NATO’s Value: Things Big and Small


In times of diminished resources for defense, having reliable allies willing to share the burden of collective defense becomes even more important to American interests.  On the outskirts of Rome, Italy, a little known institution, the NATO Defense College, helps keep the alliance alive. The college is about more than military interoperability; there are valuable outcome-oriented discussions among allied and partner representatives on a broad range of issues, all reflecting the values of the member states. Meanwhile, back in the United States, defense cuts risk throwing babies out with the bathwater.

During the Cold War, it was frequently said that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was “in crisis.”  I admit having written a few studies in those days prominently addressing the “NATO in crisis” theme when I was at the Congressional Research Service.  Today, with the defense efforts of virtually every ally—including those of the United States—on a downward slope, NATO is seen by some observers as not just in crisis, but entering its final days.  But would that be in our best interest?

Public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic still gives strong, albeit superficial, support to the alliance.  This was recently demonstrated in the latest Transatlantic Trends study.  NATO was seen as “still essential” by 58% of EU respondents and 55% of American.

It is, of course, up to NATO member state governments to decide how important a continued transatlantic alliance is to their interests.  In the past two years, with the Obama administration articulating a policy of “pivoting” toward Asia, speculation about NATO’s future has intensified.  There is a growing tension between this policy, and those who interpret it as a sign that NATO is no longer necessary, and some impressive expert opinion, which has concluded that even without an existential threat to its members and with no war to fight in Afghanistan, the alliance is important to keep not only alive, but also well.

Last year, the Heritage Foundation issued a report asserting that America’s bases in Europe remain “vital.”  According to the report’s conclusion, “America’s economic and security interests require a stable Europe, and the U.S. military presence in Europe contributes to this.”

Lest it be thought that support for a continued transatlantic alliance comes only from American conservatives, it is good to take note of a study just published by the centrist Center for a New American Security (CNAS).  Under the title NATO Matters:  Ensuring the Value of the Alliance for the United States, the authors conclude that “NATO alone continues to provide the multinational interoperability, command structure and deployable capabilities that make it the partner of first resort for the United States.”

These signs of support, coming from the center left and right of the American political spectrum, are important, but do not guarantee that the United States will provide the leadership necessary to realize the benefits of a healthy transatlantic alliance.

The CNAS report makes note of the important role that NATO plays in promoting exchanges and joint education among senior military officers in NATO and, importantly, partner countries.  Such exchanges constitute the intellectual foundation of “interoperability”:  the ability of allied and partner militaries to operate together under fire, as they have been required to do in Afghanistan.  The report does not detail the extensive exchanges that already take place in the programs of the NATO Defense College, an institution established at the initiative of General Eisenhower in the early 1950s.  This college has become an important facilitator not only for the defense cooperation goals of the alliance, but also for the mission of reaching out to non-members states to promote transparency and cooperation.

Each year, two five and a half-month sessions of the Senior Course bring together field grade (mainly colonel and lieutenant colonel) military officers and mid-level civilian officials for discussions of all issues surrounding transatlantic relations.  Shorter courses bring general, flag officer and ambassadors together for the same purpose.  Traditionally, the college has been led by a European or Canadian general officer, the Commandant, and an American dean as the academic leader.

During the Cold War, NATO College classes included only citizens of NATO member states.  That all changed in the 1990s as partner states of all stripes were increasingly invited to participate in various programs run by the college.  Last month, while lecturing at the college, I looked out over an auditorium filled with close to 150 students from almost 50 nations.  The Senior Course participants had been joined by representatives from the Integrated Partnership Orientation Course and the NATO Regional Orientation Course.  Audience members included representatives from most NATO countries plus those from a wide range of partners including Japan, Afghanistan, Georgia, Mongolia, the United Arab Emirates, Austria, Belarus, Egypt, Israel, Algeria, Armenia and the Russian Federation, just to name a few.

Given such diversity, there is no expectation of consensus in the discussions that take place in large and small group meetings.  In fact, one of the benefits of such meetings is the opportunity for full and frank exchanges in a civilized setting.  I was more than pleased when challenged in a small seminar by a bright Russian Federation officer who objected that NATO’s actions in Libya went beyond the scope of resolutions passed by the United Nations Security Council.  He approached me smiling broadly to shake hands after we had enjoyed the opportunity to lay our differences on the table.

Participants from non-NATO countries frequently marvel at how this alliance of democracies provides the opportunity for exchanges among such divergent perspectives from so many different national backgrounds and cultures.

At the college, I learned that American budget difficulties (the sequestration process) had resulted in the United States passing on the opportunity to offer a candidate for the position of dean.  This apparently was the result of the budget mess in Washington; not a political decision, part of the “pivot,” or a signal to the Europeans.

In the end, a bright Slovenian woman, a former military officer with experience working at the college, was appointed to the position, making her the first woman ever to serve in a senior position at the NATO Defense College.  While the college will do just fine under her academic and program leadership, it is a worrisome sign that the United States was unable to offer a candidate for the position.   Further, during my visit I encountered many questions about what recent U.S. actions and policies mean for the future of U.S. leadership in the alliance.

This episode simply illustrates how the games that politicians play in Washington can, in big and small ways, hamper the ability of the United States to deploy the quality of international leadership that only it can provide.  The sooner U.S. political leaders can get our political and financial house in order, the sooner the United States will be able to re-establish the credibility of both its hard and soft power capabilities, within and beyond NATO.


Stanley R. Sloan retired as Senior Specialist in International Security Policy for the Congressional Research Service.  Since then he has taught courses on American power and transatlantic relations at Vermont’s Middlebury College.


Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond

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