The case for NATO

In one vision for NATO's future, the alliance dials back its military role and instead becomes an active voice in support of "the values of human decency and dignity."

Since former Secretary Gates’ now-legendary fusillade against NATO, there have been many nods of agreement, and some criticisms of Gates, but very few affirmative defenses of the alliance itself. Even columnist Kathleen Agena, writing in the Albany Times-Union, has to concede that NATO has many flaws. But, she argues, even though the NATO of tomorrow will no doubt be different from the alliance that helped deter the Soviet Union, it’ll still be an important force in the world.

Wrote Agena:

A historical foundation for respecting human rights and the dignity of the individual exists among NATO member states that, while we do not always uphold those values, does not exist in most other nations of the world. Those principles, not military strength, are the foundation of the alliance. All NATO members face threats from terrorists, rogue states and undemocratic regimes that are unprecedented in its history. NATO’s future will be different than in the past, but it need not be dismissed. We do not need new allies. We need to strengthen the bonds that brought the alliance together and re-examine our priorities.

She continues:

We need to recognize that NATO no longer needs to intervene militarily to support protests against all of the world’s dictators, to be the world’s policeman. The recent revolution in Tunisia succeeded without NATO’s military presence. Protesters in that country used the technological “militia” of iPods and the world’s media. “Thank you, Facebook,” was one of the graffiti messages scrawled on a wall during the revolt …

Our individual lives are now so interconnected through technology and economic ties, as well as through the dynamics of the environment that instability or natural or man-made disasters that occur in one area affect us all. NATO can and must remain strong in order to uphold the values of human decency and dignity that it was established to protect.

But it need not rely on military force as strongly as it once did. Instead, NATO can employ the power of its moral force, including freedom of the press and technology, using its military capabilities only when that becomes absolutely necessary. With the majority of the world’s population living under dictators as oppressive as those who fueled the hegemony of the Soviet Union, NATO needs to survive. It must be a beacon of encouragement to those who risk their well-being to oppose tyrants, but its military force need not be emphasized or used as strongly as it once was.

Different, but not dim — that is the real future of the NATO alliance.

So NATO’s utility as a military alliance may be behind it, Agena says — a realistic point, given the difficulties it has encountered in dealing with what Gates called “a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country,” i.e. Libya. But it deserves to survive as a forum for freedom, she argues, and maybe its future “interventions” would involve helping dissidents get around government restrictions on the Internet, etc.

And Agena doesn’t make this argument, but if NATO were to dial back its charter to become a less martial force for global do-goodery, it might mean lower requirements for military spending. That, in turn, could be an answer to Gates’ warning that future American policymakers might want to back out of NATO because they’re sick of U.S. taxpayers subsidizing European security.

What’s your take?