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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Role for NATO?

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NATO adapted well after the end of the Cold War. An organization that had been focused on collective defense found fresh things to do: spreading security and stability to new members and partners in Central Europe, applying force -- against Bosnian Serbs and then Serbia proper -- to impose peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, and then peacekeeping in the Balkans.

Since Sept. 11, however, NATO has faced something of an existential crisis. The United States chose to fight the Afghan war largely on its own rather than through NATO or alongside European allies. Some officials in the Bush administration have done little to hide their disdain for the alliance. The imminent enlargement of NATO, with seven Central European states due to be invited to join at the Prague summit this week, will reduce its military cohesion. And the recent deal to establish the NATO-Russia Council has reinforced the perception that the alliance is becoming a largely political body rather than a serious military organization.

So why do we need NATO? The alliance is worth preserving, and reforming, for three reasons. The first is that NATO has a political role to play in providing a forum for North Americans, Europeans and Russians to talk about matters of common concern, such as proliferation, terrorism, missile defense and the Balkans. NATO helps to keep the United States directly involved in European affairs. Indeed, it remains the only important multilateral organization that ties North Americans to Europeans.

Furthermore, no other organization is so well-suited to engaging Russia's security establishment. Russia's armed forces are in bad need of reform: Successive governments since the end of the Cold War have tried to modernize Russia's under-equipped, ill-disciplined and ineffective forces, without much success. The NATO-Russia Council could provide the channels through which NATO members can offer help and advice on the modernization of the Russian defense establishment. In the long run, if President Vladimir Putin succeeds in making Russia a more "Western" country, and if the EU's Common Foreign and Security Policy becomes more solid, NATO's political organization is likely to evolve into an organization that brings together three distinct units: the United States, the European Union and Russia.

NATO's second role should be to promote a single market in armaments and defense technology. Worries about national security, as well as pork-barrel politics, have prevented the creation of a common market in armaments, even among the EU countries. If NATO could establish common rules on export controls, technology transfer, security of supply, monopolies and fair procurement, the allies would be more likely to trust each other and open their markets. A single armaments market would make it easier for NATO forces to use common equipment and thus work together more effectively. The NATO defense ministers need to create a new, high-level body to promote a common defense market.

As Russia moves closer to the alliance, and gradually wins the confidence of NATO governments, some of its defense industries could become integrated with those of Europe and America. Despite almost zero domestic demand for the past decade, the Russian aerospace industry can still offer impressive technology and expertise, for example in the science of aerodynamics, transport aircraft, rocket launchers and many components for aircraft. (It is encouraging that EADS, the Franco-German aerospace company, has recently agreed on a program of technical collaboration with Kaskol, a dynamic and privately owned Russian defense company.)

However, NATO needs to be more than just a forum for discussion and an agency for promoting armaments cooperation. Its third role should be military. NATO's military organization encourages "interoperability" among the armed forces of NATO members and partners: It helps them to work alongside each other more easily, whether peacekeeping or fighting wars. NATO's achievements in this area leave much to be desired, but it has promoted common operating procedures, technical standards and rules of engagement. Coalitions as diverse as the U.S.-led army that fought the Gulf War in 1991 and the European peacekeeping force in Kabul in 2002 -- though neither was a NATO mission -- could not have been so effective without NATO having fostered the habit of working together.

NATO needs its military organization for two principal reasons. First, NATO's skills as an experienced and proficient provider of peacekeeping are still required. The EU may eventually take over the peacekeeping mission in Macedonia, and perhaps in the longer run in Bosnia. But the fraught situation in Kosovo requires the involvement of NATO, and thus, implicitly, of the United States. The Russians have made an important contribution to peacekeeping in the Balkans, and they are still needed. In other parts of the world, too -- for example post-Hussein Iraq, or post-intifada Palestine -- there would be a need for professional multinational peacekeeping. The forces in such places may or may not be branded "NATO," but that body is likely to be heavily involved in their management and organization.

Second, NATO needs to develop a new military role, as a provider of multinational forces that could fight at short notice in a high-intensity conflict such as that in Afghanistan. During the course of 2002, Bush's National Security Council developed this idea, and the Pentagon unveiled plans for a NATO rapid response force in September. Such a force would be available at a week or two's notice, and contain perhaps 20,000 elite troops from several NATO countries, including the United States.

One rationale for the response force is that it would encourage U.S. commanders to take up European offers of military help. During the Afghan conflict they were reluctant to accept European offers. They would probably be more willing to make use of European forces if NATO -- rather than national governments -- packaged and vetted those forces. The second rationale is to encourage Europeans to do more to develop their military capabilities. America's NATO allies are likely to agree to establish the response force, for they know that if they wish to keep the United States engaged in NATO, and thus in Europe, they need to adapt the alliance so that it is useful to Washington. If NATO cannot come up with a real fighting force, NATO will not be that important to the United States.

Many people in Russia still regard NATO as a hostile organization. It is true that NATO's area is now expanding up to Russia's borders. However, NATO has changed a lot since the days of the Cold War, and it is continuing to evolve.

Its raison d'etre is no longer opposing Russia. It is becoming a European security organization in which Russia needs to play an important part, discussing common challenges and concerns. Nor should Russia be concerned that NATO retains a military function. As Russia develops its links with the alliance, it will benefit from joining in many of NATO's military activities. Furthermore, one merit of NATO is that it channels America's energies in a multilateral direction. The reason EU countries like NATO is that it makes it harder for the United States to act unilaterally. Russia should learn to appreciate NATO for the same reasons.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform in London. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.