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Expansion Poses Risk to NATO's Cohesion

November 20, 2002|John R. Deni | John R. Deni is an analyst for the U.S. Army in Europe. The opinions expressed here are his own.

This week, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is likely to issue membership invitations to seven nations. Stretching from Estonia in the north to Bulgaria in the south, the new members may bring many benefits to the alliance, but one thing they will not bring is added security. Ethnic discord, government corruption and limited military capabilities are but a few of the less-than-desirable characteristics of some of the likely new members.

So then why expand? There seems to be a consensus among Western governments that expansion over the long run is the surest way to guarantee widespread security in Europe, even if that means further diluting NATO's already-limited collective military capabilities. What is noteworthy is not that the consensus exists but rather what it -- and the Bush administration's efforts to promote it -- tells us about the likely future of U.S. and allied military action.

Today, the alliance is made up of at least two tiers of military capability -- one dominated by the U.S. and the other made up of the majority of the other members. With the addition of countries such as Romania and Slovakia, it will add at least one more tier, characterized by an even lower level of military capability. As that happens, the alliance's ability to undertake multinational operations will decrease. Does that matter? It does if the alliance wants to avoid loosening one of the most important ties that bind its members: the ability to conduct combat operations together.

The last time NATO fought as an alliance -- in Kosovo -- American leaders brought home several lessons. Especially instructive were those that showed the political and operational difficulties of employing multinational forces in combat. Putting aside contentious debates within the U.S. political-military establishment on how to conduct the war against Serbia, American commanders faced some of their greatest challenges in conducting multinational combat operations.

Politically, gaining approval for military operations from many capitals proved prohibitively difficult. And operationally, saddling American forces with ragtag multinational forces that didn't, and still don't, work together as well as they should reduced overall effectiveness.

What then was one of the most important lessons learned in Kosovo? Military self-reliance.

If military self-reliance was one of the major lessons learned, and if NATO-led offensive combat operations are a thing of the past, then from the American perspective it matters not which nation NATO invites to become a member. Even extending an invitation to tiny Slovenia -- a country roughly 2,000 square miles smaller than Maryland -- is perfectly plausible if one assumes that U.S. and Slovenian forces will never need to conduct major offensive combat operations together. The Bush administration's drive to invite the seven nations into NATO seems to recognize this and therefore presages several likely characteristics of the future of U.S. and allied military strategy.

First, American forces will bear the brunt of major combat operations and will do so outside the NATO military command structure, free of political interference from allied capitals and free from the diluting effect of militarily less-capable allies -- similar in many ways to what has taken place in Afghanistan over the last year.

Second, if the U.S. conducts major combat operations in a multilateral setting, it will do so only with the most capable of its allies and primarily to avoid the "unilateralist" epithet.

Third, European forces will fill in where possible in post-conflict operations or peacekeeping operations. This will permit our European allies to continue to avoid increases in defense spending. None of this is to argue necessarily that the alliance should not continue to cultivate new members. However, policymakers in Washington and allied capitals need to ensure that in their haste to expand NATO they don't destroy the glue that holds the alliance together: the commitment to collective defense embodied in the ability and willingness to conduct combined military operations.

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