Washington Needs NATO More Than NATO Needs Washington

Which is why Washington tolerates Europe's indolence over Libya.


You know things are hopeless when Robert Gates, Washington’s famously straight talker, is reduced to political pantomime with America’s European allies.

There was the outgoing secretary of defense in Brussels this month, scolding members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for not pulling their weight in Libya. The Poles, the Germans, the Dutch, the Spaniards, and the Turks sat on their hands, head bowed, as headmaster Gates berated them for neglecting their alliance commitments. The American taxpayer, he meditated darkly, was not going to tolerate European backsliding forever.

[See photos of the unrest in Libya.]

The subtext was as clear as it was refreshing for those who have followed NATO’s post-Cold War reanimation, which resembles nothing so much as a gross celebrity makeover. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has faced three major tests of its credibility and has stumbled over each one: first in the Balkans, where it was unable to force Serbian troops out of Kosovo absent a crucial diplomatic intervention by the Russians, then in Afghanistan, where it has proven itself unable to operate as a cohesive force, and now in Libya, where it is critically dependent on the United States to sustain air operations against forces loyal to Muammar Qadhafi. Finally, it seemed, the blunt Kansan Gates was preparing NATO for the dignified liquidation it should have been allowed a generation ago.

Au contraire. No one, least of all an old Cold Warrior like Gates, would seriously jeopardize America’s forward bases in Europe, to say nothing of its toehold in the Caucuses, where U.S. proxy Georgia briefly revived the Cold War balance of terror in 2008 during its war with Russia. Far from a veiled threat to abandon NATO, Gates’s harangue was a time-honored alliance ritual: The United States condemns European lethargy, the Europeans pledge to reform, and, when the cameras and microphones are turned off, both sides wink and nod. It is Kabuki theatre for what is, after all, a Kabuki alliance. When Ivo Daalder, America’s permanent representative to NATO, can write that the alliance is needed more than ever to combat cyberattacks against teenage gaming—and actually get it published in the International Herald Tribune, you can be sure everybody’s in on the act. (Everyone, that is, except noninvested sages of the European scene, such as Geoffrey Wheatcroft, whose gimlet-eyed skewering of NATO provoked Daalder’s inanity, and Judy Dempsey, who leveled a similar blast only two days earlier.) [Vote now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?]

The fact is Washington needs NATO more than its alliance partners do, which is why it tolerates Europe’s indolence. It needs NATO for its commitments to host U.S.-built missile defense stations and as a perimeter to encircle Russia and whatever regional influence it may dare to assert. (For more on the New Cold War with Russia, see Stephen Cohen’s excellent essay in The Nation.) It needs NATO basing and flyover rights and weapons depots for its next war in the Middle East and for new wars to come in Africa. Most importantly, it needs to preserve its global network of forward deployments to keep faith with the decrees of the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, an obscure document that enshrined global hegemony as both a U.S. imperative and an entitlement.

The guidance paper, which was written in the twilight of the George H.W. Bush administration, states clearly Washington’s obligation to “preclude any hostile power from dominating a region critical to our interests, and also thereby to strengthen the barriers against the reemergence of a global threat to the interests of the United States and our allies.” It was in the guidance paper that the argument for NATO expansion, as well as a military buildup in the Caucuses and the Persian Gulf, the latter of which so excised Osama bin Laden, first percolated. Put simply, it provided the writ for America’s irreversible foreign policy militarization. It is the reason why a withdrawal of 30,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan, with 70,000 still remaining in that blighted nation and hundreds of thousand of G.I.s deployed all over the world, is hailed even in the liberal press as the advent of a new age of foreign policy restraint. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.]

And it’s why an American war with China is all but inevitable.

  • Vote now: Is Obama handling the Libya crisis the right way?
  • See photos of the unrest in Libya.
  • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the Middle East uprisings.