Proliferation of WMD and Terrorism: Is NATO up to the challenge?

Posted in Europe | 19-Jan-05 | Author: Michael Stürmer

Prof. Dr. Michael Stürmer is Chief Correspondent of Axel Springer Publishing House (DIE WELT)  in Berlin.
Prof. Dr. Michael Stürmer is Chief Correspondent of Axel Springer Publishing House (DIE WELT) in Berlin.
It was in Berlin, a few weeks ago. The subject was NATO. Two perm reps from important NATO nations – no Frenchman among them - were on the panel. When asked about future threats and challenges, about strategic guidelines, implications for troop deployment and force planning and NATO’s role in stemming global chaos, both excellencies offered their regrets. Over the last four years, they said, it had been operations, operations, operations. Not much time left to think about the long term, about the wider purpose of the alliance, about the wider horizon of global threats and, above all, the organizing principle of the Alliance after the Cold War and after ever more widening. The ambassadors seemed quite happy with this state of affairs, as this saved them from conflicting orders from back home. But if you ask whether the NATO response to big terror and nuclear proliferation is sufficient, here was the answer, and the answer is a resounding NO.

While proliferation, together with apocalyptic terrorism, stares you in the face, no wide ranging attempt at formulating coherent and cohesive new strategic guidelines has been made since 1999. Perhaps the perm reps sensed that in the absence of a mandate from higher up any such attempt would make their lives uncomfortable, indeed risk consensus within the Council and be hazardous to many a carreer. So muddling through became the secret of NATO’s success in an era haunted by Nine Eleven and the bitter struggle over Iraq – which was, in US eyes, about proliferation and terrorism, while in Franco-German eyes – much as in the Russian and Chinese view - it was about neither. While this wait- and -see is good enough for diplomats, even those at the top of the profession, it is not good enough for the alliance. And certainly not good enough for the military men who understand the seriousness of the threats, the unlimited nature of uncertainty the world over, the blockages among the constituent member states and the limits of NATO’s capabilities. Widening may have offered, for the last decade, a surrogate strategy. But the more problems it seemed to solve, the more problems it produced. Nothing less than what President Kennedy once called an agonising reappraisal is needed. Surely, terrorism and proliferation are not the only dimensions that need to be addressed. But they are high on the agenda.

“Il faut sauver les apparences”, that is what couples tell each other when they do not want the children to understand that the only honest option has become divorce. There are times when it is enough to just continue whithout asking questions, philosophical, strategic, and otherwise. NATO is not in for divorce, nor is it in for another honeymoon. The newcomers are beginning to discover that the NATO of their recent experience is very different from the NATO of their past dreams – moreover, the Soviet threat of the past drifts into the background, at least for the time being, as compared to the more urgent challenges registered under terrorism and proliferation.

Predictabilty, Helmut Schmidt once said – and in fact he sacrificed his tenure to keep NATO’s dual track decision credible - is the essence of alliances. Is today’s NATO predictable – for friend and foe? Is there a grand design linking NATO’s structures to the threats and challenges the world over, to the national efforts to contribute to the common purpose, to budgets and deployments, to technologies and R and D? According to the perm reps cited above not much is on offer. But if NATO does indeed become an alliance of opportunity for most Europeans,

Iran: Now a test of proliferation of WMD for Europe and the U.S.A.
Iran: Now a test of proliferation of WMD for Europe and the U.S.A.
and a toolbox for the US – and nothing in particular for Canada, to mention a forgotten giant - the best days may be over, while EU-Europe is certainly not ready to fill the void. Europeans may be congratulating themselves that, finally, they are going to save the Balkans, more especially the notorious Bosnian part of it, against the old demons. But that moment of delusion will only last until the going gets tough, the peace keepers have to put up a real fight and governments call for the US cavalry to intervene – these days the US cavalry is known, among the initiated, as “Berlin Plus”.


For the future of the alliance apocalyptic terrorism – as opposed to the more traditional varieties - and proliferation will have to take precedence over every other challenge. Can they form the organising principle? Recent experience shows that this could bring an undesirable moment of truth. This cannot be the clockwork response foreseen in article V of the Northatlantic Treaty and the Cold War deployments along the great divide. Article V has become a matter of opinion, a very relative question, and when it was invoked on 12 September, 2001, it was more an instinctive political gesture to save the alliance than a military response. And for the first few weeks the US administration, instead of showing appropriate enthusiasm, warned the Europeans not to stand in the way of serious action. Only slowly NATO flung into action. Article V summed up the experience of earlier wars, but they wars of the military. There is no dividing line between military and other responses these days, and no overriding organising principle. . Hence the uncertainty, the wavering, the politicking.

Terrorism is asymmetric warfare, with the time and place of attack much as the method employed decided upon by the attacker. While deterrence is almost sure to fail, once the attacker is willing to die in the attack, defence is very much called for. But it has to be multilayered, ranging from financial controls to police work and supervision of cyberspace, and the military dimension cannot be the organising principle.

Satellite image of Iran's military facilities in Parchin - bomb production or peaceful?
Satellite image of Iran's military facilities in Parchin - bomb production or peaceful?
It should be much rather in the hands of institutions like the US “Dept. of Homeland Security”. Does that mean that the Northatlantic Treaty has to be amended to include all of the above? Or is it better to leave things as they are now and rely on exchange of information and close cooperation? The jury is still out. If NATO had no other business, then it might change into an atlantic establishment for homeland security. But from peace keeping to peace enforcement there is a long an urgend agenda, almost around the globe. Moreover, even among the German Länder tight coordination is difficult, equally so among the EU-constiuent states. While the US administration is not known for their enthusiasm to share intelligence, at best they accept minor services, in a one way system. But even countries that always clamor for multilateralism, like GER, would be loth to leave life or death decisions – say about shooting down a passenger jet hijacked and en route to fly into the landmarks of Berlin or Franfurt. To mention this as an aside: while in international affairs the terrible p-word, pre-emption, is unacceptable to the German government, this same government has just given itself authority, in extremis, to shoot to kill, before the Reichstag is burning.

Proliferation, meanwhile, and counter-proliferation continue to be much more clearly defined in the military dimension. National intelligence gathering, international institutions supervising the NPT and the MTCR, the US-British-Australian - New Zealand intelligence sharing etc. are part of the defence, but far from a water tight system. Looming large over everything else is nuclear and radiological attack. Like it or not, biological and chemical weaponry has been silently accepted as a fact of political life, to be left to national or alliance deterrence. So there is a future for deterrence, but this time around deterrence, esp. against nuclear attack, will only work if it does indeed include what has recently proved to be most divisive among NATO allies, an element not only of long term prevention but also of short term military pre-emption.

The nightmare of nightmares is, of course, the combination of apocalyptic terrorism and WMD, esp. of the nuclear variety. This was on the radar screen of Both the US national defence doctrine of 2002, much criticised in Europe, and the corresponding European threat analysis of the following year put WMD, terrorism and failing states at the top of their concern. However,

A general view of a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in Isfahan.
A general view of a Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF) in Isfahan.
while the US pronounces the possibility and indeed legitimacy of pre-emption, the Europeans could not translate theory into practice, failed to come to an agreement, thus avoiding any decision. What this means for any future response to an emerging nuclear threat, or nuclear-cum-terrorist potential, is not difficult to anticipate. It will be a rerun of the Iraq-crisis, whether or not this time the link between WMD and terror is imagined, as far as outside intelligence can go, or the real thing.

To come back to the central question: Is the alliance responding effectively enough to the developing threats of terrorism and proliferation? Fieldmarshall Helmut von Moltke, who used to win Bismarck’s war, trained his officers to ask three questions:

  1. what is the situation we are in?

  2. what threats and challenges?

  3. and what do we decide to do?

What situation? The world is still a dangerous place, much less predictable and controllable than during the last three decades of the Cold War. Tectonic changes are under way: climate change, mass poverty, shortage of energy, mass diseases. They are long term and need serious attention and, as far as possible, prevention. But in the short term, dangers are of a diffe4rent kind. Suffice it to mention Iraq’s past record of nuclear and missile armaments, Iran’s nuclear investment and unwillingness to come clean, the achievements of Dr. Khan in Pakistan, the looming threat of North Korea.

NATO: What to do now ?
NATO: What to do now ?
Add to this 9/11, its aftermath and its mobilising force, and the horizon fills with doomsday scenarios.

What challenges? Take all of the above and add the fragility of Pakistan’s control structures, the potential of Saudi Arabia to follow the path of Iran and the ever growing instability of the princes’ regime. Add to this the absence of any meaningful arms control agreement, let alone regime across the Wider Middle East. The old Soviet systems, esp. the vast stores of Plutonium have not been suffiently secured. If Northkorea is not checked – a military strike against China’s protégé is as unlikely as a strike against Iran’s hidden installations – there is little Chance that South korea will not follow on the nuclear path – which in turn will force Japan to rely on its own deterrence rather than on the US umbrella.

What to do? The absence of a predictable enemy, of frontlines and the unforgiving discipline of deterrence cannot mean that NATO should be made redundant or that defence and deterrence are no longer meaningful. On the contrary, in a much more complex, interdependent and unpredictable world, the Atlantic nations share an interest in global security while they cannot possibly attend to the threats and challenges individually or let the US act as world policeman – apart from the fact that no US administration would, for any length of time, be willing or able to sustain that role. Root causes? Poverty, Islam, the rise of China, climate change, demographic explosion? Be that as it may, the first and last line of defence has to be organised by the Atlantic nations. To close with a well known dictum from the American Revolution: “We must hang together, or we will be hanged separately”.

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