NATO needs to think twice about its future

Posted in NATO | 19-Jan-09 | Source: NATO Review

Xinghui Zhang, a journalist for a major Chinese newspaper, gives a personal account of how he has gained greater insight into NATO: and how he feels that NATO needs to focus more on its future development.

Let me start by telling you what NATO once meant for me. It was an operationally mysterious, geographically faraway and adversarial organisation. This held true during the Cold War - and in certain periods after.

Why? Well, it was ’operationally mysterious’ mainly because of its opaque policy-making process and the fact that its activities had little to do with Chinese political, economic or social life. It was ’geographically faraway’, because all its members are Western European and Northern American countries. And it was ’adversarial’ because its original core purpose was to confront the former Soviet Union Communist Bloc.

For these reasons, I once viewed NATO as a ’big stranger‘ and considered it a tool used by the USA to expand its ’global hegemony‘. So it was natural that there was no relationship between China and NATO.

Then, in 1999, NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during its airstrikes on Milosevic's regime. Three Chinese citizens died. Few had thought that the first direct contact between NATO and China would occur under such terrible circumstances.

At that time, I was working as a journalist in the ‘China Youth Daily’ newspaper’s headquarters in Beijng. I shared the bitter emotions of my infuriated colleagues. I witnessed the waves of demonstrations and protests by various ranks of Chinese people in the streets.

It was that embassy bombing that sowed seeds of hatred in the hearts of Chinese people - and which seemed to make any kind of relationship between China and NATO impossible.

Fast forward to the end of 2007, and I arrived in Brussels as my newspaper’s bureau chief. That has given me the chance to follow NATO to its doorway. And to think carefully about questions like ’what is NATO really about ’, ‘where is NATO heading’ and ‘how is NATO being transformed?’. What follows is a summary of what I have concluded.

The world today is undergoing tremendous changes and adjustments. All the players in the world system should have a clear understanding of the main trends and, from these, work out their own positions.

Personally, I see three main strands.

First, cooperation has replaced confrontation. NATO is an organisation that grew up in an adversarial environment. Whether NATO can fully rid itself of this confrontational ideology will decide whether it can be transformed successfully within the international community.

Second, peace has already become a common universal goal. NATO, as the most powerful military group in the world, bears the unmistakeable responsibility of demonstrating to the world that disputes do not need to be resolved by military means.

Third, further economic and social development is in the mutual interests of all state and non-state actors. NATO (apart from its own development) needs to make its own unique contribution to the creation of peaceful development for all mankind.

On the basis of these three main trends of the changing world, NATO will make clear the strategic direction of its transformation. It will map out its long-term missions without being interrupted by short-term difficulties. Just as a Chinese poem says, ’Unworried about floating clouds blocking the view, as one is already at the very top of the mountain’.

Since the disintegration of Soviet Union and its Communist Alliance, NATO has been transforming itself continuously in four ways.

First, NATO is enlarging its membership. NATO has added ten former communist countries or republics of the Soviet Union as member states in two major rounds of the eastward expansion. In 2009, two more will be added to the list.

Secondly, NATO launched out-of-area campaigns. Originally, NATO was designed to contain the expansion of the Communist influences and defend Western Europe. The geographical areas of NATO's mission were clearly restricted by its founders. But in the post Cold War era, NATO directly got involved in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Kosovo and Afghanistan wars, and assisted the African Union in expanding its peacekeeping mission in Darfur. Meanwhile it is still playing a role in Iraq's transition.

Thirdly, NATO has established a worldwide network through its various partnership programmes. To extend its global influence, NATO tailored different partnership programmes for different countries in the world, such as Partnership for Peace, Mediterranean Dialogue, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, etc. These programmes help NATO's antennae reach a large number of the countries in every continent.

Fourthly, I believe that NATO is seeking to change itself into an omnipotent giant. NATO, in substance, is a militarily defensive organisation. But in fact, I believe it has behaved in an opposite way if you look at its activities in the 1999 Kosovo War and the current counter-terrorism war in Afghanistan. On the other hand, NATO keeps extending its interests into many areas in which defence organisations normally seldom get involved. For instance, NATO has jumped into the businesses of climate warming, energy security, education training programmes, and the like.

The Chinese have a proverb which effectively says that one can enjoy a successful life as long as one knows how to give up the unnecessary things. I think this holds true for NATO. So I believe it would be wise for NATO policy makers to shortlist the priorities which NATO can do best.

Terrorism is a material threat to the world. After the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States, NATO swiftly changed its focus to counter-terrorism. Since August 2003, NATO has been leading international peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan. But up to now, there are no clear signs proving that NATO can achieve these designated goals in the foreseeable future. A failure of NATO's operations in Afghanistan would inevitably lead to increasing doubts about the necessity of its existence. So I argue that NATO should take the mission in Afghanistan as its top priority and devote itself to fulfill the task.

It is a common interest for all countries to see security and stability in Afghanistan resume. The war in Iraq has proved that exporting Western freedom and democracy does not work. If NATO wants to bring success to Afghanistan, it should learn the lessons from Iraq. I think a key one is that NATO has to gain the understanding and cooperation from the rest of the world: but it also has to respect particular traditions, histories and cultures.

On enlargement, I think NATO should stop and ’digest the fruits of previous expansions‘. After the Cold War, NATO expanded its members from 16 to 26, and probably to 28 next year. Increasing the number of members risks causing internal rifts and weakening its consensus policy-making capacity. The leadership of NATO needs to prevent the organisation becoming a two-tiered one.

NATO's Achilles' heel was exposed by the measures it adopted to deal with Russia during and after the Georgian crisis: France and Germany did not want NATO to play a bigger role and NATO had very limited leverage to counter-balance Russia.

Externally, NATO’s uninterrupted eastward enlargement has contributed to a deteriorating relationship with Russia and caused the watchfulness of China. Looking around the relationships built up by NATO in the world, it is easy to see that China is one of the major global powers which has no official relations with NATO.

In the past six years, NATO and China have gradually developed some official contacts and academic exchanges, which paved the path for both sides to move out of the shadows cast by the Belgrade embassy bombing. If NATO and China further strengthen this mutual understanding, it is highly likely that they will establish some kind of official relationship. But ‘it takes two to tango’, so NATO and China should make joint efforts to move on.

Confucius said, ’From the age of 60, I have been able to distinguish right and wrong in other people's words.’ In 2009, NATO will be 60 years old. I hope Confucius’ words hold true for it too.Xinghui Zhang is Brussels Bureau Chief for the 'China Youth Daily', China's second highest circulation newspaper.