Huffington Post readers can be deeply skeptical of NATO, and it's not hard to understand why.
It's not the kind of place that inspires awe. The antiquated Headquarters in Belgium resemble less a political-military nerve center than a high-end trailer park. A British observer is said to have called it a 'Soviet discotheque'. A hideous sculpture in front has long been compared to the Death Star. Indeed, the overall impression is not that it's a redoubt for the Rebel Alliance, but a lair for Darth Maul.
But this isn't just a problem of perception. Since the Bosnian War, NATO has been an instrument for controversial Western interventions and their unintended consequences. In Libya, the Alliance rushed to help revolting civilians topple a dictator, only to be left impotent and aghast when those same insurrectionists turned on each other. Those on the left smear the Alliance as militarism gone wild; those on the right, as Europeans free-riding on American-provided security.
In this confusion, people can be forgiven for thinking that the Alliance's main reason for existing is its continuing existence, like a zombie institution stumbling forward on stiff, dead legs. In fact, as a speechwriter for the NATO Secretary General, I would lecture visiting student groups about the Alliance's history. At the start, I'd gesture across the road at the long-delayed, over-budget new Headquarters under construction. "Why do we need NATO?" I'd ask. "Because we've got a new building for it!"
Joking aside, I'm deeply convinced of the Alliance's necessity. Without NATO, our security would be far more precarious than it is.
For example, NATO bombs probably killed some 500 civilians in Kosovo, a tragic fact that no one can ignore. But let's suppose the Alliance had declined to intervene. It's possible that Slobodan Milosevic and rebellious Albanians would have settled their differences and embraced a fraternal peace. It's more likely that Milosevic's ethnic cleansing would have created an enraged and radicalized population of refugees in Europe's most unstable region, leading to far greater carnage.
But there's a deeper reason I believe in NATO, and it can be summed up in two words: collective defense. It's the simple notion that if you have Allies, you're less likely to go to war for the wrong reasons. And when you go to war together, after a transparent discussion of the alternatives, you'll have greater power.
You'll also have greater legitimacy under international law, derived in part from NATO's status as a 'regional arrangement' under Article 52 of the United Nations Charter. We sometimes forget that NATO's founding document, the North Atlantic Treaty, refers to the Charter five times.
We all know that when our leaders spurn such legitimacy, we can get ourselves into big problems. Muscular multilateralism is far preferable to unilateralism, or even 'coalitions of the willing'. The latter is a bit like the Dark Side: quicker, easier, more seductive...and much, much more expensive.
As a speechwriter, I often sat in on the biweekly meetings of the North Atlantic Council, the table where NATO's 28 Ambassadors gather to discuss issues of common concern. There was something wonderful about countries as diverse as Denmark and Turkey working things out through dialogue and respect. A few times, the Russian Ambassador visited the Council to hector the Allies about Ukraine, but talking is always better than fighting.
As global power flows eastwards and a multipolar world becomes a reality, we're going to need NATO's combination of power and legitimacy more, not less.
But while a powerful case for NATO can be made, the Alliance has a hard time making it, at least in an appealing way. The main reason is that while NATO talks about a lot about reform, it's still at heart the same organization it was during the Cold War.
Yes, it's eliminated 'agencies,' it's streamlined the command structure and it's cut costs. In practical terms, this has only meant smashing a few deck chairs on the Titanic. The Alliance's bureaucracy hasn't changed the way it does business. Its decisions are still opaque, its internal incentives perverse, and its finances far too nebulous.
Where I worked -- in NATO's Public Diplomacy Division -- 'reform' meant savage budget cuts that seemed divorced from balanced considerations about what worked, and what didn't. Insulated insiders tended to protect themselves, while a poisonous work environment drove away talented people. The result was, and remains, a pervasive institutional fear within the Alliance's corridors that strangles any real innovation, risk-taking or creativity.
You can see this fear in the way NATO talks. Often the Alliance's words are both dreadfully boring and unconsciously conceited. Instead of raising its problems forthrightly, the Alliance is stuck in a frozen Smiley mode that brooks no talk of weakness -- an inflexible narrative that insists everything's perfect, and getting more perfect all the time.
Russian propaganda benefits from NATO's stilted tone. Slick and supple, it feeds on the idea of an isolated and humiliated Russia surrounded by an arrogant and overbearing Alliance that cannot talk with Russia, but only down to it.
NATO's not going to convince this guy of its good intentions. A subtler and more elegant strategy would be to speak past him, directly to the Russian public, to convince ordinary Russians that the Alliance isn't a threat. In today's NATO, such subtlety is almost impossible, although the occasional valiant staffer can attempt it.
It's time for real reform. The Alliance should be more transparent and more accountable to Allied publics. Above all, it should be a place where new ideas can be freely and creatively expressed. Since 1949, NATO has helped defend democracy and the freedom of expression in North America and Europe. It's time we protected that same freedom within NATO itself.