President Trump’s criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and his insistence that the allies “pay their fair share,” have received prominent play in the media. What has been forgotten is that American frustration with burden sharing within the alliance is a long-standing issue. Both Republican and Democratic administrations across the last seven decades have echoed this complaint.
In fact, the Trump administration’s insistence that allies meet their commitments can be taken as a signal it does value the organization. Mr. Trump wants it to remain useful and relevant in a complex international security landscape. The prodding reflects an understanding that international cooperation and multinational action require effort on the part of members and contributors — and that the effort is ongoing. In essence, every ally, each generation and each administration has to relearn and recommit to habits of dialogue, consultation and cooperation. This is because complex multinational organizations are not autonomous, or above national governments in authority. They also cannot be taken for granted or rest on the laurels of their previous successes, because the global security environment and political and economic conditions are constantly changing. When a security alliance becomes static, it dies.
However, “multinationality” is hard, especially in the realm of military operations, because it encompasses different languages, strategic cultures, types of military equipment and operating procedures. Multinational military operations, whether they are peace operations or war fighting, are by their very nature difficult to implement. Decisions for action, and then adaptation to changing conditions, are often halting, slow and incremental. Cooperation often demands compromise, which also means multilateral action is less than perfect. The multinational effort in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks epitomizes these truths.
Like previous administrations, the Trump administration inherited a broad range of security challenges. Its policy-making and decision-making efforts going forward can be assisted by looking back. It is easy to forget that the United States has operated as part of an international coalition in every major conflict over the last century. So it is likely it will continue to partner with allies in the future. The value of security organizations such as NATO is that they have permanently established consultation, planning, and training institutions that facilitate the seamless integration of disparate air, land and naval forces.
These decision, planning and training institutions were severely tested in Afghanistan. Some argued the complexity of the Afghan conflict would break the organization, but surprisingly it did not. In fact, the NATO alliance ultimately gathered together an unprecedented coalition that included 50 allies and partners in the International Security Assistance Force. The level of cohesion was so extensive it held the contributing nations together for more than 10 years. Furthermore, the forces deployed were integrated to an unprecedented degree.
My book “NATO in the Crucible: Coalition Warfare in Afghanistan, 2001-–2014” tells the story of the alliance’s difficult and ambitious efforts in Afghanistan. It identifies the domestic and international challenges faced by the allies and partners, and then provides an operational-level view of a conflict that involved peace support and humanitarian operations as well as counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and training operations. Interviews with more than 60 U.S. and foreign officers revealed the deep integration of the multinational forces, whether in battle groups, provincial reconstruction teams, or army and police training teams. The interweaving of units and specialist capabilities, like combat air support, medical and transport, forced the allies to rely on one another. Over time, this generated trust and the confidence that partners would not abandon the mission. In fact, the heat of battle acted as an incubator of cohesion. The bonding was so extensive that the veterans interviewed referred to coalition forces as a family: There wasn’t nationality, there was just the team.
The ability of the NATO security alliance to generate such a cohesive team from such a diverse set of allies and partners in Afghanistan should be kept in mind as national political leaders grapple with the enduring question of NATO’s purpose and value — and whether it’s worth every member paying its fair share.
• Deborah Hanagan, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is the author of the recently released “NATO in the Crucible” (Hoover Institution Press).
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