NATO: Challenges & Changes (Thomas Hughes)

| Thomas Hughes | 30 July 2012 | Mons, Belgium |

As I approach the third week of my internship, I am beginning to get a feel for NATO as an organization, and develop an understanding of its strengths and weaknesses. For those who don’t know, NATO is a military alliance made up of twenty-eight countries. All of NATO’s funding comes from the member countries. Since the majority of NATO countries are European, NATO is facing some very serious budget constraints in the midst of the ongoing austerity measures. Unlike in the United States, many of these European countries speak very openly about slashing military spending and have actually done so. Getting funding for projects like the 2012 NATO Legal Conference we are planning is painstaking at times. Since I have taken the lead in contacting the speakers for the conference and arranging their travel and lodging, I am getting to witness these budgetary issues first hand. I have also seen my boss, retired Marine Colonel Lewis Bumgardner, campaigning very hard at meetings for funding for new database management software. I can see that getting funding for projects like this is like pulling teeth at NATO.  No one seems to have enough money to do what they want to do.

NATO is also struggling with its relevance. Many critics of the organization have questioned whether NATO is even necessary anymore. NATO was created in 1949, largely in response to the looming threat from the Soviet Union. Over twenty years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, some of these critics are making strong cases that an alliance as large and integrated as NATO is unwarranted. These cases are stronger for countries with viable militaries like the United States, Germany and Great Britain, than for smaller/weaker countries like Estonia, Latvia and Albania. However, these smaller countries in the Alliance provide much needed international political support for NATO operations that these larger countries would not necessarily have without them. This debate will undoubtedly continue in the face of changing political and economic landscapes. For now, NATO seems like it will continue in full force but it is undoubtedly more fragile now that it has been in decades.

Another big problem for NATO is the media. Just like in the political realm, scandals and failures make the headlines while successes and accomplished goals tend to get stuck on the back page. For example, the overwhelmingly successful (meaning that the goals set forth at the beginning of the campaign were accomplished) military campaign in Libya has long disappeared from the news, while the problems in Afghanistan see more headlines than ever before. I am in no way advocating that these issues in Afghanistan be shielded from the public, but this disparity in coverage is very important to understand. Since NATO receives its funding from the member countries and such funding is generally allotted by democratically elected and politically accountable governments, public opinion is vital to the continued support of NATO from member governments. One prime example of this is the newly elected French government of Francois Hollande. Hollande ran on the platform of withdrawing all French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012 and appears to be sticking to this promise. Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has also made clear that no Canadian troops will remain on the ground after 2014. This debate will undoubtedly continue in the face of changing political and economic landscapes. For now NATO seems like it will continue in full force but it is certainly more fragile now that it has been in decades.

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