NATO at Sixty: A Moment of Truth

Posted in NATO | 04-Mar-09 | Author: Michael Ruehle

After 60 years: "NATO's  future will depend on whether Allies realize that solidarity in today's world is measured by the…
After 60 years: "NATO's future will depend on whether Allies realize that solidarity in today's world is measured by the members' willingness to act even if the going gets rough."
As NATO approaches its 60th Anniversary, it does so with few signs of euphoria or triumphalism. Maintaining a transatlantic Alliance of sovereign nation-states over six decades remains a unique historic achievement that deserves praise. Yet the achievements of NATO's past cannot hide the challenges of the present.

It is not that NATO's very existence were at stake. The uncertainty about NATO's life expectancy, epitomized in the State Department Band playing Gershwin's "It ain't necessarily so" at the signing ceremony of the Washington Treaty on April 4, 1949, or in the Washington Post's unfriendly quip that this ceremony may be "more spectacular than the act itself", has long disappeared. While the choice of inappropriate tunes continues (the 2004 accession ceremony of seven new members was accompanied by the "Titanic" soundtrack), NATO's importance as the most important institutional bond between North America and Europe remains undisputed. The widespread unpopularity of the Bush Administration inevitably affected NATO's image among its own publics, yet this dent in NATO's public approval remained small and reversible.

Moreover, there is no serious political force on either side of the Atlantic that would advocate NATO's dissolution. On the contrary, France, who in the mid-1960 had caused one of NATO's deepest crises by withdrawing from the Alliance's integrated command, is about to return into the military structure, thus ending 40 years of ambivalence vis-à-vis the Alliance. And even those who not so long ago argued passionately that the European Union would soon replace NATO as the supreme crisis manager have come to realize that Europe is still too weak, too divided, and too regional in its security outlook to warrant such far-reaching claims. When the issues become really difficult, NATO remains the institution of choice.

What ails the Alliance, therefore, is not the challenge to its existence by internal forces, as was the case in the Cold War, notably during the anti-nuclear protests in the 1980s. Rather, it is the concern that the mismatch between an ever growing number of operational commitments on the one hand, and limited military means and insufficient political will on the other, could lead to failure.

In the 1990s, when NATO became engaged in the Balkans, both the means and the political will were sufficient to succeed. The transition from a Cold War Alliance focusing exclusively on territorial defense through deterrence, i.e. through the mere display of force, into a pan-European instrument for crisis management and peacekeeping appeared to have gone smoothly. After "9/11", however, once NATO started to become engaged in Afghanistan, the picture became less optimistic. Amidst mounting operational difficulties, NATO Allies are grappling with divergent threat perceptions, domestic constraints on the use of their national forces, and overall force levels that always seem to fall short of politically agreed requirements. Moreover, the serious lack of progress in political and economic reconstruction threatens to hold NATO hostage to the engagement - or lack thereof - of the broader international community.

And there is more. Just as NATO is trying to adapt to the globalization age, an assertive Russia has brought NATO's traditional European mission back into focus. Russia's new found self confidence, bolstered by an economic upswing due to huge oil and gas revenues, has allowed her to go beyond merely articulating its discontent with the observer role granted to her by the West. Russia's aggressive rhetoric against some of its neighbors, its (mis)use of energy deliveries as a political tool, and most of all its disproportionate use of force in the August 2008 conflict with Georgia indicate that Moscow has decided that it will take action whenever it perceives Russian interests to be at stake. For Moscow, Georgia's and Ukraine's bids for NATO membership appear to fall into this category and therefore justify serious reprisals.

This new Russian assertiveness has created a challenge for NATO at several levels. First, it has raised new questions about the proper balance between NATO's collective defense at home and expeditionary missions abroad. With several of NATO's easternmost Allies arguing for a review of NATO's defense planning and deployment patterns, and with a palpable desire of some Allies to host additional NATO and/or US installations on their soil, the limits of a mere "virtual" military presence in the new NATO members have become painfully evident. Second, Russia's assertiveness has called into question the future of NATO enlargement as a benign means of consolidating Europe as an undivided and democratic security space. With many pundits now criticizing NATO's enlargement policy as the problem rather than the solution to European security, there is a widespread expectation among the international strategic community that this process may now have come to a halt.

"France now returns into the military structure"
"France now returns into the military structure"
Most importantly, however, the Caucasus conflict has exposed divisions among the Allies on how NATO's future relationship with Russia should be structured - divisions so profound as to invite notions of a "second Iraq". While the desire for a trustful and trusting NATO-Russia relationship is shared by all Allies, views continue to differ on whether that relationship should be conditional, i.e. dependent on Russia's behavior, or whether it should be pursued largely independently of Russia's rhetoric and policies vis-à-vis its neighbors. The freeze in NATO-Russia relations immediately after the August 2008 provided both NATO and Russia with some time to reflect on their future relationship. Sooner or later, however, the issue needs to be resolved.

Given this backdrop, and given the global financial crisis, NATO's 60th Anniversary Summit in Germany and France cannot simply be a self-congratulatory event. While the accession of Albania and Croatia will be a welcome reminder of NATO's undiminished role as a provider of both security and identity, the success of the Summit, as well as NATO's success more broadly, will be defined by its decisions on operational issues. In this context, it is worth reminding that NATO's 50th Anniversary Summit in Washington, D.C. in April 1999 took place under equally unfortunate circumstances. With the Kosovo crisis reaching its tipping point, and with NATO's air operation against Belgrade about to commence, many observers were prematurely writing off the Washington Summit as a "war counsel". Yet NATO was able to effectively defy such pessimistic predictions. By agreeing on a number of substantial new initiatives, including for Southeast Europe, and by unveiling a new Strategic Concept, the Allies could demonstrate convincingly that they were not allowing the Kosovo crisis to distract from the bigger picture of NATO's contribution to European security at large.

This example of NATO's recent past should serve as a reminder of the need to avoid a "single issue" Summit and to focus instead on a broad, forward-looking agenda. Looking at the numerous developments that have unfolded since NATO's Bucharest Summit in April 2008, it is not too difficult to identify the key topics that require the Allies' attention.

The first area is operations, notably Afghanistan. From the outset, this operation has been conducted as an "economy of force" campaign, with force numbers remaining at the lower end of what most military analysts deemed feasible. Compared to ISAF's early days, troop levels have increased considerably, yet many agreed force goals still remain unfulfilled. Although there is widespread agreement that military power alone will not suffice, NATO must avoid creating a situation in which the limited means determine the ends. The decision by the new Obama Administration to send additional forces to Afghanistan signals a renewed emphasis on this theater. If the European Allies were to respond with force increases of their own, this would send a powerful message about NATO's unity of purpose.

In addition to beefing up its military presence in Afghanistan, NATO must also make a renewed effort to push towards better coordination among the key military and civilian actors, both on the institutional level and in the theater. NATO's operations increasingly take place in a "nation-building" context, where the ultimate success depends on social, political and economic progress. This can only be provided by civilian actors. However, if the engagement of these actors falls short of what is required, NATO cannot truly succeed, either. Not surprisingly, therefore, NATO has become the "demandeur" in championing a "Comprehensive Approach", in which the key organizations and institutions coordinate their efforts more effectively. The UN-NATO Declaration signed in September 2008 is a first step in this regard, as it may help dispelling fears among both governmental and non-governmental organizations about cooperating more closely with NATO. The Alliance will also have to focus more on the regional dimension, by engaging even more intensively with Afghanistan's neighbors, notably Pakistan.

The second major area of change is NATO's relationship with Russia. While Russia's heavy-handed approach in the Georgia crisis prompted a swift and coherent initial response by NATO, the Allies failed to develop a united view on the consequences of the Caucasus war for the NATO-Russia relationship. In a debate that was largely conducted in public, Allies appeared to be split into a "business-as-usual school" and a group that demanded a tougher line vis-à-vis Russia. NATO needs to overcome these divisions, since they risk affecting NATO's agenda on various levels. For example, Allied attitudes to missile defense are partly determined by Russia's perception of this project. In a similar vein, NATO's progress on carving out a distinct role in energy security will be determined to a considerable extent by the state of NATO-Russia relations.

Finally, the health of NATO-Russia relations will inevitably affect the NATO enlargement process. While Russia will not be granted the right to veto this process, the Allies' desire to pursue enlargement in a cooperative rather than confrontational context will make this process highly contingent on the overall atmosphere in NATO-Russia relations. To avoid the enlargement process from stalling requires both an intra-Alliance consensus on how to deal with Russia and, equally importantly, a positive NATO-Russia agenda that acquires a strategic value of its own and thus can withstand occasional disagreements. Irrespective of whether such a positive agenda is ultimately feasible, NATO Allies need to send a strong signal that they are willing to seek new ways of engagement.

"Enhancing the efforts in Afghanistan, restoring Allied consensus on Russia, and defining NATO's response to new threats are the three…
"Enhancing the efforts in Afghanistan, restoring Allied consensus on Russia, and defining NATO's response to new threats are the three key areas in which NATO needs to demonstrate progress."
The third area of change is how to deal with new threats. International terrorism, failing states, climate change, the scramble for energy and natural resources, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber attacks and a revival of piracy are just some symptoms of a fundamentally altered security environment. While there is widespread agreement on the need for the transatlantic community to respond to these threats, there is not yet a unified vision on the specific role(s) for NATO in addressing them. As a result, agreements by NATO Heads of State and Government to provide NATO with a mandate in energy security or to move ahead on missile defense have not yet been translated into consensual policies on the working-level. Whether a major crisis could compel the Allies to overcome their reluctance and quickly agree on a common approach remains doubtful.

Some observers have tried to speed up agreement on the new threats by highlighting their potential Article 5 angle, i.e. by implying a potential Allied commitment to collective self-defense. While it remains obvious that some of these threats might eventually trigger the invocation of Article 5, conducting the debate in such a context is a diversion. Trying to enforce Allied solidarity across a range of new challenges by evoking a potential Article 5 commitment will not work. NATO's invocation of Article 5 after the "9/11" attacks demonstrated as much. While it served as a powerful legitimizer for all Allies to engage in Afghanistan, it did not compel them to lift their national caveats on the use of their forces, nor did it help to overcome the hesitancy of some nations to deploy in the volatile South of the country. All this suggests that what NATO needs in a new security environment is a debate about the meaning of solidarity beyond collective self-defense.

Enhancing the efforts in Afghanistan, restoring Allied consensus on Russia, and defining NATO's response to new threats are the three key areas in which NATO needs to demonstrate progress. Needless to say, there is more. Relations between NATO and the European Union need to get out of their dogmatic straitjacket; NATO's relationship with other institutions, notably the African Union, will have to be intensified, structured relations with partners from across the globe, such as Australia and Japan, will have to be further developed. Finally, the shift towards expeditionary military forces will have to continue. Highly mobile and flexible forces promise both to enhance NATO's military effectiveness in new theaters and to help address the collective defense concerns of NATO's easternmost Allies.

This is a fairly ambitious agenda. Implementing it requires Allied cohesion and a great deal of enlightened political leadership by Washington. A new U.S. Administration must not only reverse the worldwide decline of America's public image, it must also signal its readiness for a fresh start in its relations with the European Allies. One step that might facilitate this "rapprochement" could be the work on a new Strategic Concept for NATO. It would force the Obama Administration to focus on Alliance issues early on in its tenure, and it would provide the framework for a broad intra-Alliance debate on the role of NATO in the coming years.

In the end, however, the question whether NATO can last another 60 years will not be answered by cleverly drafted documents. Rather, NATO's future will depend on whether all Allies understand that the world has changed irreversibly, and that many new security challenges require transatlantic responses. Above all, NATO's future will depend on whether Allies realize that solidarity in today's world is no longer measured by the sheer size of their countries' forces in peacetime, but by their willingness to act even if the going gets rough.