What happens to NATO after Afghanistan?

NATO's largest mission is coming to an inglorious end. Offcially, the alliance still claims that 2014 is the year it will disentangle itself from Afghanistan. Even before the recent bloody incidents, however, key members of the alliance were talking about an earlier departure. The violence sparked by revelations of Koran burning and the murder of Afghan civilians by a U.S. soldier have sapped  already low levels of trust between the alliance and its Afghan partners and made an early exit more likely.

What happens to Afghanistan--and to the region--after NATO's departure is the most obvious question. But the alliance's coming retreat from Kabul raises another issue: what happens to NATO after its largest mission ends? Since  shortly after the Cold War, and notwithstanding predictions of its demise, the Western alliance has been in a frenzy of activity: it expanded to take in almost a dozen new members; through the Balkans conflicts, it developed a new speciality as a regional stabilization force; it activated its members' Article V committments for the first time in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and a few years later took on the Afghanistan mission.

Barring some new development, however, NATO activity will soon be at its  lowest ebb since the early 1990s. Expansion of the alliance has mostly run its course. The Libya operation is done. The Bosnia stabilization mission, launched in 1995, was handed over to the European Union in late 2004. NATO does still have a mission in Kosovo, but that force is now smaller than 6,000 troops and will probably shrink further. Just as NATO moves into a shiny (and expensive) new headquarters building in Brussels, the world's most successful military alliance may find itself struggling to be relevant.

There are several different scenarios for the alliance:

The Waiting Game: The last two decades suggest that the alliance may not have to wait long before some new military challenge descends on it. While the alliance isn't keen to intervene in Syria, the continuing instability of the Arab Spring may ultimately lead to a new stabilization operation. Parts of the Balkans are still tense and may require new attention. An African mission isn't out the question. On this view, all the alliance really needs to do is oil the wheels of military cooperation and stand ready.  For all its fissures and tensions, NATO  still brings together most of the world's most advanced militaries and offers them a ready-made command structure. In an unstable world, it won't be long before that machinery is needed again.

Turn East: Some of NATO's newer eastern and central European members might prefer that the alliance look closer to home for dragons to confront.  Russia is rearming and showing signs of revanchism. It periodically makes noises about placing missiles in the enclave of Kaliningrad. The conflict with Georgia could easily flare up again. In this tense atmosphere, perhaps NATO should return to its original mission: Keeping Europe safe from Russian bullying.

New security threats: NATO's members face a new generation of security threats, from cyberattacks to shadowy terrorist networks. One possible path forward for the alliance would be to develop expertise in these areas and become more than a provider of stabilization forces. This would require a major reorientation; the alliance is not well placed to address these more nebulous threats. It doesn't operate drones or do much with special forces. Its national interlocutors are defense ministers, not intelligence agencies or interior ministries. But there is a need for greater coordination in these areas, and NATO could prove to be a convenient and familiar forum.   

Go Global: Back in 2005, the current American ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, wrote an article with James Goldgeier arguing that NATO's future lay outside the alliance's traditional area of operations. What's more, they argued, the time had come for NATO to expand its membership beyond the North Atlantic area. "NATO's next move must be to open its membership to any democratic state in the world that is willing and able to contribute to the fulfillment of NATO's new responsibilities."  The expensive and controversial Afghanistan operation has sapped enthusiasm for this kind of dramatic change, but it remains a potential long-term alternative.    

Slow Fade: Maybe this search for ways to keep the alliance relevant is misguided. After all, institutions and alliances should respond to some felt need; they are not ends in themselves. Commentators of a realist bent--for example, George Will and Steve Walt--have long expected that NATO would come undone in the post-Cold War. The frenetic alliance activity of the last fifteen years has seemed to prove them wrong, but they could see an important long-term reality: that there is no compelling strategic need for the alliance. Without that need, and as the spate of nation-building operations subside, NATO may start a dignified fade into the background. 

The Multilateralist

Will the EU ground its flying carbon tax?

For several years now, a conflict has been brewing between the European Union and many of its largest trading partners over European attempts to control carbon emissions. The specific issue has been the vast quantities of carbon dioxide generated every year by the world's aircraft. With global negotiations aimed at addressing aircraft emissions stalled, the EU  took action of its own:

As air travel becomes cheaper, EU emissions from aviation are increasing fast. Someone flying from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year. In order to mitigate the climate impacts of aviation, the EU has decided to impose a cap on CO2 emissions from all international flights – from or to anywhere in the world – that arrive at or depart from an EU airport....From the start of 2012, emissions from all domestic and international flights that arrive at or depart from an EU airport will be covered by the EU Emissions Trading System.

The move inspired howls of protest outside the EU, and the extraterritorial reach of the tax has been the focus of the anger: aircraft landing in Europe are compelled to pay for the emissions generated even outside European airspace. The EU contends that skyrocketing aircraft emissions--and the failure of international efforts to control them--justify the measure.  For non-Europeans, however, the policy has been cast as unacceptable, and probably illegal, regulatory overreach. A European Union that loves multilateralism stands accused of abandoning international negotiations for a unilateral approach. 

The trick for livid non-Europeans has been finding an international forum that can back up their complaint. A trade association representing U.S. airlines challenged the measure in the European Court of Justice, but lost. The UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is the most obvious forum, but it doesn't have a strong record of adjudicating disputes between its members. The World Trade Organization does have a binding dispute resolution system, but the EU measure may not violate existing international trade law (which has special rules that cover aviation).

The absence of an international ruling against the directive hasn't quieted the EU's critics, some of whom have threatened noncompliance (the first payments under the system don't come due until early 2013). The U.S. Congress has considered legislation making it illegal to comply with the EU law. In February, more than twenty governments opposing the measure met in Moscow to hone a set of counter-measures. Perhaps most importantly, China appears to be deploying its massive buying power to encourage European reconsideration.

The strategy may be yielding results. Key players in the European aviation industry just sent a stinging letter to EU leaders warning that the tax may spark a trade war and damage their sales:

European aviation bosses have urged political leaders to stop an escalating global row over an EU carbon levy, warning it is seriously threatening their industry.

Airbus CEO Tom Enders said that China -- at the forefront of opposition to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) - had suspended orders for aircraft worth $12 billion, putting at least 2,000 positions at risk.

Alongside Enders, eight chief executives of airlines and engine makers wrote to the leaders of Britain, France, Spain and Germany saying they expected "suspensions, cancellations and punitive actions to grow as other important markets continue to oppose ETS."

EU officials have left open the option of altering the directive if some broader international agreement is reached on aviation emissions. But that kind of complex, multilateral agreement remains distant, and few of the major players appear inclined to negotiate seriously while the offensive EU directive is pointed at them.