An International Platform

for Chicago’s

Thought Leaders

Reflections on NATO’s Chicago Summit

Looking back on a historic Chicago weekend, Senior Fellow Richard C. Longworth paints a not-so-pretty picture of the outcomes from NATO leaders' two days of summit meetings.

By Richard C. Longworth


NATO Flickr Photostream

The NATO summit in Chicago may have produced a communiqué filled with predictable agreements, but the vibes behind the official wording indicated that Chicago may go down in history as a milestone for NATO—and not necessarily a good one.

Several topics stood out:


The communiqué confirmed that NATO combat troops will be in Afghanistan through most of 2014, but the real news is that, as much as the White House denies it, a rush to the exits has begun. According to official briefers, Afghan forces will take what’s called the “lead responsibility” for security for the entire country by the middle of next year. In 2014, these Afghan forces will take “full responsibility” for security.

The difference between “lead responsibility” and “full responsibility” isn’t clear. It sounds gradual and nuanced. But, in practice, one can feel the American and NATO commitment winding down fast.

To be sure, NATO forces will remain in Afghanistan in support and training capacities. NATO nations pledged $4 billion per year to support the Afghan forces after the war ends. But promises and pledges made now have a way of falling short when they come due.

The fact is that Americans and populations in NATO member states are sick and tired of an 11-year war. They see no victory, no matter how long they stay. They are fed up with the Karzai government and its corruption. They just want out.

The new French president, François Hollande, confirmed his campaign pledge to get French combat troops out this year. As in its opposition to the war in Iraq, France may be saying something we should heed—that the war is lost and the quicker we’re out, the better.

Privately, no officials pretend that our decade in Afghanistan adds up to a victory, or that we’re going to leave anything behind other than a political and security vacuum. Even a presence to keep an eye on terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda may not be necessary, given the success of the Obama administration’s decapitation program and our growing technological ability to track terrorists around the world.

Public-private partnerships

This sounds like a global military-industrial complex. Actually, it recognizes that the security challenges of the future may have more to do with technology or the economy than with the military. As one general put it, in the twentieth-century security world, armies played the major role. In the twenty-first century, responses to threats will require cohesion between the public and private sector.

These threats include cyber-terrorism, which is near the top of NATO’s agenda, and drug trafficking, piracy, climate change, organized crime. None necessarily means armed conflict, but all threaten global security. These threats have gone global—that is to say, beyond the control of any one country. In each, both the private and public sectors bring special skills and technology to the task.


This is the most serious new issue—not the partners themselves, but what they symbolize for the transatlantic alliance.

These partners are not NATO members like Spain or Turkey. They are non-NATO countries that join in NATO operations, as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did in Libya. There have been almost as many partners, from Armenia to Macedonia to South Korea, on the ground in Afghanistan as there were NATO countries. In fact, there were more partners than NATO countries represented at the Chicago summit.

What’s going on here? First, as President Obama has said, America’s security focus has “pivoted” to Asia, away from Europe. Since the Cold War ended, NATO has kept busy with “out of area” missions that began in Bosnia and Kosovo, followed by Afghanistan and Libya.

Future American military operations are likely to be far out of area, possibly in Asia. But Europe is increasingly parochial, focused on its own interests, especially the Eurozone crisis. Too often Europe ignores what goes on outside Europe. For this reason, Washington doesn’t expect many NATO nations to take part in these more far-flung missions.

So Washington is looking for new partners—countries like New Zealand, Singapore, Tonga,  even Mongolia—which all took part in Afghanistan and came to the summit, where President Obama went out of his way to salute them.

These out-of-area missions would take place under the NATO imprimatur, but most participants would be non-European nations—a sort of coalition of the willing. Faced with new global challenges, this makes sense. What’s not to like?

Just this: In future missions, the United States would have little reason to pay attention to its European allies. In turn, the use of partners would give those allies an excuse to cut their NATO spending even further, since their troops will be playing an ever decreasing role in any NATO action. The European part of NATO will become increasingly irrelevant.

The problem here is that NATO was founded only partially as a defense bloc—to stop Soviet power. It also exists as the only treaty link between the United States and its European allies. It’s how we talk regularly to our best friends. This is irreplaceable.

Finally, an American presence in NATO guarantees that the Europeans themselves, with their militaries submerged in a multinational alliance, will never again go to war with each other. The European Union, by merging European economies, reinforces that guarantee.

But the EU is in trouble. The Eurozone may not survive. If it falls apart, this could undermine the whole European project and reignite the nationalism evident in the recent elections in France and Greece. Given Europe’s history in the first half of this century, this is scary.

In sum...

The Chicago summit made it clear that Afghanistan—NATO’s biggest military operation ever—is coming to a dispiriting end. After eleven years there, the Europeans are unlikely to follow the United States into war again soon.

Second: the Europeans, asked to support NATO, are voting no with their wallets. This sentiment came through loud and clear in Chicago.

Third: the United States, responding to global realities, is shifting its focus away from Europe to Asia and in search of non-NATO partners there. Those partners came to Chicago anxious to help.

The result is a weakening of NATO, one of the two great post-war Western institutions, just as the other, the EU, is on the brink of crisis. Both were established in the second half of the twentieth century, specifically to keep the first half from happening again.

Europe and the United States need the transatlantic tie that only NATO provides. Europe needs to keeps its militaries denationalized with NATO’s multilateral structure. The Chicago summit indicated that both Europe and America, while proclaiming NATO’s success, take it for granted.

Out in the streets, protesters demanded NATO’s end. But at least they took it seriously, which not all its members seem to. If it ever does close up shop, not only the protesters would miss it.