This article was published in NATO Review on 4 April 2009.
NATO has accomplished a lot more in the post-Cold War period than anyone imagined when the Berlin Wall came down and it lost its ostensible raison d’être. Its accomplishments include the Alliance’s expansion and its Bosnian and Kosovo operations.
But as NATO leaders prepare to meet in Strasbourg/Kehl – in what will be President Obama’s first NATO Summit and should mark France’s full reintegration into NATO’s standing military structures and the defence planning mechanisms of the Alliance – considerable challenges remain. These include NATO’s expansion, its Afghan operation and its transformation to a leaner organisation. Hiding beneath those items lies an even bigger question: what is NATO for in the 21st century?
Some Allies now want to return to a static, defensive posture, which is focused primarily on traditional territorial threats; others want to focus mainly on expeditionary operations like ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan. This is likely to be the biggest strategic dilemma facing NATO. The right choice is obviously to see the two missions as reinforcing each other and continue the agreed-upon transformation of Allied armies lest it becomes even harder for NATO to gin up the necessary fighting forces.
But convincing many Allies to make this “and/and” commitment will not be easy.
In light of this, the Afghan mission may in fact be the least contentious of NATO’s assignments. Everyone knows the mission has to go on. Few believe it is succeeding. And everyone knows that President Obama will want a significant enhancement of European effort. The question is how to deliver it. If Europeans cannot give more troops, then they need to make their troops better at the key task – building up Afghan forces.
More problematic will be NATO’s relationship with Georgia and Ukraine. Russia has made it clear that it opposes enlargement.
To this end, a standing NATO Military Advisory Corps could be unveiled at the next Summit. It will not solve all of ISAF’s problems, but it will enhance the European effort and boost ISAF’s capacities. As such, it may ensure that, as the Obama administration gradually takes over all NATO operations in the south and east of Afghanistan, US Allies do not actually withdraw and the US continues to see NATO as a useful instrument.
More problematic will be NATO’s relationship with Georgia and Ukraine. Russia has made it clear that it opposes enlargement. But reaching out to Georgia and Ukraine is worthwhile. Even though Europe needs to rebalance its relationship with Russia, giving Moscow a veto over NATO’s decisions is unlikely to encourage better behaviour by the Kremlin. Though the Obama administration will, I’m sure, be keen not to create a conflict at the 2009 Summit, it will probably also not want to go back on NATO’s ‘open door’ policy.
The key is therefore to make sure the two commissions NATO has established to help Ukraine and Georgia reform their defence structures actually mean something. From experiences in the Balkans, it is clear that overseeing politically sensitive defence reforms is more difficult than technical assistance or just serving as an umbrella for allied reform assistance.
It has to be different this time if NATO’s offer is to mean anything to Kiev and Tbilisi (and Moscow).
NATO’s staff will need to be beefed up to work on the reform processes, high level appointees are needed as NATO Senior Civilian Representatives in Kiev and Tbilisi and the Allies need to come together to deliver a serious reform package.
It’s not just a question of more troops: it’s also a question of how to use them.
Then NATO will have to find ways to assuage the likes of Poland, Estonia and Lithuania who feel threatened by Russia.
To do so, the Alliance should offer to establish a non-military NATO facility in the region, for example a research institute or a training centre.This would give the new NATO members a sense that their Allies care about their predicament without being provocative to Moscow. The cyber defence centre in Estonia is a good first step.
Western leaders should also give JFC Brunssum – one of its military commands – a watching brief over military developments in northern Europe.
During the Cold War, each NATO command had a regional focus. Countries could call these up and get an update of military developments, e.g. Soviet Navy movements. As military tasks have changed, the commands have become more functionally focused; Brunssum is now in the ISAF chain of command and calls the mission its ‘highest priority’. But given Russia’s behaviour, it is worth tasking JFC also to keep an eye out for developments in northern Europe.
When US President Truman inaugurated the Alliance six decades ago, little could he have imagined the world we now live in.
JFC Naples should also be given a task to look out for developments on Europe’s southern flank, so as to avoid giving NATO too anti-Russian a slant. Consideration should also be given to undertaking limited military exercises for a defensive, Article 5 scenario.
When US President Truman inaugurated the Alliance six decades ago, little could he have imagined the world we now live in. Today, however, the Alliance’s strength will come not only from building up NATO’s capabilities and enlarging its membership, but also strengthening the NATO-EU ties. Experiences in the Balkans and Afghanistan have shown that military capability is not enough to guarantee success. A more complex mix of political and development tools are required. Only by NATO and the EU working together can these be brought to bear. So both organisations must move beyond a preoccupation with process over substance and find a new modus operandi, starting at Strasbourg/Kehl.
Distance should not be an obstacle to good relations – in Europe, Africa and elsewhere.
As long as the Cyprus conflict remains unsolved, it may be best to eschew large scale initiatives, which might be vetoed by Turkey.
But it should be possible to create a working-level basis for an EU/NATO rapprochement. One idea would be for the EU to take charge of reconstruction in Afghanistan’s largest cities, with NATO providing security inside and US forces operating in the provincial hinterland.
A “Kabul security and development plan” could be a first step; another could be for European gendarmerie forces – either through NATO or the EU – to help build up the Afghan police.
The two organisations should consider other areas for cooperation including in-theatre ISAF support to EUPOL (European Union Police Mission), joint training and predeployment preparation for PRT (Provincial reconstruction team) staff and joined up civil-military exercises. Even better, a NATO/EU School on Post-Conflict could be set up where each organisation can bring their respective strengths to bear to the benefit of missions where both are present. Where better than at the Strasbourg/Kehl Summit to unveil such an idea?
Outside ongoing commitments, and EU-NATO relations, two long term challenges for NATO are likely to emerge. The first is NATO’s potential role in any Israeli-Palestinian settlement, including peacekeeping tasks and assistance in building Palestine’s security institutions. The second, longer term challenge is how to deal with Africa. I believe that, despite the AU’s request to NATO to help build up the AU’s capabilities, the efforts made have not yet been completely effective.
The mandate of the current NATO Secretary-General expires this year; it will be crucial to find an equally-respected replacement.
The new Obama administration should help NATO examine how it might operate with Africom and the AU. It could also help explore the possibilities for a new hybrid construct, such as an AU/NATO set-up – perhaps even involving the UN or EU – which could have a permanent presence in Africa, become a long term partner for security assistance and work to prevent conflict.
Reforms are also needed to improve both current and future operations, including adjustments to NATO’s command structures, so that greater authority can be delegated to military commanders and in-theatre integration with partners like the United Nations (UN) can be improved.
Changes in the way NATO missions are financed should also be explored, perhaps through a commonly financed NATO operations budget.
Then there is the question of leadership. The mandate of the current NATO Secretary-General expires this year; it will be crucial find an equally-respected replacement.
If the new Obama administration helps NATO to take advantage of a strongly Atlanticist French President, and strike a balance between defence and strength, then the Alliance will remain relevant to the European public, and accepted as a full spectrum military operator by all its members.
And that may be the best 60th anniversary gift NATO could wish for.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.