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Looking Forward: The End of NATO?

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by Arthur Waldron, Ph.D
Published on October 1st, 2009

Institutionally NATO remains intact but whether it would actually function in a conflict is a question that has long been becoming more and more puzzling.

If NATO is intended to provide a nuclear guarantee from the United States to its members—so called “extended deterrence”—then it has been dead since a number of potentially hostile countries acquired the ability to hit the United States if we hit them in accord with such a policy. I do not believe that the United States would actually use nuclear weapons unless it were directly attacked itself. My prognosis if we are expected to strike in response to an attack on Europe—or for that matter non-NATO member Japan—is “agonizing reappraisal.” Grasping finally the fact that we had promised to allow, say, Chicago to be incinerated if Berlin were hit, we would reconsider the promise, allow Berlin to take the strike, and make no counter-strike ourselves.

Such an understanding underlies our whole rather puzzling emphasis on the challenging business of missile defense. Far better, presidents have understood at least since the days of Nixon, to be able to stop the warhead in flight than to have to deal with the consequences of a first explosion in a nuclear war. Instead of extended deterrence, the United States began to reach for what might be called “extended strategic defense” which is to say, an ability to put an umbrella over a threatened ally and prevent war and escalation.

I have always favored missile defense, not because I believe it will work faultlessly, but rather because even a partial ability to blunt an attack raises the threshold for war. Among the most dangerous strategies are those that envision a lightning victory, using a minimum of force. These are dangerous because they don’t work as planned, but instead tend to ignite long and horrible wars.

That said, though, missile defense will never been one hundred percent reliable. To shoot down, in effect, one bullet with another bullet has always been a tour de force—one that we and the Japanese have achieved several times—but there will always be misses.

Still, a roof that may leak is better than no roof. So I was deeply dismayed by word that the United States was abandoning plans to place interceptors and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic. To be sure, the Russians have responded by cutting back missile deployments not yet made, which is a good thing—but then again, those interceptors were supposed to stop not-yet-perfected Iranian missiles. These will now be dealt with by sea-borne systems.

But if sea-borne systems alone are sufficient to protect Europe, then they pose exactly the same problem to the Russians that the land-based systems did. They can protect Central Europe, and if that is not true, then we have just made a move that exposes Central Europe to a threat.

The case for such worry is strengthened because, according to sources, the sea-borne systems in question will operate optimally for the missions in question, only with support from land based radar. Surely we could have built the radar but deferred placing the interceptors?

One suspects that money played a role in the decision. The United States is deep in deficit, with military spending one of the few areas where cuts are conceivable, though not desirable. So why not talk up as a better option what is in fact only a cheaper option?

Sea borne systems have another problem. They are on ships, and ships can sail away.  If we are going to get involved in the business of defending Europe from missile attack, we should at a minimum ensure that our involvement will be successful. Otherwise we should stay home and let the Europeans build their own anti-missile systems (or more likely, nuclear deterrents) which they are quite capable of doing.

What is the point of having an American ship fail to stop the beginning of a war by downing all the missiles, while simultaneously, by its very presence, ensuring that the United States will be involved in the subsequent hostilities?

A mentor of mine in college often suggested that rather than have made NATO open-ended, we should have put in place, early on, a schedule for the gradual drawing down and ultimate elimination of American forces from Europe. I thought it was a good idea at the time and think so even more today. For such an incremental withdrawal would provide the time for the Europeans to put their own defenses into place, avoiding what now seems likely: namely, the abrupt withdrawal of American guarantees if they are tested and Washington understands what enormous destruction they will bring on the United States.

Such a possibility was greatly increased by the end of the Cold War. During that period it was believed that any attack would be on all: the Soviets, so it was imagined, would launch an all-out offensive, east and west, against Japan and Germany and all our other allies. The only conceivable response would likewise be total.

Now the possibility is far greater that an attack may occur on one or two allies or NATO members but not on all. Japan might be attacked without the United States also being attacked. Poland might come under pressure, but not Germany. History suggests that in such circumstances those fortunate enough not to have been attacked do not join in, out of abstract considerations of alliance solidarity.

Indeed, a lack of alliance solidarity is exactly what we are seeing now in connection with the new and extremely ambitious American plans somehow to thwart Iranian nuclear ambitions, defeat Islamic insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, all the while keeping Iraq stable.

Although disorder in Central Asia threatens Europe far more than it does the United States—those hypothesized Iranian missiles are not aimed at Washington for now—the European and Japanese role in our activities in the region is minimal and symbolic, not to mention diminishing.

My own view is that the new agenda is too ambitious and will likely end in defeat for the United States, but that is not the point I wish to make now. Rather, I want to underline the insubstantiality of a NATO alliance whose members don’t show up, and are incapable of defending themselves without us.

Once upon a time one could argue that Europe was poor and war ravaged and therefore needed defense. That was a sound argument. But it no longer applies to today’s prosperous Europe.

Finally, the simple matter of wherewithal is working against NATO and American alliances in general. We do not have enough aircraft to provide tactically standard support for ground operations in Afghanistan. If it turns out as seems likely that we cannot project sufficient power to defeat highly resourceful but poorly equipped and resource hungry adversaries in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, then what chance would we have in a contingency involving a peer competitor? The gradual hollowing out of the American military over decades has succeeded.  Resources now limit the missions we can contemplate.

Alliances are more than important. In seven years teaching strategy at the Naval War College I learned that cohesive and functional alliances are the way that peace is kept and wars are won. NATO has many defects, some of which I have mentioned, and is in sore need of rethinking and refurbishing. Still, it did its job for a long time.

Now no one wants to do the job. The United States is cutting back its actual support for Europe. Symbolism aside, since the Korean War, Europe has never decisively supported the United States in a military contingency and certainly is not to be counted as genuinely present in the new Middle East plan. These are trends, but rarely are they expressed in a single action or captured in a single moment.

Which is why I said, when I learned of the cancelation of the central European missile defense system, “that is the end of NATO.”

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