FPI Analysis: Missed Opportunities at the 2012 NATO Summit

May 25, 2012

The 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago is likely to be remembered more for what might have been, rather than for what was actually accomplished.  Amid daunting challenges—such as the eurozone crisis that threatens to further erode resources devoted to Europe’s militaries, and the wavering commitments of member states to Afghanistan’s long-term security and stability—the United States and its allies missed an opportunity to renew NATO’s internal vitality and international relevance. 

Membership “Inaction” Plans for NATO’s Partners

Regrettably, NATO members declined to provide Macedonia, Georgia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo with a clear path to formally join the alliance.  Macedonia, which was granted a so-called Membership Action Plan by NATO in 1999, has participated in NATO-led operations in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, and U.S.-led operations in Iraq.  Yet Macedonia’s formal entry into the alliance continues to be blocked by Greece, which demands that the NATO candidate first change its formal name.  Although Georgia contributed troops to NATO operations in Afghanistan and U.S.-led operations in Iraq, it did not receive a so-called Membership Action Plan at the 2008 NATO summit, and was subsequently attacked and partially occupied by Russia.

NATO enlargement has received strong support from current and former U.S. government officials.  On March 30, 2012, 54 lawmakers led by Representatives Candice Miller (R-MI) and Michael Turner (R-OH) sent a letter to the White House, urging President Obama “to make sure that NATO finally offers the Republic of Macedonia its well-deserved formal invitation to join the alliance during the Chicago summit.”  On May 17, 2012, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) published an op-ed calling for the renewal and expansion of the alliance, and also issued a statement to bolster Georgia’s efforts to join NATO. 

Former National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, and former Secretaries of Defense William Cohen and Donald Rumsfeld recently sent a letter calling on the President to “make every effort, both publicly and privately, to affirm Macedonia’s place in the NATO family and to urge other Alliance members to support a continued open-door policy” for other aspirant states.  In addition, General Jim Jones, President Obama’s former National Security Advisor, published a May 18th op-ed, warning that if NATO enlargement is “swept under the rug in deference to other topics of concern,” that could be a “blow to stability in the Balkans and to the Republic of Macedonia in particular.”

Given continued uncertainty about the future of the European Union, ensuring progress on NATO enlargement is more important than ever in moving towards “a Europe whole and free.”

A Critical Moment for NATO and Afghanistan

NATO used the Chicago summit to “rubber-stamp” President Obama’s plan to accelerate the transfer of lead responsibility for combat operations to Afghan forces by mid-2013.  Although newly-elected French President François Hollande announced his intention to pull out all of his country’s combat forces by the end of 2012, most NATO members remain committed to keeping combat troops in Afghanistan until 2014.

Still, the United States and other allies are moving to reduce their military presence in Afghanistan.  Indeed, the Obama administration intends to withdraw 23,000 of the 88,000 U.S. troops in the country by September 2012.  What’s troubling is that American and allied military drawdowns are coming as an emboldened Taliban is carrying out attacks across the country.  These drawdowns will increase pressure to hand over areas to Afghan forces even more rapidly than may be prudent.

Equally problematic, the United States has not yet succeeded in persuading Pakistan to reopen supply routes to NATO forces in Afghanistan, despite news reports suggesting Washington and Islamabad might announce such an agreement at the Chicago summit.  Although NATO has diversified critical supply routes to Afghanistan by increasing shipments through the Northern Distribution Network and Uzbekistan, this has come at a steep cost.  According to the U.S. Transportation Command, shipping routes through Central Asia cost twice as much as through Pakistan.

Unless the United States and NATO redouble their efforts to strengthen both Afghan forces and the government in Kabul to take the lead by mid-2013, Afghanistan may find itself unable to counter the violence and terrorism of the Taliban and other militant groups, putting in jeopardy the security gains and political progress made in the country so far.  As FPI Executive Director Jamie M. Fly wrote in ForeignPolicy.com, “Recent events notwithstanding, we are winning, but as long as we continue to narrow our goals and talk only of metrics, timelines, and the latest scandal, we're setting ourselves up for literal failure and perhaps even worse, a compromising of what we stand for as a country and an alliance.”  U.S. leadership will be required to ensure that NATO members remain committed to a successful outcome in Afghanistan.

Failing to Lead on Syria

The United States and NATO members failed to discuss how the alliance might collectively respond to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s continuing massacres of civilians.  Given claims by U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder and Supreme Allied Commander for Europe (SACEUR) General James Stavridis that “NATO’s operation in Libya has rightly been hailed as a model intervention,” the reluctance even to broach the crisis in Syria represents a moral and strategic failure for the alliance.  Undeterred by the peace plan put forth by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and supported by the Obama administration, the Assad regime is escalating violence against its own people, with sectarian tensions now spilling into Lebanon and other neighboring states.

To help end the violence in Syria, it is imperative that the United States lead discussions with NATO partners on what steps can be taken to hasten Assad’s exit, and limit the damage and instability that his regime’s campaign of aggression is beginning to spread across the region.  As the Washington Post’s editorial board recently wrote:

“As with Libya, NATO could support the Syrian opposition without putting its own troops at risk. And the alternative to NATO action in Syria is not just a slower democratic victory, nor even a return to Assad-regime stability. Instead, as we’ve written before, Syria’s conflict, already increasingly violent, might well degenerate into full-blown sectarian warfare; this war could jump into Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, and al-Qaeda would profit murderously from this opportunity.” 

Looking ahead, President Obama should raise the issue with America’s closest allies, drawing on various proposals put forward by Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Joe Lieberman (ID-CT), and John Kerry (D-MA) to enable the opposition to defend itself against the Assad regime, and create “safe zones” for civilians within Syria’s borders. 


The 2012 NATO Summit occurred at a critical moment for the alliance.  With the European Union facing an internal crisis, it is more important than ever that NATO help to strengthen the bonds of continental stability and transatlantic partnership.  Yet NATO members set their sights low, and missed a key opportunity to clarify NATO’s post-2014 commitment to Afghanistan, to spur discussion about the alliance’s potential role in dealing the worsening crisis in Syria, and to clear roadmaps for the long-deferred efforts by Georgia, Macedonia, and other partners to formally join.  Making up this lost ground will require, at a minimum, proactive and sustained American leadership, which is currently lacking.

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