Despite Fighting Words, NATO Haunted by Three Recent Defeats.
By Richard Gowan, Sept. 8, 2014
|NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the NATO summit at the Celtic Manor Resort, Newport, Wales, Sept. 5, 2014|
There was fighting talk at last week’s NATO summit in Wales. The alliance’s leaders pulled few punches in criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine and agreed on plans to counter future provocations by Moscow. The U.S. corralled a posse of its allies to coordinate the fight in Iraq against the Islamic State. After a summer characterized by global turbulence and ill-concealed uncertainty in both the U.S. and Europe over how to react, the summit signaled that the West has some sense of shared purpose.
Yet it will take more than a decent conference to restore the Western powers’ vim and vigor. President Barack Obama and his European counterparts are laboring in the shadow of three painful defeats, even if it is politically impossible for alliance leaders to label them as failures.
The first is NATO’s exhausted quest to establish stability in Afghanistan, which caused rifts in the alliance as the U.S. pushed its European partners over the past decade to send more troops and take greater risks for the mission. While the Ukrainian crisis currently dominates the headlines, the scars of the Afghan campaign are not yet fully healed.
The second setback is the West’s failure to drive Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from office, despite three years of intensive if often ill-conceived diplomatic efforts. This goal is now being supplanted by the battle against the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. NATO may not have been directly involved in Syria, but the conflict has become a decisive test of U.S. and European influence, so Assad’s survival is an indirect blow to the alliance.
The third defeat is the inability to keep Russia from destabilizing Ukraine, both through its seizure of Crimea and its recent offensive to stop Kiev from asserting control over the east of the country. Each situation points to flaws in different aspects of Western policy.
The Afghan war drained many NATO members’ belief in both their military capacities and the idea of nation-building. American and European efforts to oust Assad through sanctions and multilateral bargaining have shown the limits of both tools. Moscow has also proved willing to endure sanctions over Ukraine, while more generally dismissing the quarter-century-old effort to assimilate post-Soviet Russia into the liberal international system. The West’s strategic cupboard now looks somewhat bare.
Making matters worse, all these situations could still deteriorate. Afghanistan has been roiled by an electoral crisis, and there are rumors of new Taliban advances. While the American-led campaign against the Islamic State may gain momentum in both Iraq and Syria, this could ultimately strengthen Assad by weakening his most serious foe. Russian President Vladimir Putin has already effectively dictated the terms of a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine and is likely to keep finding new ways to strengthen his grip over all the territory he can.
For all its tough talk, NATO seems ready to de-escalate the Ukrainian crisis more or less on Moscow’s terms. As the New York Times noted in a skeptical roundup of the summit, the bloc welcomed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to Wales but urged him “to make the best deal that he could with Russia’s proxies while working for a more inclusive Ukrainian constitution and new parliamentary elections.”
It is quite reasonable to imagine that, one year from now, Afghanistan will be at best highly unstable, Bashar al-Assad will continue to be firmly in power in Damascus and Moscow will retain direct or indirect control over significant chunks of Ukraine.
Unforeseen events could reshape one or more of these situations. But many Western officials might settle for this dystopian scenario. Their priority is to concentrate their military and political resources on defeating the Islamic State and, as last week’s summit underlined, deterring Russia from expanding the Ukrainian crisis to include actions against the Baltic states or other Eastern European NATO members. In this context, there is a plausible if ugly case for downplaying Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine.
It is very easy to move from bleak observations such as these to even broader prognostications of Western decline in the face of multiple crises. These are often alarmist or banal. The U.S. and its allies still have deep-seated economic, military and political strengths to draw on. But their willingness to use these resources will surely be shaped by the lessons that their leaders draw from their recent setbacks.
The overall trend in Western military thinking is already relatively clear. After Afghanistan, few NATO members will undertake long-term stabilization missions. But they are still willing to launch short-term and lower-risk operations involving air power and aid to local allies such as the 2011 Libyan air campaign, the French intervention in Mali last year and the push against the Islamic State announced in Wales. Such limited missions may sometimes have a humanitarian purpose—as in this year’s European Union mission in the Central African Republic, a small-scale attempt to stabilize the capital—but more often than not they will focus on terrorist targets.
The broader trend of Western political thinking is less easy to predict. While the West’s military interventions have had decidedly mixed results, some nonmilitary interventions have also caused as much harm as good. American and European officials rue their ill-fated efforts to promote democracy in Syria and Egypt during the first phase of the Arab revolutions. The EU’s attempt to strike a trade deal with Ukraine last year unintentionally unleashed the confrontation with Russia. Chastened by such experiences, it is all too possible that Western governments will become increasingly cautious about further attempts to export their liberal values.
While NATO’s summit may have been an opportunity to quell talk of the alliance’s decline, the Western powers are still facing a process of retrenchment. It will be hard for them to adopt a more ambitious posture until they have come to terms with their recent defeats in Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine—and that will not happen soon.
Richard Gowan is research director at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His weekly column for World Politics Review, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.