Europe’s Irrelevance, Not NATO’s Failure

December 1, 2006

As was expected, President Bush’s entreaties to the NATO members to enlarge their military footprints in Afghanistan (and to remove some of the rediculous limitations on their mandates) fell on deaf ears. Save for the over-enthusiastic new enlistees (read Estonia) most other senior members of the pact refused to increase troops or widen their mandate. Some have already billed this as “NATO’s failure in Afghanistan.”

As has been pointed out time and again, failure is not an option in Afghanistan. The historical experience of disengaging from and essentially failing Afghanistan in the 1990s would say the same thing. Afghanistan should not, can not, be written off easily as a failure. There will be far-reaching consequences. The United States understands this, and therefore, even if on a solo basis, will continue the mission in Afghanistan until such a time when the country can man its own security. Needless to say, this means a long time in Afghanistan.

While the outcomes of the Riga summit is certainly bad news for Afghanistan, it need not be a failure. Instead, it show’s NATO’s irrelevance to Afghanistan. More generally, it shows Europe’s irrelevance to today’s important global security issues. The Riga summit was an important test of Europe’s role in today’s world. Ever so persistent on multilateralism, especially in their vocal denunciation of US’s unilateral invasion of Iraq, the Europeans failed to live up their own standards in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the testing ground for Europe’s honesty about their rhetoric of multilateralism, and all indications seem to point to the direction of a profound hypocrisy.

The truth is that the Europeans are a little ahead of their times -a little more advanced than the rest of us. As Robert Kagan argues in his book Of Paradise and Power, given Europe’s sour experiences with the two World Wars, they have decidedly moved beyond the era of militarism and the use of military power as a political tool. Which is all grand and beautiful, and may finally have succeeded in harnessing the inherent German tendency for expansionism, but it does not apply to the rest of the world. The backwaters of civilization (Europeans can only view them as such) like the Middle East and troubled spots in Asia do not conform to this high-minded model of “perpetual peace.”

Which brings us to this: the United States should stop wasting its breath trying to encourage the Europeans to do something which they are all but existentially incapable of doing. It should own up to its important historical role and the responsibilities of a global leader and a hyper-power. In turn, the Europeans should stop wasting their breath trying to stop the United States from playing the role that it must play in today’s world. At times, the fulfillment of this role requires unilateral action, and the Europeans should resign themselves to that fact. Meanwhile, they should continue their positive contribution in terms of aid, reconstruction, and peacebuilding -as they are doing in Afghanistan.

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