Changing Policy or Staying the Course?

Posted in NATO | 10-Jun-07 | Author: Michael Ruehle| Source: NATO Defense College

Michael Rühle

Introduction: NATO Adrift?

How does a changing world affect the transatlantic relationship and the institutional epitome of that relationship: NATO? The title appears to suggest that the transatlantic partners have a choice between continuing a status quo policy (whatever that may be) and adopting a more ambitious or forward-looking agenda. Whenever the notion of choice is put in such stark terms, it is intended to frame the issues in a certain way. For decades, this has been the preferred approach of – mainly American – NATO-watchers. If NATO does not adopt policy “A”, or if it does not endorse initiative “B”, US interest in the Alliance will wane and the Alliance is bound to unravel. By contrast, if the Alliance would do as prescribed, rejuvenation would be the reward. Due to the use of such drama, the whole debate about NATO is a debate framed in choices.

The current situation is no different. Many see NATO as being in a state of strategic drift, doing either just what it can do best or simply what others want it to do. A sense of clear-cut identity is missing, as NATO is increasingly perceived to be driven by outside events rather than by collective Allied interests. Various examples are quoted to support this perception: the humanitarian relief operation after the Pakistan earthquake in October 2005, which also led to disagreements over funding; the political disagreements over the employment of the NATO Response Force in Afghanistan; and not least an enlargement process that raises the question whether it is still about “hard” security interests or whether it has turned into social policy by other means. The recent debate on missile defence has revealed yet another problem: some Allies feel that NATO’s protection may not be enough, and thus seek additional reassurance through bilateral arrangements with the United States. In sum, the unease with the current state of affairs is palpable.

Illusions of Choice

There are, at the same time, widely different views as to how to overcome this perceived drift. On the one hand, there are the maximalists, whose policy prescriptions range from admitting Israel to NATO (Asmus), turning NATO into a major anti-terrorist organisation (Aznar), or into a global Alliance of likeminded states (Daalder). On the other hand, there are the moderates, who want to save the Alliance from over-entanglement by re-focussing it on its core missions, i.e. a combination of collective defence, long-term stabilisation missions, and the wellestablished partnership dimension. This “back-to-basics” approach would act as a firewall against operational over-extension and also allow Allies to allocate scarce resources more efficiently.

While these schools could not be more different, they appear to agree on one next step, namely to codify the necessary changes in a new Strategic Concept. For some, the main argument for such a document appears to lie in the drafting process itself. They see it as a therapeutic exercise for the Allies to re-visit NATO’s current problems, and to adopt new policies accordingly. Others have been going further, arguing that a new Harmel exercise may somehow bring back the notion of a political “end-state” that served the Alliance so well in the Cold War.

Alas, none of these prescriptions is likely to achieve the desired goal of making the Alliance more coherent. A quick glance at NATO’s history reveals that this Alliance does not evolve according to blueprints or grand designs, but rather by reacting to concrete challenges. This pattern started with the very creation of the Organisation itself by way of “spontaneous combustion” (Dean Acheson) during the Korean War. It was repeated in the agonizing transition from massive retaliation to flexible response, as a result of increasing US vulnerability to Soviet intercontinental missiles. One could observe it after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the adoption of a policy for pan-European consolidation through partnership and enlargement. NATO’s role as a peacekeeper in the Balkans only came about after another agonizing debate; and the transition from a geographical to a functional security approach, which saw NATO’s first operation out-of-continent, came in the wake of “9/11”. In each case, a significant change in the strategic landscape prompted NATO to respond – sometimes quickly, and improvised. Arguably, major adaptations occurred only when a cataclysmic event fundamentally altered the broader strategic context.

This pattern is unlikely to be broken, neither by the maximalists nor by the moderates. For while one camp is trying to push the clock ahead too far and too fast, the other tries to turn it back. The maximalist visions of a future NATO overtax the consensus among the Allies. Allies may not be good at formulating what they want, but they certainly know what they don’t want. The moderates’ back-to-basics approach will fail as well, however, because NATO’s evolution from a “single issue” collective defence organisation into a multiple purpose security agency is in essence a reflection of today’s much more complex security environment and, hence, not really negotiable. It may be deplored, but it cannot be reversed.

An Incomplete Transatlantic Security Consensus

A realistic approach for moving NATO forward must first of all acknowledge that the transatlantic security consensus post-“9/11” is incomplete. To be sure, there are many positive developments. The need to move from a geographical understanding of security to a more functional understanding has been widely accepted. There is a general agreement on the direction of Allied military transformation, namely towards expeditionary capabilities for operations far away from NATO’s traditional European perimeter. The need to accept nation-building as a central part of modern security policy has sunk in even in the minds of those who long rejected that concept. The need for closer cooperation between the main institutional players and for a “comprehensive approach” in crisis management and stabilisation operations is now widely acknowledged as well, even if views on the right balance between the various military and civilian elements may differ. The logic of addressing the Middle East conundrum through a transatlantic approach remains as valid as ever and has been underscored by the attempts to revive the Quartet and by the joint US-EU approach on the Iranian nuclear programme. Finally, one might also point to the declared willingness of the United States to acknowledge rather than prevent a distinct EU security dimension.

While these elements of a post-“911”/post-Iraq consensus demonstrate the transatlantic community’s potential for adaptation, there is a striking difference of views in other areas. For example, while the US has made the “war on terror” its central security paradigm, others have not. Views on the legitimacy of preventive or pre-emptive military action differ, with some nations applying these concepts across the range of threats, while others accept them only in a counter-terrorist context. In a similar vein, views on the centrality of, and approaches to, democracy promotion as part of security policy continue to differ widely. Despite transatlantic cooperation on Iran, the significance of, and response to, WMD proliferation remain contested. The mounting problems in Iraq may have led to a reappraisal of permanent alliances vis-à-vis coalitions of the willing, but this reappraisal may disappear with the next crisis. For the US, at least, the question whether to rely on the UN or NATO frameworks or rather on a coalition of likeminded nations has not been answered – and probably cannot be. Finally, the role of the EU as an autonomous security actor remains a challenge to the transatlantic security arrangement in NATO: what is sometimes cast as a bureaucratic challenge of building a workable EU-NATO interface masks a transatlantic power struggle that will probably never be fully resolved.

Solidarity in Operations

There is no a priori reason why this lack of consensus in specific areas should preclude the search for a new “grand bargain”, either through a document or major new initiatives. If one is willing to settle for the lowest common denominator and for very general language, one could certainly obtain “agreement” in virtually all these areas. This impression of a “fresh start” might be facilitated by the advent of new governments in several key Allied countries. With a bit of public spin, therefore, one might indeed be able to create the impression of a re-juvenation of the transatlantic security relationship. However, another factor works fundamentally against such a calculus: NATO’s increasingly operational focus. This operational focus is pushing NATO into a situation where statements of principle are increasingly less relevant than operational performance and, even more importantly, where a fragile consensus will be immediately tested – and probably exposed – in practice. As NATO has moved beyond the “deterrence-only” and peacekeeping business, and is now involved in serious combat operations, the true litmus test for the Alliance is how well it masters operational challenges. As the NATO Secretary General has noted, in the 21st century, institutions are not judged by what they represent, but by what they achieve.

Arguably, this new operational reality has already started to expose an entirely new set of transatlantic challenges. For one, it has revealed differences not only in the threat perception of Allies, but also in their respective strategic cultures, For example, mounting casualties in Afghanistan dramatically raised the significance of national caveats and made them a major theme in the run-up to the November 2006 Riga Summit. In the same vein, the reluctance of some NATO nations to get involved in the volatile South of Afghanistan clearly demonstrates the limits of solidarity in operations. In addition to different cultural attitudes towards warfare and casualties, there are also different constitutional realities. Some Allies feature “parliamentary armies” that require the agreement of their legislative bodies for virtually every change or extension of the employment of their national forces. Paradoxically, not only does this make the avoidance of casualties a precondition for military engagement, it also holds any national military involvement hostage to domestic politics – and politicking.

A Realistic Approach

In the absence of a solid transatlantic consensus on many security issues, and given that operational demands may expose new fault lines, the true challenge for NATO as an organisation is threefold. First, it needs to improve its collective military-operational performance. Second, it needs to create the mechanisms and relationships necessary to “embed” NATO’s military contributions into a broader international setting. And third, it must also seek to identify and address new areas where the NATO framework can conceivably add value, even if a solid consensus on these areas may not (yet) exist. Such an approach might be dismissed as defensive and piecemeal. However, it offers considerable scope for progress. Indeed, if one looks at NATO’s recent evolution in the context of what may well be the best known set of predictions, namely the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project1, it becomes clear that even in the absence of a comprehensive transatlantic consensus, let alone a “grand bargain”, NATO is progressively addressing many areas that are likely to characterise the future security environment. Put differently, while only a cataclysmic event may compel Allies to effect radical policy changes, NATO can nevertheless be positioned in such a way as to provide a framework for common transatlantic action across a broad range of future contingencies.

Based on the assumption that globalisation will continue as a mega-trend, the NIC 2020 Project lists 13 “relative certainties” about the world in 2020. Some of these are rather general; others do not have a distinct security dimension. Those of direct security relevance, however, offer an interesting checklist against which to measure NATO’s ability to embrace change.

Relative Certainty No. 1: “Globalization largely irreversible, likely to become less Westernized.” This prediction is too general to distil specific implications for NATO. However, to the extent that NATO should be enabled to address challenges posed by globalisation, the stage has been set, at least conceptually. Largely as a result of “9/11”, the re-definition of NATO from an Alliance with a regional, “eurocentric” focus to a framework for global action is well underway.

Relative Certainty No. 4: “Rise of Asia and advent of possible new economic middle-weights.” NATO’s engagement in Afghanistan has become a catalyst for a variety of political changes that enable the Alliance to build political and military ties with the Asia-Pacific region, including with the two rising stars India and China. And although the global partnership approach has not gone as far and as fast as initially intended by Washington, NATO’s relations with Australia and New Zealand, as well as with Japan and South Korea, are bound to intensify. If NATO’s outreach experience is any guide, these ties will spark the interest of other countries in the Asia-Pacific region in moving closer to NATO.

Relative Certainty No. 5: “Aging populations in established powers.” NATO’s long-term stabilisation operations are manpower-intensive and thus might be affected by low birth rates and other related societal changes (e.g. casualty avoidance). Efforts by NATO members states reveal an attempt to at least alleviate this problem – both nationally, by moving away from conscription, and collectively, by increasing the number of countries participating in NATO-led operations, or by employing new technologies and concepts (such as PRTs) to minimise manpower requirements.

Relative Certainty No. 6: “Energy supplies ‘in the ground’ sufficient to meet global demand.” However, given the uneven global distribution of energy resources, and given that both Europe and North America are becoming more dependent on imported energy, the need for ensuring uninterrupted supply will gain in importance. The Riga Summit tasking to examine NATO’s role in energy security, e.g. in the protection of critical infrastructure or crisis response options, provides the Alliance with a mandate to develop a common approach.

Relative Certainty No. 7: “Growing power of nonstate actors.” Irrespective of US-ideas to give NATO a role in homeland security, it is unlikely that NATO could ever play more than a secondary role in dealing with domestic security issues, such as traditional terrorist acts or organised crime. Still, NATO’s first ever invocation of Article 5 was in response to an attack by non-state actors, and NATO’s major operation in Afghanistan is aimed at preventing that country from becoming again a terrorist training ground. This suggests that NATO’s foremost contribution to the fight against terrorism will consist of stability operations in terrorist-prone regions, as well as in dealing with prevention aspects (Operation Active Endeavour”).

Relative Certainty No. 8: “Political Islam remains a potent force.” NATO’s major operations in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan have been taking place in areas with predominantly Muslim populations, and largely on their behalf. Outreach efforts to the Arab world as well as to other key Muslim states (Pakistan) offer opportunities for constructive engagement. Public diplomacy efforts are being re-focussed accordingly, and the need for more regional expertise is addressed by training and hiring staff with Arabic language skills, etc.

Relative Certainty No. 9: “Improved WMD capabilities of some states.” NATO’s role in countering proliferation remains constrained by different Allied views of the problem. Thus, as with other security issues, a major NATO role is only likely in the wake of a “shock”, for example if a state of concern would test a missile of a certain range, or if an NBRC terrorist attack would occur on or close to NATO territory.2 Yet even in the absence of such a cataclysmic event, the growing salience of proliferation could lead, inter alia, to a dedicated NATO role in the Proliferation Security Initiative, or the implementation of a UN maritime embargo against proliferators.

Relative Certainty No. 10: “Arc of instability spanning Middle East, Asia, Africa.” NATO’s major operation is in Central Asia; NATO is conducting naval patrols in the Mediterranean Sea that links Europe to Africa and the Middle East; the Alliance now entertains relations with several Gulf states and seeks to play a stronger training role in the area. NATO’s support to the African Union in training and capacity-building is also likely to grow. While this engagement does not yet amount to a coherent strategy, let alone a leading role for NATO, it suggests that the political focus of NATO is gradually shifting to new geopolitical flashpoints. It also suggests that any attempt at defining a geographical demarcation between NATO and the EU (e.g. have the latter deal with sub-Saharan Africa), is futile.

Relative Certainty No. 11: “Great power conflict escalating into total war unlikely.” This assumption has been reflected in NATO’s military changes since the end of the Cold War. However, since inter-state war cannot be ruled out altogether; since even humanitarian interventions may require forced entry; and since Afghanistan demonstrates the need for performing combat and stabilisation missions simultaneously, the military challenges for NATO remain formidable. One particular challenge will be to avoid the emergence of a two-tier Alliance, with some countries focusing on stabilisation missions and others on the “high end”.

Relative Certainty No. 13: “US will remain single most powerful actor economically, technologically, militarily.” This will ensure NATO’s uniqueness as the only collective American-European defence and security forum even as the EU’s weight increases, and that will compel even the most ardent Europhiles to maintain a degree of “co-operability” with the United States.


As the NIC 2020 puts it, “[a]t no time since the formation of the Western alliance system in 1949 have the shape and nature of international alignments been in such a state of flux.” While terms like globalisation and interdependence suggest a certain commonality of interest of likeminded states, the implications for an Alliance such as NATO are not at all that clear. Terrorism, proliferation or failed states affect Allies differently and may lead to different responses; the need for rapid or even preventive action runs counter to the logic of consensual collective decisiontaking; and the need to engage in dangerous and potentially open-ended operations exposes differences in military performance and risk-taking. Despite these structural limitations, however, and even in the absence of a solid consensus on many issues, the gradual broadening of NATO’s political scope and military toolkit suggests that the Alliance is well-placed to support an increasingly complex transatlantic security agenda.

1 See NIC 2020 Mapping the Global Future (2005), at: The predictions not dealt with here are No. 2: World economy substantially larger; No. 3: Increasing number of global firms facilitate spread of new technologies; and No. 12: Environmental and ethical issues even more to the fore.

2 A WMD attack by state or non-state actors is clearly the most significant “wildcard” in any prediction exercise; see Richard K. Betts, The Future of Force and U.S. National Security Strategy, The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Winter 2005, pp. 15-17.

Dr. Michael Rühle, Head, Speechwriting & Senior Policy Adviser, Policy Planning Unit, Private Office of the NATO Secretary General. Personal views only. Special thanks to Rad van den Akker for comments and suggestions