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NATO at (Yet Another) Crossroads

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
July 24, 2023

In 1987, I wrote and submitted a potential speech for the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Jack Galvan, entitled “NATO at the Crossroads”. The same title and theme were reiterated years later by the Rand Corporation and others, and it seems to many that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been at some type of crossroads ever since. Despite the near-constant questioning of its purpose and resolve, no country that has joined NATO since 1949 has left it—and among its ranks are countries that previously belonged to the Warsaw Pact—the defunct Communist answer to NATO.

When I first studied NATO as a student of international relations in the 1980s, it had 16 members. With the April 2023 addition of Finland, NATO now has 31 members—soon to be 32 with the addition of Sweden. With the doubling of its membership comes renewed public debate about the effectiveness, efficiency, rationale and reliability of its members. In a world of nation states, defense policy has traditionally been a national responsibility and strategy, not a collective one. Is NATO an essential part of U.S. defense policy or is it an albatross, hampering an otherwise powerful national strategy of military defense of the homeland? It’s clear we are committed to NATO for the long term. How then can we make it work better for us, its biggest supporter? That is the topic of this brief article.

Let’s review the essential elements of a nation: (1) population, (2) territory, (3) government and (4) sovereignty. With respect to sovereignty, defined as supreme power especially over a body politic (freedom from external control), or autonomy, it can be argued that if we as a nation are compelled by the collective defense Article 5 of the NATO treaty to intervene militarily to assist another NATO member country, then our sovereignty (autonomy of action) becomes politically weakened. On the other hand, if such an intervention were to result in an expulsion of the attacker, then our world nation-state system would be maintained, along with freedom, peace and overall international stability. So, there’s still lots of value in NATO as an arm of our national defense strategy.

I see at least three areas of opportunity for NATO improvement and U.S. leadership in NATO:

First, there remains a basic issue that lingers around Article 5: the questionable probability of some NATO members to engage in collective defense despite their legal obligation to do so. For example, only about half the populations of France and Germany would support an Article 5 engagement at present—that needs to change.

Second, NATO needs to remain faithful to its own charter and area of responsibility. It should be limited to defensive operations in support of its member nations—potential Article 5 scenarios. Let’s review an example of a relatively recent (2011) real-world NATO intervention, spearheaded by the U.S.—the Libyan overthrow of its leader, Muammar Gaddafi. On March 28, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama addressed the nation: “The task that I assigned our forces is to protect the Libyan people from immediate danger and to establish a no-fly zone.… Broadening our military mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” Yet the underlying aspiration was to get rid of Gaddafi by any means possible. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, “I can’t recall any specific decision that said, ‘Well, let’s just take him out’.” Publicly, he said, “the fiction was maintained” that the goal was limited to disabling Colonel Gaddafi’s command and control. In fact, the former defense secretary said, “I don’t think there was a day that passed that people didn’t hope he (Gaddafi) would be in one of those command-and-control centers.” Bottom line: NATO used a U.N. Security Council Resolution as a pretense to end Gaddafi’s rule in Libya; the U.S. used NATO’s decision to further its own goals of removing Gaddafi. Bear in mind as well that Libya—a north African country—is outside the NATO area of responsibility.

The NATO Response Force (NRF) was created in 2003. It is a high-readiness NATO rapid deployment force. We should ensure that the NRF is adequately staffed and positioned in various places on the terrain of our European allies. Although it only has (up to) 40,000 troops presently, there are plans to bump that number up to 300,000 troops. The NRF was activated for the first time in February 2022 in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, even though Ukraine is not a NATO member.

Third, the rank and stature of our U.S. military generals who are skilled in both joint and multinational operations must be elevated both in policy and procedure. We should consider bringing back the rank of five-star general to accord the highest faith, trust and confidence in the brightest of our NATO-experienced generals.

I see a bright future for NATO if it remains true to its charter. The United States must remain its most powerful leader and guarantor of its promise. It’s a great way to ensure the sovereignty of all NATO nations.

Author: Dr. Robert Brescia respects the wisdom of generations, promotes the love of learning, teaches ethics to university students, government & politics to AP seniors, and leadership to organizations. He is a candidate with the National Board for Certification of Teachers (NBCT) at Stanford University and serves as Social Studies Department Chair at Permian High School in Odessa, TX. The Governor of Texas re-appointed him to the State Board for Educator Certification (SBEC) for a six-year term. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. Contact him at [email protected].

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