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NATO Heads Toward the Nursing Home

By Elizabeth Pond

NATO won't be dismantled. Instead, it will move to an old people's home. Sure, member-state officials will drop by Brussels now and then to pat auntie on the head, but they won't expect her to do any heavy lifting.

This pungent metaphor was coined by veteran U.S. diplomat Robert Blackwill at the conference that kicks off the transatlanticists' high season each fall. Surprisingly, virtually everyone at the Geneva palaver of the International Institute for Strategic Studies last weekend agreed.

Americans across the political spectrum blame the decay of history's longest alliance on the free-riding Europeans' slashing their defense budgets after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Reciprocally, Europeans blame the decay on American hyperpower hubris in starting the Iraq war and failing to end the Afghan expedition before the quagmire—thus overextending the West, incubating America's present war fatigue, and giving the last laugh to Iran in the Mideast and China around the globe.

Washington's special British relations further mourn the loss of U.S. global authority through the torture of prisoners in violation of international law and America'a own bedrock principles. (They also cringe, of course, at current revelations of secret British collusion in rendition of prisoners.) And a former head of the MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, took a public swipe at George W. Bush's resort to "war" on a terror that should instead have been demythologized as a crime. While praising America's generosity in sharing its omnivorous intelligence-gathering with allies, she declared bluntly that the war on an Iraq that had had minimal previous contact with terrorists in fact "increased the terrorist threat by convincing more people that Osama bin Laden’s claim that Islam was under attack was correct."

As for the academics, in their cooler moments they blame the interminable financial crisis that has left both Europe and the United States strapped for cash, without the luxury of discretionary guns. Or they blame alliance decay on structural change in a era of diffused power and a looming Asia-centric world. As one Indian analyst pointed out in Geneva, China and India accounted for half of the world economy until 1800. Their globalized prominence today, he implied, is less a rise than a restoration.

Moreover, warns one transatlanticist after another, don't think that NATO-lite interventions with the U.S. leading from behind are any model for the future. The alliance's lucky skin-of-its-teeth victory in Libya—which would have failed miserably without U.S. ammunition and targeting intelligence—should have been a wake-up call to Europeans to build a military instrument to use in its own backyard. Instead, the operation was a last hurrah. If the Arab Spring had erupted a year later, Britain's budget-strapped armed forces would no longer have been capable of even this half-combat role.

Altogether, in Geneva "gloom" wrestled with "despair" as the dominant proclaimed mood among alliance loyalists. True, Al Qaida has lost the Arab street to a modern generation that wants dignity and freedom rather than jihad and a caliphate. But who knows how soon Islamists might hijack the Arab uprising from the disorganized tweeters? And what is going to happen to Israel, which is now feuding with its only two Arab friends, Egypt and Turkey, and has alienated even its staunchest European supporter, Germany, by its hard line on Palestinian issues?

In the coming decade, suggests London columnist Philip Stephens, Europeans will be nostalgic about their fears in the last decade of an overbearing America. Instead, they will fear something far worse: an America that is retreating from the world.

Alliances, it seems, end not with a bang, but with a whimper, in a home for senior citizens.

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Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Endgame in the Balkans.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user European Parliament]

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