The Evolution of NATO: Expanding the Transatlantic Toolkit

Posted in NATO | 23-Oct-07 | Author: Michael Ruehle

"NATO needs to improve its collective military-operational performance"
"NATO needs to improve its collective military-operational performance"
“In its comprehensive objectives and techniques used to accomplish them, NATO indeed moves beyond the limits of a traditional alliance toward a novel type of functional organization.” (Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations, 3rd. Ed., (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 530.)

Hans Morgenthau’s lucid characterization of NATO remains as valid as ever. For almost six decades, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has been the central framework for security policy and defense coordination between the United States, Canada, and an increasingly large part of Europe. To this day, NATO remains a key mechanism for harnessing the collective military power of North America and Europe, and for legitimizing the United States’ role as a “European power”.

However, while NATO’s unique character remains unquestioned, its future relevance for managing transatlantic security relations is far from clear. Today, the Alliance is engaged in peacekeeping as well as combat operations in Afghanistan; keeping the peace in Kosovo; assisting defense reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina; patrolling the Mediterranean Sea in a naval anti-terrorist mission; airlifting African Union troops to the Darfur crisis region of Sudan; and training Iraqi security forces, both inside and outside of the country. After the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, NATO launched an extensive humanitarian relief operation. In addition, NATO’s enlargement process continues, with several small Balkan states likely to enter next; new ties with other international institutions are being sought; and NATO’s partnership ties are gradually being extended to the Middle East, the Gulf, and the Asia-Pacific region.

In short, NATO is busier than ever before. But compared to the Cold War, when NATO’s unifying purpose was easy to discern, today’s wide range of activities does not lend itself to a simple, “bumper-sticker” characterization. Accordingly, many NATO-watchers see the Alliance in a state of strategic drift, lacking a clear cut identity, and increasingly driven by outside events rather than by collective Allied interests.

In Search Of a “Big Idea”

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 adopting a stronger focus on the Middle East, including admitting Israel to NATO (See Ronald D. Asmus and Bruce P. Jackson, Does Israel Belong in the EU and NATO?, Policy Review, Vol. 129, February/March 2005.); turning NATO into a major anti-terrorist organization (See NATO: An Alliance For Freedom, (FAES, Madrid 2005)); or into a global Alliance of likeminded states (Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeier, Global NATO, in: Foreign Affairs, Vol. 85, No. 5, September/October 2006). On the other hand, there are the moderates, who want to save the Alliance from over-entanglement by re-focusing it on its core missions, i.e. a combination of collective defense, long-term stabilization missions, and the well-established 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.

Alas, none of these prescriptions is likely to achieve the desired goal of making the Alliance more “coherent”, and giving it the sense of purpose that it is believed to be lacking. 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 Organization 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, caused by the US’ increasing 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, major adaptations – sometimes quick and improvised --occurred only when a cataclysmic event fundamentally altered the broader strategic context.

This pattern of NATO responding to changes in the strategic landscape 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 the future NATO considerably overtax the necessary consensus among the Allies. Contrary to what its proponents claim, turning NATO into a “global” organization, or one that tackles domestic security challenges, would not re-juvenate the Alliance, but alienate many of its current members. The moderates’ back-to-basics approach will fail as well, however, because NATO’s evolution from a “single issue” collective defense organization into a multiple purpose security agency is in essence a reflection of today’s much more complex security environment and, hence, not really negotiable either. It may be deplored, but it cannot be reversed. In sum, both schools of thought advocate “solutions” that are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

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 approach has been widely accepted. There is broad agreement on the direction of NATO’s military transformation, namely towards expeditionary capabilities for operations far away from the Alliance’s traditional European perimeter. The need to include 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 urgency of closer cooperation between the main institutional players and of a “comprehensive approach” in crisis management and stabilization 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 program. Finally, one might also point to the declared willingness of the United States to acknowledge rather than prevent a distinct EU security dimension.

"The Alliance is well placed to support an increasingly complex transatlantic security agenda"
"The Alliance is well placed to support an increasingly complex transatlantic security agenda"
While these elements of a post-“9/11” consensus demonstrate the transatlantic community’s potential for adaptation, there remain striking differences of views in other areas. For example, while the US has made the “war on terror” its central security paradigm, other Allies 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, the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction remain contested. 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 for good – 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 mere bureaucratic challenge of building a workable EU-NATO interface is a fundamental transatlantic struggle for influence that can be alleviated but not fully resolved. For all these reasons, notions of galvanizing the transatlantic relationship – and NATO – around one new “big idea” are off the mark.

A New Challenge: Solidarity in Operations

Yet another factor works fundamentally against notions of a “big idea” to re-create NATO’s allegedly lost sense of purpose: 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 exposed – in practice. Arguably, this new operational reality has already raised 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 made caveats on the use of forces 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 organization 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. For those who believe in a new “big idea”, such an approach might appear both defensive and piecemeal. However, it offers considerable scope for progress. Indeed, if one looks at NATO’s recent evolution, it becomes clear that, even in the absence of a comprehensive transatlantic consensus, NATO is progressively addressing many areas that are likely to feature strongly in 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.

Transformational Priorities

A first priority in this process of gradual adjustment is to continue to intensify and expand the scope of political consultations among the Allies. This has already been a major driver of NATO’s recent evolution. Allies have understood that, since NATO is now engaged on several continents, and dealing with a wide range of countries and cultures, they need a more profound and coherent understanding of that operational environment. At a time when new security players, such as the European Union, are finding their role, and other parts of the world are growing in relevance, the transatlantic community can only make real progress through more regular, informed and frank debate, in which contending ideas are put to the test. Moreover, where NATO troops are engaged in an operation, the Alliance must also be part of the process leading to a political solution. Over time, this “culture of debate” should also be reflected in NATO’s Summits and Ministerial meetings, which should become less choreographed and more focused in order to give real political direction.

A second priority is to push ahead with defense transformation. While the asymmetry in military capabilities between the U.S. and its Allies will remain a military and political challenge, both sides of the Atlantic follow a roughly similar pattern of military transformation. Significantly, all Allies have come to accept that maintaining forces exclusively for territorial defense is untenable, and that they each have to be able to contribute to expeditionary operations. In addition to the standing up of the NATO Response Force, initiatives to enhance strategic transport capabilities, command and control, tactical missile defense, and protection against the effects of weapons of mass destruction, are all intended to equip NATO with the means to sustain its new, ambitious roles. Partly as a result of shortcomings in the Afghanistan operation, the need for making more forces available for operational deployments has now been widely acknowledged as well. A reform of NATO’s force planning, force generation and funding procedures will align them more closely with the Alliance’s political decision making process. And renewed discussions about enhancing intelligence sharing among Allies, and about the merits of commonly owned assets and common logistics, indicate that there may be further transformation potential.

Third, the Alliance will want to take a broader approach to Partnership. As NATO is increasingly acting as the hub of a sophisticated security network, its partnership policy must also move from a geographical to a functional approach. Given that countries like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea are now offering to intensify their cooperation and to provide troops and resources to NATO operations, they need to be accommodated through closer political and military ties. NATO also needs to intensify its political dialogue with other major players, notably China, India and Pakistan. Moreover, some of NATO’s traditional Partners in Europe, such as Sweden, Finland and Austria, are looking to take their partnership with NATO to the next stage, in particular through a bigger political say in those NATO-led operations in which they participate.

"Today, the Alliance is engaged in peacekeeping as well as combat operations in Aghanistan"
"Today, the Alliance is engaged in peacekeeping as well as combat operations in Aghanistan"
A fourth priority is to develop NATO’s role in training and capacity building. Although training and equipping the Afghan National Army has sometimes been referred to as NATO’s exit strategy, the Alliance’s role as a trainer reaches well beyond Afghanistan. For example, NATO conducts a training mission in Baghdad and has long been involved in security sector reform in Bosnia and Serbia. The decision to offer training to the countries participating in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative opens a new chapter particularly vis-à-vis the broader Middle Eastern region. And the African Union is also seeking a longer-term relationship in capacity building. NATO has a vested interest in responding to such requests. After all, training is a politically unobtrusive way for developing closer relations with other countries and organizations, helping them to cope with their own regional problems, and perhaps even turning them into partners and force contributors.

A fifth priority is to take a pragmatic, unbiased look at new and emerging security issues, such as energy security. 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. Examining NATO’s potential role in energy security, for example with respect to the protection of critical infrastructure or crisis response options, has thus become a strategic necessity, even if the Alliance may not play a leading role in this area. By the same token, the potential supporting role of NATO in consequence management, for example in response to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster in a member country, needs to be explored more systematically.

Priority number six is to enhance NATO-EU relations. The future of the transatlantic community will depend significantly on how it adjusts to the emerging reality of the European Union as a genuine security actor. The EU’s vocation as a unique political “project” and NATO’s build-in US preponderance may never be perfectly reconciled. But it should be possible to move the NATO-EU relationship beyond the current nervous status quo. The sheer weight of common challenges, from the Balkans to Afghanistan, will force both institutions to cooperate. In particular, the EU’s civilian assets and NATO’s military assets need to be applied in a much more coordinated approach. While coordination will remain challenging, such a marriage of “hard” and “soft” security would dramatically broaden the range of political, military and economic tools at the disposal of the transatlantic community.

A seventh priority for NATO is to develop a stronger public diplomacy persona vis-à-vis the Muslim world. 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, such as Pakistan, offer opportunities for constructive engagement. Public diplomacy efforts are being re-focused accordingly, and the need for more regional expertise is addressed by training and hiring staff with Arabic language skills, etc.

Priority number eighth is to develop a stronger NATO-role in countering proliferation and missile defense. After all, proliferation touches directly on NATO’s Article 5 collective defense commitment. It may be unrealistic to expect a more assertive NATO role in these areas absent a “shock”, for example if a state of concern would test a missile of a certain range, or if a terrorist attack with weapons of mass destruction would occur on or close to NATO territory. Yet even in the absence of such a cataclysmic event, the growing salience of proliferation could lead, inter alia, to a more energetic and focused approach on missile defense, a dedicated NATO role in the US-inspired Proliferation Security Initiative, or the implementation of a UN maritime embargo against proliferators.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is a clear role for NATO in promoting and implementing a more comprehensive approach towards security-building in the 21st century, in which civilian and military tools and instruments are calibrated much more effectively. More structured relations between NATO, the UN, the OSCE, the EU and other established international actors should allow them to be more proactive in preventing future crises in the first place, and to work together more effectively, including with NGOs, in restoring peace and stability in crisis areas. Just as NATO needs to urge and assist civilian actors to better understand the military culture and modus operandi, the Alliance will also have adapt its own operational planning in order to be better able to support civilian reconstruction and development. Work is in train within NATO at the moment towards that end.


The transatlantic security relationship is going through what is arguably the most challenging period of adjustment since its creation in 1949. This process is hampered by different vulnerabilities to and perceptions of the new threats, different historical backgrounds and political and legal constraints, as well as by vast asymmetries in military power. Yet despite all these limitations, 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.

About the Author

Michael Rühle is Head, Speechwriting & Senior Policy Adviser in the Policy Planning Unit of the NATO Secretary General. The views expressed are solely his own. The author thanks Rad van den Akker for many comments and suggestions.

First published in "American Foreign Policy Interests"