Last week the outgoing NATO chief paid a visit to London, joining a meting of the Alliance’s defence ministers. In a public address he said that the 60-year-old military alliance is fundamentally sound. But few people are inclined to believe Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. For beneath the surface, away from the cameras and autocues, NATO is in a strategic funk.
On the one hand, the arrival of a new United States administration, a strongly Atlanticist French President, and a clear challenge to the West by Russia make this a key moment of opportunity for the Alliance. An opportunity to renew a commitment to defending, together, Western values and to modernise the Alliance.
But, on the other hand, several now see a clear role for NATO: for the Alliance to revert to its original model – an alliance against a hostile Russia. And for the first time – thanks to Georgia’s buffoonery and Russia’s premeditated aggression – other allies are tempted to back this vision. Where once the chorus coming from West was “ISAF or Bust”, there is a new Eastern refrain: “Anti-Russian or Nothing”.
This, however, risks pitting Britain and the Baltic states against Germany, Italy and France while the Balts’ demand for a reaffirmation of Article 5 will put them on a collision course with other allies who bristle at the questioning of NATO’s mutual defence commitment. And however tempting it is to plan for state-on-state confrontation – much easier for defence planners than finding Al Qaeda’s vulnerability – this will only leave the West exposed to asymmetric threats.
How, then, to proceed?
If NATO is to function as a dividing line between those sympathetic to US and European principles and those who are not, the Alliance should invite new members in that meet the required standards. At this stage, this does not include Georgia, whose de facto one-man rule fails to meet a range of criteria applied to eastern European countries.
But the question is not whether to let in Georgia now; it is whether the Alliance wants to follow through on its promise and give Tblisi a prospect for eventual membership. To make a parallel, nobody expects Bosnia-Herzegovina to become a member of the EU tomorrow; but the country’s European trajectory is clear. The same should apply to Georgia and Ukraine. Though just as their prospects for membership should be clear, so should the requirements for membership – much like those articulated to Sarajevo. Such a policy will undoubtedly be met with anger in Moscow. But Russia cannot have a veto over Georgia’s decisions, any more than it can over NATO’s. Equally, Moscow should understand – and be re-assured – that NATO and the West pose no threat to Russia.
And to make the most persuasive case, NATO should extend a clear invitation for Russia to join the Alliance, laying out a road-map for it to do so (including a requirement to adhere to the letter and spirit of the EU-brokered ceasefire). No doubt Moscow will reject such an offer out of hand and, even if they signed up, Russia would not meet the criteria any time soon. But it is a crucial to extend the invitation nonetheless.
At the same time, NATO has to assuage the Baltic states, who have reason to be concerned about Russia’s behaviour – but not about an attack. 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 without being provocative to Moscow. Western leaders should also study ways of countering Russian attempts at stirring Russian minorities in eastern Europe, for example through the creation of a Russian Al-Jazeera channel.
Second, NATO should 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 may be worth tasking JFC also to keep an eye out for developments in Europe. 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 an Article 5 scenario. The point here is to copy Russia – that is, to extend the hand of friendship, but remain willing to counter Moscow’s prodding and shore up Allies.
Third, NATO needs to retain its focus on becoming an instrument of force projection, both for its Article 5 requirements as well as stability operations like the Afghan mission. Georgia shows that NATO needs to retain a credible capability for territorial defence. But equally, what Georgia now needs most is the same kind of military assistance that NATO is providing in Afghanistan. The allies therefore need to make sure they have the capability to build indigenous military forces.
Here they have some way to go. Allies pretend that the Afghan army is NATO’s creation; but it is the US, which is spending $6-8 billion a year. Getting trained soldiers to train Afghan army units is also proving tough. As a matter of urgency, the feasibility of a new NATO Military Advisory Force, which can give the alliance a standing training capacity and use the NATO Response Force (NRF) as a model, should be studied.
None of NATO’s operational challenges can be tackled through military means alone. So NATO and the EU need to collaborate better. Both have mutually compatible capabilities. If the EU wants to conduct ESDP operations with an EU flag using NATO assets, so what? With progress likely over Cyprus, Turkey might be amenable to closer ties if offered something in return. European NATO allies need to offer something good.
If NATO seizes upon the recent events in the right way, it will remain relevant to the European public, accepted as a full-spectrum military operator and seen as relevant by all its members; if it mishandles the situation – overreacts or under-performs – the 60-year old Alliance will be thrown deeper into a strategic funk, from where they may be little exit.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.