The NATO Secretary-General must secretly be thanking Russia. Not since the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact have the allies been able to pull together in quite the same way as following Russia’s invasion of Georgia.
At an emergency meeting – the first in a long time – the foreign ministers of NATO’s 26 member states stopped short of calling for an end to the NATO-Russia Council, but their tone was clear. As the NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said, “We cannot continue with business as usual.” The Alliance will now develop a NATO-Georgia Commission, is sending experts to assess damage to the country’s infrastructure and will review the state of Georgia’s security forces, presumably with a view to rebuilding these.
Whilst it is easy to expose cracks in the alliance – Germany and France remain more sceptical of Georgian NATO membership than the U.S. and Britain – and the outcome of the NATO summit in December 2008 is still hard to predict, for the first time in decades all allies agree that NATO should not only be a niche provider of stability operations – as it seemed the U.S wanted – but a forum for trans-Atlantic political debate and full-spectrum operations, from stability to deterrence and conventional warfare.
Though NATO’s decision to send a team of 15 civil emergency planning experts to help Georgia assess damage to its civil infrastructure may look insignificant – it represents a fundamental break with the Alliance’s military-only stance.
Until now, NATO has been quick to say that development and security are inter-dependent and that it should adopt a so-called ‘comprehensive approach’ to its operations, for example in Afghanistan. But many allies have been lukewarm on this initiative, fearing that NATO would encroach on the EU’s territory. But if the NATO team is seen as successful, it may portend the development of new civil-military capabilities. Inside NATO, practice drives doctrinal development, which in turn drives future practice.
Again, thanks to Russia, this new-look NATO is likely to continue well into a new U.S administration. While it has long been thought that a new U.S president, whether Barack Obama or John McCain, would give the Alliance the benefit of the doubt – most analysts believed until recently that U.S defense multilateralism would be contingent upon European support for NATO’s Afghan mission. When he spoke in Berlin, Barack Obama demanded that European NATO allies send more troops there and his presidential foe, John McCain, has made similar statements. But with Russian tanks in Georgia and nuclear threats towards Poland, nobody today believes that the U.S return to NATO will depend on sending more European troops to the Hindu Kush.
Finally, while Russia may have wanted to lay a marker down, stopping the seemingly endless expansion of NATO, its actions may have made the West’s embrace of both Georgian and Ukraine more rather than less likely.
However, NATO’s new-found unity and purpose has its challenges too. The Alliance still faces a number of operational tests, as the death of 10 French soldiers in Afghanistan yesterday showed. It also needs to reform itself to improve both current and future operations. Reforms required include adjustments to NATO’s command structures, changes in the way NATO missions are financed and improvements in its capacity to build indigenous security forces in and before combat.
The unity may dissipate as Russian forces begin withdrawing from Georgia. But even if this happens, thanks to Moscow NATO’s 60th anniversary in 2009 presents an opportunity to revitalize the world’s premier security organization and following this year’s US presidential election, to re-build a consensus on Euro-Atlantic security. Nothing could be further from Russia’s ambition and better for Europe and the U.S.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.