NATO is neither dead nor dying

| June 26, 2011 | 0 Comments
The ministers and heads of delegation in front of the Brandenburg Gate during NATO’s April meeting in Berlin.

The ministers and heads of delegation in front of the Brandenburg Gate during NATO’s April meeting in Berlin.

Lord Ismay, NATO’s first secretary-general, once wryly observed that the purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” That political logic kept the alliance together during the Cold War and through the many crises it endured from its inception in 1949 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, that logic seems increasingly remote for an alliance that is 62 years old. Russia is not the military threat it once was. Although Russia has flexed its muscles on energy exports, and occasionally bullied its neighbours, it was powerless to prevent NATO’s expansion, now 28-nations strong. U.S.-Russian relations, which frayed under George W. Bush, returned to a more even keel with Barack Obama’s decision to scrap plans to deploy anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic and push the “reset” button on the relationship.
The European continent has been transformed from the hostile, military armed camp it was during the Cold War. In 1989, NATO and the Warsaw Pact had 4.5 million armed personnel deployed in the region. That figure has now shrunk to half that size and is falling as Europeans cut back on defence spending.
The Americans are also much less “in” Europe than they were during the Cold War. U.S. forces in Europe have experienced a dramatic reduction from more than 300,000 before the Berlin Wall came down to 42,000 today. And that number will shrink further to 37,000 by 2015.
Just before the turn of this century, Europe struck out on its own to define its security identity with its European Security and Defence Policy. This policy initially focused on military crisis management. It was followed by the European Union’s first-ever Security Strategy, adopted by the European Council in late 2003.
Led by Germany, France and Poland, Europeans now want to establish their own civil and military planning headquarters, which will be independent of NATO. The idea was first proposed in 2003 by Germany, France, Belgium and Luxemburg, who were all deeply troubled by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It was rejected by the United States, Poland, and NATO’s Eastern European members on the grounds that NATO would be weakened by such a competitor institution. Since then, however, Poland has come round to the idea that Europe needs its own defence policy and security planning headquarters.
Some commentators believe that NATO has experienced a prolonged identity crisis of existential proportions. Its original rationale as a collective defence pact has eroded. This is reflected in NATO’s missions since the Cold War ended. In the 1990s, NATO became an “out-of-area” enforcer when its forces were used to promote security and stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. NATO bombing raids against Serbian and Albanian forces in Kosovo were especially controversial not least because they did not have the blessing of the UN Security Council. The mission was defended on grounds that the war in Kosovo constituted an “international humanitarian emergency.” Similar arguments were invoked to justify NATO air attacks against Libya under the “no fly zone” resolution passed by the UN Security Council.
The day after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, NATO for the first and only time in its history invoked the collective defence provisions of Article 5 of its Charter. That decision laid the basis for the NATO-led, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) mission in Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the participation of more than 40 countries in the mission, many of which were not NATO members, most of the heavy lifting has been done by the United States. The only other NATO members to make a significant combat contribution to the mission have been Britain, Canada and the Netherlands. The Canadians and the Dutch have since withdrawn their combat troops and shifted their efforts to training the Afghan police and military.
In November 2010, NATO released its much-awaited new strategic concept under the moniker “NATO 3.0,” although its more prosaic title was “Active Engagement, Modern Defence.” In spite of the tech-friendly packaging, not much was new to this pronouncement. The document committed the alliance “to prevent crises, manage conflicts and stabilize post-conflict situations, including by working more closely with our international partners, most importantly the United Nations and the European Union.” It also reiterated NATO’s long-standing commitment to being an alliance of democratic nations and to maintaining its nuclear capabilities “as long as there are nuclear weapons.The Euro-Atlantic area faces few direct threats although terrorism, cyber-attacks, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially if they fall into hands of terrorists groups, pose a growing challenge. To meet these threats, NATO has pledged to “maintain the ability to sustain concurrent major joint operations and several smaller operations for collective defence and crisis response, including at strategic distance.”
In addition to its continuing role in Afghanistan, NATO’s global reach may surprise. NATO played a key role in airlifting African Union troops into the Darfur region of western Sudan and troops from Uganda and Burundi into the Somali capital of Mogadishu to support that country’s transitional federal government. Starting in 2008, NATO has established a permanent naval presence off the Horn of Africa in the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy. NATO warships also help enforce an arms embargo against Eritrea, the result of a UN Security Council resolution passed in December 2009.
NATO is clearly not dead, though it does face some major challenges. As the United States increasingly finds itself cash-strapped by its mounting fiscal and debt crisis, it will invariably be less able to take the lead in maintaining global peace and security. However, it is not at all clear who is going to pick up the slack. NATO’s European members confront similar fiscal pressures. As a recent study by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies points out, “Tight fiscal circumstances over the next five years will require cuts in force levels, capabilities and readiness, as well as deferred procurements, further eroding European military capabilities already suffering from two decades of under-investment.” U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates opined just before a meeting of NATO leaders in November 2010, “My worry is that the more our allies cut their capabilities, the more people will look to the United States to cover whatever gaps are created.”
The other big problem is political. NATO’s mission in Libya underscores the deep-rooted tensions within the alliance and the fact that some of its members march to a different drummer. While Britain, France, Canada and the United States have used their air power to enforce the no-fly zone, Germany, Turkey and NATO’s Eastern European members expressed deep misgivings about the operation and have sat on the sidelines.
However, NATO has weathered major political storms before. Recall the Suez Crisis of 1956, which almost tore the alliance to pieces, when British, French and Israeli forces secretly colluded to attack Egypt following the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egypt’s President Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser. The American president at the time, Dwight D. Eisenhower, felt duped and betrayed, and some NATO members openly called for the expulsion of Britain and France from the alliance.
When General de Gaulle took France out of NATO’s integrated military command in 1966, it experienced another major shock. (French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently put France back into NATO’s command structure.) NATO also had to deal with recurring tensions on its southern flank between Greece and Turkey during much of the Cold War.
All of which is to say, at 62, it’s déjà vu.

Fen Osler Hampson is Chancellor’s Professor and director of The Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University.

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Fen Osler Hampson is Distinguished Fellow and Director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University.

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