NATO's not very lofty summit

What's the most useless waste of time, money, and fuel that you can think of? A NASCAR race? A Star Trek convention? The Burning Man festival?

Well, right up there with those obvious granfalloons is the recent NATO summit in Chicago. I've now read the official statements and White House press releases, and it's tempting to see the whole thing as a subtle insult to our collective intelligence. To paraphrase Churchill, never have so many world leaders flown so far to accomplish so little.

Along with the usual boilerplate, there were three big items on the summit agenda.
First, the assembled leaders announced that NATO will end the war in Afghanistan by the summer of 2013, and gradually turn security over to the Afghans themselves. This decision sounds like a significant milestone, but it's really just acknowledging a foregone conclusion. Popular support for the war has been plummeting, and the Obama administration has been lowering U.S. objectives for some time. In fact, the war in Afghanistan was lost a long time ago (mostly because the Bush administration invaded Iraq and let the Taliban come back), and Obama's big mistake was failing to recognize this from the start. The 2009 "surge" provided a fig leaf to enable the U.S. and NATO to get out, but the cost has been billions more dollars squandered, more dead NATO soldiers and dead Afghans, and a deteriorating relationship with nuclear-armed Pakistan. It's nice that NATO is acknowledging these realities, but it didn't take a summit to figure this out. Perhaps the only benefit of this announcement is that it might make it harder for Mitt Romney to reverse course in the event he gets elected, though I'm not at all sure that Romney would want to do so anyway.

Second, NATO has piously declared -- for the zillionth time -- that its members will enhance their military capabilities by improved intra-alliance cooperation. This step is justified in part by highlighting the alliance's supposed recent achievements, to wit:

"The success of our forces in Libya, Afghanistan, the Balkans and in fighting piracy is a vivid illustration that NATO remains unmatched in its ability to deploy and sustain military power to safeguard the security of our populations and to contribute to international peace and security."

NATO is "unmatched" because the United States maintains a global military presence, but the self-congratulation here seems misplaced. Libya hardly looks like a success story right now, success in Afghanistan has been downgraded not to what we originally wanted but to whatever we think we can achieve, and the Balkan operation now appears open-ended.

More importantly, how many times have we seen this movie? Ever since the 1952 Lisbon force goals, NATO's European members have promised to improve their capabilities and then failed to meet their agreed-upon goals. This pattern has continued for five-plus decades, and it makes you wonder why anyone takes such pledges seriously anymore. If EU countries can't find the money to backstop a proper firewall for the fragile Greek, Italian, and Spanish economies, it is hard to believe NATO's European members are going to make significant new investments in defense. I'm not saying they should, by the way, given that Europe faces no significant conventional military threats. Last time I checked, the U.S. was spending about 4 percent of its GDP on defense and the rest of NATO was averaging about 1.7 percent. Both halves of the transatlantic partnership will be trimming budgets in the years ahead, no matter what they said in Chicago. So I wouldn't put much stock in item #2.

Third, NATO reaffirmed its commitment to the missile defense boondoggle. Never mind that the Defense Science Board recently concluded that existing defense technologies are still easily spooked by inexpensive countermeasures. Please overlook the tens of billions of dollars we've spent chasing the Holy Grail of missile defense since the 1980s, without ever getting there. Ignore the poisonous effect this program has on relations with Russia, which has to assume the worst and take our efforts seriously. And pay no attention to the fact that if missile defense ever did work really, really well, it would just encourage potential adversaries to work on alternative delivery mechanisms (like smuggling) that would make it more difficult to trace an attack back to its source.

The summit did give Obama the opportunity to show off his home town to his European friends. As a former Chicagoan, I'm glad they had the chance to look around a great American city, and I hope everyone had a good time. But both the attendees and the various groups protesting the summit seem to have missed the most important fact about the gathering: It just wasn't a very important event.


Stephen M. Walt

Turkish reflections: What I learned at the Istanbul World Political Forum

The remainder of my trip to Turkey sparked some further thoughts, including some qualifications to my last post. To wit:

1. I previously described the conference I attended -- the Istanbul World Political Forum -- as an illustration of Turkey's emphasis on "soft power." By creating a Davos-like annual meeting oriented towards issues central to emerging economies, the organizers sought to display Turkey's growing importance as a political player. I still think that's right, but my conversations with other attendees suggest that the IWPF will need to raise its game in the years ahead if they want to reap the full benefits. The panels were interesting and well-attended, and there were a number of informative speakers, but I also heard a lot of complaints about the overall level of organization of the operation. Some speakers didn't know which panels they would appear on until the last minute, and the format of some sessions wasn't clear until you showed up. I also heard complaints about haphazard travel arrangements, although in my own case the bookings worked well after some initial glitches. Putting on an event like this isn't easy, but if the Turkish government and the other sponsors hope to use these forums as a way of demonstrating their efficiency, competence, and managerial ability, they've got a ways to go.

2. One of the more vivid impressions I took from the conference was the prevailing wariness -- if not outright suspicion -- with which the United States was viewed by many of the attendees. Virtually any statement that cast even mild doubt about U.S. policy (on Iran, Middle East peace, past interventions, Iraq, etc.) drew spontaneous approval from the audience, even if the statements weren't especially provocative, penetrating, or anti-American. For example, in the panel on a possible war with Iran, I suggested that if the U.S. wanted to dissuade Iran from building nuclear weapons, it might make sense to stop threatening Tehran with regime change. The audience immediately burst into loud applause. Similar statements by journalist and professor Stephen Kinzer and Juergen Chrobog of the BMW Stiftung Herbert Quandt elicited much the same response. And most of the questions (or diatribes) from the audience were either explicitly or implicitly critical of the U.S. position. I had a similar experience in my other panel as well.

I wish some U.S. government officials had been there to observe this phenomenon, because it drove home to me the degree to which U.S. policy is regarded by many is inherently myopic, selfish, and illegitimate. (And the positive bump produced by Obama's election in 2008 is long gone). It's not a deep hatred of Americans themselves, but rather a simmering resentment of America's global role. And I think many Americans just don't get this, especially when they spend all their time talking to their counterparts (i.e., the global 1 percent) in other countries.

3. The trip also highlighted for me the ambiguities of Turkey's internal politics under the AKP. I've been trying to figure out where Turkey is headed for a number of years now, and I still don't consider myself anything like an expert on political developments there. But several incidents on this trip underscored the deep tensions that still persist and may be getting worse.

On the one hand, the AKP has done an impressive job of stimulating economic growth, reforming ordinary criminal justice practice, encouraging some forms of democratic participation, and emphasizing higher education. I would also give them high marks for their overall handling of foreign policy. The much-ballyhooed "zero problems" strategy trumpeted by Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davatoglu has hit some rough spots in the past couple of years (most visibly over Syria), but it's still a smart aspiration, even if it has proven more difficult to implement in practice. And I still think the U.S. has an important interest in maintaining good relations with Turkey going forward; to see this, just imagine how much more difficult our dealings with this region would be if Ankara and Washington were really at odds.

But on the other hand, AKP rule has been heavy-handed in a variety of disturbing ways, most notably in the protracted detention of the so-called Ergenekon suspects and in its various efforts to manipulate or intimidate the Turkish press. The AKP hasn't been anywhere near as brutal as some previous military governments (among other things, Turkey's overall human rights record is vastly better than in some earlier eras, but there are still a lot of disturbing elements. While I was at the conference, three different people came up to tell me privately that "things were really bad here," and that the United States had to do more to pressure the AKP. It was clear after a few minutes of conversation that these speakers were secularists from the old order (i.e., they are part of a class that has been losing power), but it was nonetheless striking to hear their concerns. At a minimum, it suggested to me that that AKP has done a much better job of clipping the wings of the old guard than it has of reconciling them to the realities of the new Turkey.

Given Turkey's turbulent past, this lingering animosity is not that surprising. But it does not bode well for the future, especially if the economic prosperity on which the AKP's popularity rests begins to flag. And as I said on one panel, the continued deterioration of domestic freedoms in Turkey is bound to be exploited by groups who are worried about Turkey's foreign policy direction, thereby damaging U.S.-Turkish relations in ways that both countries would soon regret.

4. Adding it all up, I'd argue that we are witnessing an important shift in world politics whose broader implications are worrisome for the United States. Political participation is broadening and deepening in more and more countries, and even if the results fall far short of some ideal vision of democracy (let alone the imperfect U.S. version of that ideal), these states are going to be increasingly sensitive to popular sentiment. Unfortunately, U.S. policy towards many parts of the world has depended more on cushy deals with oligarchs, dictators, and plutocrats, and past U.S. actions (most of them undertaken for various Cold War/anti-communist reasons) have left a toxic legacy that most Americans do not fully appreciate. Add to that our frequent resort to military force since the Cold War ended, our enthusiastic use of sanctions despite the human costs to ordinary citizens, and our insistence that there are really two sets of rules in world politics (the U.S. can violate other states' sovereignty whenever we want, but weaker states who object to this get demonized and/or threatened with more of the same). The result is a world where many people would like to take us down several pegs, and where it can be costly for political leaders to be openly supportive of U.S. initiatives (see under: Pakistan).

America is still very powerful, and plenty of governments still understand that some of our strategic interests overlap. But we're entering a world were fewer and fewer governments are going to be reflexively deferential to the United States, for the simple reason that they pay attention to popular sentiment and their own national interests aren't in fact identical to ours. If we expect governments in these countries to be as supine as some of their predecessors, we had better get used to disappointment. What will be needed is a lot more nuance, flexibility, and diplomatic skill, as well as a greater sense of humility and restraint. I only hope that we are better at displaying these qualities in the future than we've been in the recent past.