As events of the past year demonstrate, NATO faces an existential crisis, reflected in the three aspects underpinning its operations - an inconsistent enlargement policy, diminished internal cohesion and inadequate military planning. Unless NATO can overcome these weaknesses, excitement in Europe about a new era of co-operation with an Obama-led United States may turn out to be premature and groundless.
Lost among diplomatic platitudes is the real question of what actually constitutes the set of criteria by which Brussels deems one country to be eligible for NATO membership while another is not. A comparison of Albania and Georgia highlights NATO’s dysfunctional enlargement process of late, raising serious questions about NATO prioritisation in membership considerations.
At the last NATO summit in April 2008, alliance members unanimously decided to extend membership to Albania. The “Solomonic” wisdom behind admitting Albania, widely recognised as the epicentre of organised crime and corruption in Europe, defies common sense and logic, pointing towards NATO’s double standards with regard to arbitrarily adjusting membership criteria on a case-by-case basis.
The unstable character of the Albanian state was highlighted on the eve of the summit. In mid-March a massive explosion at the munitions decommissioning facility just 15km west of the Albanian capital, Tirana, killed dozens, wounded hundreds and displaced thousands of people. This tragic incident led to the resignation of Albanian Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu, also implicated in an illegal arms-trafficking case. According to details of an ongoing federal investigation, in 2007 Florida-based defence contractor AEY Inc. illegally supplied malfunctioning Chinese-made weapons and munitions from Albanian stockpiles, to the Afghan Army, under terms of a multimillion-dollar Pentagon military-to-military assistance contract.
The hypocrisy was on display during a two-day visit by a NATO delegation to Georgia in September. Addressing Tbilisi State University students, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer emphasised that Georgia’s progress towards receiving the coveted Membership Action Plan (MAP) - a roadmap intended to facilitate an applicant country’s eventual incorporation into NATO - was contingent on implementation of further democratic reforms by the Georgian government. In response, speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili unveiled new reforms aimed at ensuring independence of judiciary, increasing media freedoms and supporting political opposition.
Indeed, if judged by the most commonly accepted standards of democratic governance, rule of law and economic development, Albania lags behind Georgia. The Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2008 ranks Albania at the 85th position, whereas Georgia ranks 67th. It’s truly mind-boggling that Secretary Scheffer demands greater democratic reforms from Tbilisi while apparently giving a free pass to Tirana’s dismal performance.
There’s only one explanation for this discrepancy, and it’s rooted in the combination of guilt of NATO bureaucrats over Albania’s wait in the membership-action antechamber - since 1999 - and US insistence, an unusual by-product of American involvement in the Balkans in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s bloody dissolution. Inconsistencies reflected in the selective membership dispensation undermine the founding principles and credibility of the NATO alliance as a whole.
Moreover, the relentless pace of enlargement over the past decade and a half has had an adverse impact on NATO’s cohesion.
This is particularly evident in the emergence of factions within NATO that led former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to draw distinctions between the “Old” and “New” Europe. His successor, Robert Gates, was more diplomatic in his remarks, but frustrated by an inability to elicit adequate troop commitments from European allies for the Afghanistan stabilisation campaign, he too warned of the “two-tiered alliance” in which some members are more willing to fight than others.
Several cycles of enlargement clearly had a debilitating effect on NATO’s collective decision making mechanism because the sheer number of voting members grew to the current 26 (or 28, with Albania and Croatia expected to formally join the alliance by April), which invariably complicated policy formulation. Furthermore, deep resentment felt by a number of Western European governments towards the Bush administration in the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion further exacerbated tensions with former Warsaw Pact countries vying for Washington’s attention.
Nowhere have the growing cleavages within the alliance been as evident as in Afghanistan, where NATO maintains 50,000-strong contingent under the aegis of the UN-sanctioned International Security Assistance Force. Since August 2003, when NATO took command of the ISAF, this out-of-area operation has repeatedly tested the limits of allied military co-operation in addressing the security challenges in Afghanistan. The US increasingly faces difficulty in forging NATO consensus on the most pressing issues concerning security in Afghanistan. What else can explain that it took close to five years for the allies to reach an accord authorising military attacks on the country’s burgeoning underground opium-heroin industry? For years, regional experts issued dire warnings that profits from poppy cultivation, which according to UN estimates now account for at least half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, support the Taliban comeback.
At the October meeting of NATO defence ministers in Budapest, the allies finally hammered out an agreement to authorise military force against Afghan drug lords. However, the NATO members that customarily favour restrictive caveats regarding deployment of their forces, including Germany and Italy, insisted on including a provision that effectively cuts the agreement at its knees. The provision states that attacks on the Afghan narcotics industry will occur only with explicit approval of the respective national governments. In effect, the agreement allows some NATO members to basically opt out of the operations that put their troops in harm’s way.