Joseph A. Harriss: NATO Reconsidered

Roundup: Talking About History

[Joseph A. Harriss is The American Spectator's Paris correspondent. His latest book is About France.]

With policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic slashing public spending and searching for ways to reduce military budgets, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has just begun construction of a splendiferous new $1.38 billion headquarters on a 100-acre site in Brussels. Designed by Chicago architects Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, renowned for luxurious commercial buildings including the tallest in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the futuristic new NATO offices will feature eight sweeping wings covering 2.7 million square feet. Glass-walled elevators overlooking cavernous atriums showering natural light. Ecologically correct grass growing on the roof. Seventeen conference rooms. A range of amenities from cafeterias, restaurants, and banks, to shopping, sport, and leisure facilities. Pentagon staffers, eat your hearts out.

The architects wax rhapsodic, comparing its weird configuration to "fingers interlaced in a symbolic clasp of unity and mutual interdependence." As one SOM design director glowingly describes the sprawling steel and glass structure, "We wanted to break the norm of what is perceived as a government service, bunker-like building. We made it look very classy, giving the illusion that it was a world-class, floor-to-ceiling-type glass building, very inviting. We also paid attention to how these grand spaces look."

For an organization that's been a perfect illustration of Parkinson's Law (bureaucracies expand over time, regardless of workload) since it lost its original raison d'être when the Soviet Union collapsed, it seems a normal entitlement. "A modern NATO needs a modern building," NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted at the groundbreaking ceremony last December 16. Maybe. But does it have to be this extravagant, this grand, this pricey? The timing couldn't be worse.

The timing couldn't be better. The provocative new structure comes just when the Obama administration is pushing to trim federal budgets by some $1.1 trillion over the next decade, along with reductions in Pentagon spending by $78 billion. Other major NATO members are also cutting defense spending, Britain by 8 percent, Germany by some $11.5 billion. The spectacular project at least has the virtue of symbolizing what has gone wrong with this self-aggrandizing, self-perpetuating body whose main mission often seems to be not collective defense of its members, but its own self-preservation.

"It is somewhat ironic that NATO breaks ground on its new headquarters at the same time the fundamental sinews binding the alliance together are coming apart," says Marko Papic, a senior analyst at Stratfor, a global intelligence analysis firm based in Austin. As for NATO's image in a time of austerity, the controversial building is a well-aimed shot in the foot. "It is certainly unfortunate," Stephen Flanagan, senior vice president at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. "We don't need the crystal palace that's on the drawing boards. It's an easy target for critics when everybody is having trouble maintaining current operations."..

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