Chicago was an appropriate setting for the NATO summit this year. Not necessarily because it is President Obama’s home town. More so because Chicago’s nickname is the windy city and there were several cross winds blowing across the gathering of an alliance struggling with its means and ends.

The main agenda item was the future of Afghanistan after a decade of efforts to secure that future. The fact that the new French President Francois Hollander is pulling his French troops out this year  as opposed to the 2014 goal set by President Obama and the alliance − was downplayed at the summit.  However, it did serve as a reminder about the impact of domestic politics when it comes to maintaining an alliance consensus. We will be seeing more of that as Europeans and Americans struggle with an unpredictable economic future while trying to pursue a common alliance strategy.

Following Chicago, the questions remaining involve how much support for Kabul will be forthcoming as the transfer of responsibility to the Afghan army for security in the war-torn state begins in 2013. The war weariness is widespread throughout the NATO members and it is matched by the uncertainty of Afghan President Karzai’s ability to sustain a viable and credible government, as well as the stability of his country.

Germany restated its commitment to stay the course to 2014, adding further promises to provide support beyond the military departure. Chancellor Merkel affirmed the “in together, out together” mantra which has been the slogan in getting to the goal of concluding the alliance’s military presence. Yet a problem the Chancellor faces is that the mantra is just as relevant in Berlin as it is in NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Even as Chancellor Merkel faces significant headwinds in dealing with the economic crisis in Europe, she is demonstrating continuity of commitments to NATO. Most of Merkel’s headaches are generated by the euro crisis these days and they are bound to get worse in the coming months. Keeping a clear profile with the NATO dimension of her portfolio is perhaps an advantage, since she is also encountering the same cluster of people under that roof as in the euro mess.

That said, following the backlash against Germany’s decision not to engage in the action in Libya, questions about Germany’s ability to offer “deliverables” in the future still remain. That decision was a call that Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made − but Merkel backed him up. Since then, the Libya experience has been illustrative of the challenge of getting an operative consensus in the alliance.

The fact that decisions involving the deployment of German military resources remain in the control of the federal Parliament places constraints on the Chancellor’s running space. Any suggestions that defense policy decisions be made without Parliamentary approval generate quick rebuttals from the Bundestag.

Yet, in a time of financial austerity in all NATO member countries, pooling resources is not only a military necessity. It also will involve pooling decision-making in order to apply those resources whenever the need for them might emerge. That raises a core issue of sovereignty and NATO has yet to figure out how to thread those needles.

The reference to “smart defense” in Chicago was based on the premise that an alliance can best perform when each link of the coalition chain can be relied on to deliver its resources. That there remains an enormous asymmetry in military budgets between the United States and Europe is nothing new, with the U.S. shouldering most of the NATO resource base. Even within that equation, there was always the recognition that the ends of the alliance formed the rationale for the burden-sharing formula.

Today, the ends and the means of the alliance appear to be out of sync. How to use the alliance in today’s world is not as clear cut – it is also not an easy sell in domestic markets. There are no less dangers in the world than there were in the past six decades of NATO. Yet the ability to forge both common strategy and tactics is more constrained across all members of the alliance, especially given the unpredictable economic situations each faces.

It has also been a given that Germany was the NATO member whose stake in the alliance was the greatest. NATO accepted West Germany into its ranks as the front line of the Cold War, and Germany was the planned battlefield of a potential clash with the Soviet Union. Following unification in 1990, Germany remained a cornerstone of NATO as the alliance expanded. Under  NATO command − and after sorting out its constitutional running space − Germany became engaged in numerous missions that eventually involved military engagements and fatalities. Following the war in the Balkans, Afghanistan became a significant challenge for Germany’s commitment to NATO’s ten year war. It was an evolving one that involved caveats, missteps and many fatalities along the way. But Germany did remain committed year after year.

Meanwhile, Germany’s defense posture was going through major changes as it downsized its military from Cold War requirements and eventually joined the rest of its European allies in eliminating the draft – a major milestone within German political and military traditions. Along with those trends came a decrease in the defense budget. Yet the commitment to Afghanistan remained intact. In doing so, there was an evolving debate about the role of Germany’s military mission within NATO and within a European Union framework which is still very much a “work in progress.”

Just as NATO has to rework the equation between ends and means, so must all 28 alliance partners − especially Germany − work through the double edged question: what is the alliance for and what do we need to contribute? Once the answers are determined, they then have to be presented to a skeptical domestic audience who will need to be persuaded.

It is rather intriguing that on both the military and economic side of the European debates, the struggle to find a better connection between ends and means is a mirror like reflection of the same questions.

On both fields it will be remain a very windy atmosphere – just like in Chicago.

  • R.G. Livingston

    Jack Janes’s piece fails to take into account that Germany has become a pacifist nation, its public showing scant interest in or respect for its military, as several Bundeswehr generals have complained publicly. Also, the piece should have highlighted how NATO’s leadership took account of the distaste of its member states publics for interventions outside Europe, making reference in this regard t the statement by its Secretary-General that NATO had “no intention whatsoever” of intervening in Syria. Such flat statements can but lead Russia to conclude that it can continue to back the Syrian government without fearing any strong action by NATO.