For anyone who cares for multilateralism, the sight of the Europeans still refusing to offer more soldiers to the Nato force in Afghanistan is indeed excruciating. What no one dares to ask, however, is what the hell Nato is doing there in the first place.
Not in the sense of its mission, but the body itself. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was, after all, founded and developed as a defence alliance to defend western Europe against Russia. Once the wall came down, Nato should have been downgraded to something much smaller and looser.
Instead, it did the opposite, adding new members by the handful as the former Soviets span out of Moscow's orbit, developing a new policy of "out-of-theatre" operations and extending its remit from Europe to the world. Part of this was the pure survival instincts of any large bureaucracy. If the Russian threat no longer warranted a huge defence alliance, then they had to think up new challenges to justify its existence - humanitarian intervention in the surrounding continents and peace-keeping across the globe.
At the same time, the generals also argued - with rather more conviction - that in Nato the West at least had a functioning military command structure with proven experience of multinational co-operation. The alternatives, the European force favoured by the French or a standing UN army, did not exist. Nato was at least at hand, and proved its worth in Bosnia and Kosovo.
But those were European crises where the Organisation had an obvious locus. The trouble with trying to extend Nato's role into Afghanistan and beyond is that you get into precisely the difficulties it has now. There isn't a unity of purpose, and Nato's own role is confused.
Formally, Nato is there to provide security and keep the peace on behalf of the Kabul government. In practice, particularly in the southern Helmand province, it is there to intervene to defeat Kabul's enemies and wipe out the opium trade - in other words to fight a war on behalf of the political centre, to break the power of the warlords who seized control of areas in the aftermath of the defeat of the Taliban (a victory for which they could claim some credit) and to overturn a major part of the domestic economy. To the locals, that is pretty near to outright occupation, and it is made all the more unacceptable by the fact that Nato is, to put it bluntly, an all-white western grouping, led by the US, which has regional aims of its own, and largely manned in the south by a Britain that is seen as America's sidekick.
No wonder Italy and Spain are resisting calls for troop deployment, and the Germans are resisting an extension of their role from the more peaceable north of the country to active engagement in the south. No wonder, too, that Turkey, the one Muslim member of Nato, is willing to put its troops into the UN force in Lebanon but not the Nato one in Central Asia. Turkey's interests lie in extending its influence and position in the Middle East. They don't lie in getting tangled up in the Muslim wars further east.
Nato's secretary general talks bravely of his organisation's members having to stump up, as if this were a straight alliance obligation. But it isn't. The operation is part of a western intervention in a foreign country, pursued under an agenda quite different from Nato's core purpose.
You can argue that the cause is a noble one: to support a democratically-elected government and to defeat, as the Prime Minister likes to emphasise, the returning Taliban. But you could equally argue that all that is happening is that, led by the British, European forces are getting embroiled in a factional conflict in which Mohammed Karzai's government is far from national in its interests or approach and fighting a war which is as much tribal as it is "Taliban".
As with Iraq, it may be that we are in so deep that we cannot get out now without bringing catastrophe down on the heads of those we are supposedly there to help. It may also be that, having been sucked in so far, we have no choice but to reinforce the troops already there, with whatever arm-twisting the organisation can mange to exercise over its members at its Slovenia summit at the end of the month.
But before the accusations of pusillanimity against the Germans and others get too loud, and before the conviction takes hold that this latest débâcle is proof of why multilateralism cannot work for world security, the West needs to think again about just what it is doing at the moment in its foreign ventures.
Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, has presented the latest call to arms as a test for Nato which, if it fails, could bring down the whole organisation. But is that necessarily such a bad thing? Or at least would it be so terrible if Nato retreated from its out-of-theatre role and returned to being a European defence pact covering wider Europe. There's more than enough work for it there. It can only operate as a global player if it broadens its base of members. But then what would be the point?
If the world is to develop mechanisms for world security, it should be around the UN, in its peacekeeping role, and regional associations in their role of guardians of stability. The Nato adventure in Afghanistan is not failing because of the cowardice of its partners, but is because it is the wrong organisation given the wrong job. Its members are right to be shy about making any further commitment.Reuse content