guarantee that having articulated a theoretically sound strategy that we'll be able to put it into practice. The world is too unpredictable for that. But without one, we'll be reduced to putting band aids on wounds that will soon outgrow our ability to cover them.

Of all the presidential candidates, I think Hillary Clinton would probably be the most effective at the band-aid solution, which is not meant to be as much of a back-handed insult as it sounds like. She's almost certain to steer America very ably, protecting our interests while at the same time accomodating our friends and allies to the extent possible. As such she'll also undoubtedly manage to improve America's image in the world. Depending on which John McCain shows up for duty, he'd probably do just as good a job, at least on the former count, if less so on the latter. But I think Barack Obama's combination of analytical insight and intellectual synthesis make him the most qualified to oversee the kind of fundamental strategic overhaul that I'm talking about.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Politics   

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