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The Future of NATO: Discussions at the Munich Security Conference 2009

As global leaders gathered at the 45th Munich Security Conference, 6 - 7 February, there was substantial discussion of the future of NATO on several levels. Many Europeans were waiting to hear how the promise of change from the Obama administration would translate into different ways to engage with NATO, particularly on the Alliance mission in Afghanistan. The Obama administration has yet to undergo a review of its policy towards NATO, and key figures like the US Ambassador to NATO and the DOD official responsible for NATO and European policy have yet to be named or confirmed. Still, expectations were high for indicatons of a new direction from the US in speeches by Vice-President Joe Biden and National Security Advisor James Jones.

The other aspect of the debate was the ongoing discussion between NATO members, especially between Europeans, about the future direction the Alliance should take. This has been going on for many months, and it is clear that while positions are becoming better developed, they are not being reconciled.

Some believe that NATO's central rationale continues to be common defence of member states territory; others that NATO must become a 'global security provider', working to enforce the will of the UN. Within this main debate there are variations concerning future enlargement with the Euro-Atlantic area, the extent to which partnerships can be built up bilaterally or on a regional basis across the globe, and about the philosophical basis for NATO's existence as a community of values.

This all matters because NATO is coming up to its 60th anniversary Summit in Strasbourg and Kehl at the start of April. NATO leaders are drafting a Declaration on Alliance Security. According to some sources, this will provide the basis for the rewriting of the Alliance Strategic Concept, NATO's overarching political vision on which military policy and doctrine are based.

These theoretical debates meet the real world in two particular areas - relations with Russia, and NATO's mission in Afghanistan. If NATO members cannot improve relations with Russia, then it is likely that territorial defence will become more important. Events surrounding the Russian war with Georgia last summer showed how quickly trust can break down between NATO members and Russia, particularly those in Eastern Europe. Equally serious, in Afghanistan NATO has taken on a huge task which has exposed many cracks within the organisation. Many in NATO and its member states believe that Afghanistan is where NATO must stand or fall as a credible military Alliance.

One of the early speakers, Vice-President Joe Biden, picked out some key themes that are important to the new US administration:

America will do more, but America will ask for more from our partners... America needs the world, just as I believe the world needs America. But we say to our friends that the alliances, treaties and international organizations we build must be credible and they must be effective. That requires a common commitment not only to live by the rules, but to enforce them. ... We must recommit to our shared security and renew NATO, so that its success in the 20th century is matched in the 21st. NATO's core purpose remains the collective defense of its members. But faced with new threats, we need a new resolve to meet them, and the capabilities to succeed.

This is the message that Obama brought to Berlin, but in the euphoria of the end of the Bush administration many in Europe did not hear. The US will commit seriously to NATO, but in return it requires European nations to more in the defence field. This applies especially to Afghanistan (and Kosovo before it) where the US has become extremely frustrated with the micro-managing of military operations by the North Atlantic Council and the caveats that many European nations have placed on the use of their forces in country. NATO must take action, and reform its structures to do so effectively, in return for the more collaborative approach that they have been demanding for years.

The United States rejects the notion that NATO's gain is Russia's loss, or that Russia's strength is NATO's weakness. The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance. It is time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should work together.

This signal that the US is ready to work together with Russia to build security in common in Europe will be welcome to some, but will worry Eastern Europeans who still tend to see Russia as a major threat. They were pleased with the hostile attitude of the Bush administration to Russia, and its attempts to expand NATO as afar and fast as possible to hem Russia in. Biden talked of the possibilities of cooperation in the fields of arms control, missile defence, Afghanistan and on policy towards Iran. This positive signal to Russia was well received in Moscow.

National Security Advisor General James Jones (a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe) added to Vice-President Biden' speech:

NATO is as relevant to our common security in the first half of the 21st century as it was to our common defense in the second half of the 20th century. We know that NATO is a strong alliance, perhaps the strongest the world has ever known. Its capacity does not just come from the strength of its arms but from the enduring democratic values that bind our nations together. And from the iron-clad commitment that ensures our collective security. But I also know this. NATO must also change. It needs to become less reactive and more proactive. I think it needs to become less rigid and more flexible. It needs to become less stationary and more expeditionary. And it needs to become more, not less, essential to our collective security.

Having laid out this general vision, which would be a genuine and far-reaching transformation of the Alliance in itself, he went on to tie the long tern future of NATO very firmly to short-term success in Afghanistan:

There is no doubt that NATO's involvement in Afghanistan poses an enormous task for NATO .. Given the nexus of terror and extremism, drugs and proliferation, we cannot afford failure in Afghanistan. And that's why the Obama Administration will work closely with NATO and with the Afghan and Pakistani Governments to forge a new comprehensive strategy to meet achievable goals. This will be a shared effort with our allies. Afghanistan is not simply an American problem, it is an international problem. And as we work to meet these short-term tests, we must show the same strategic vision that mark NATO's founding six decades ago. Our predecessors had the vision to build institutions that were durable, that could meet the challenges of the day while adapting over the course of several decades. Now the world has changed, and history has called on us to change once more - and this, we must do.

This message was strongly underlined by Representative Jane Harman, the influential leader of the House Intelligence Committee, who told the conference that:

We will fail in Afghanistan without a serious change in both strategy and resources. The situation on the ground has reached a stalemate at best as the reach of the insurgents has expanded over a growing swath of the country. Governance remains poor. Unity of effort among the international actors is insufficient. And there exists no comprehensive strategy. The way forward obviously is to make maximum use of the NATO Summit in April and to forge a new common approach.

President Obama, having won election while promising to end the war in Iraq, has adopted the war in Afghanistan as his own. Having taken that risk, he now wants his Allies to stand by him strongly. Clearly, in such circumstances, success is a must, both for Obama and for the future of NATO. If it cannot credibly bring an end to the conflict in Afghanistan then the idea of NATO acting globally in theatres such as Darfur, or preventing piracy off Somalia, will ring very hollow. The problem for NATO is that it is not united in a strategy to follow; it has little idea of what success in Afghanistan means; and its member states show little sign of being ready to unite in the way that President Obama and his administration are asking.

In this they have the support of the conservative government of Canada, whose Defence Minister told the conference that:

We believe that our collective engagement in Afghanistan speaks to the essence of NATO. Afghanistan, in my view, is not something exterior to the purpose of the Alliance. It is exactly the sort of mission that NATO must be able to deliver in the 21st century.

Similarly, the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said that:

NATO troops are now engaged in Afghanistan to deny Al Qaeda a base from which to launch attacks of the kind we saw on 9/11. This is a real test for NATO. We'll be talking about this in tomorrow's session when my colleague John Hutton will be speaking. Suffice to say here that it demands not just new capabilities and technologies, but troops trained for irregular or asymmetrical warfare. The sacrifice is enormous. But we should be in no doubt that if we leave before the Afghan authorities - especially the Afghan National Army that Coalition and NATO forces are training - are able to defend themselves, the Taleban will be back, and the country will once again become a haven for those who seek to do us harm.

With one Summit in April, and another planned for lat 2010, it is likely that NATO will continue to debate its future direction and structures intensively. The German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, called for the creation of a a process similar to that which led to the seminal 1967 Harmel report on the future of the Alliance. He recommended that a group of 'eminent persons' be established to examine potential NATO reforms and to make recommendations to Ministers. The German Defence Minister Franz Jozef Jung offered some concrete proposals for this process:

The new Strategic Concept must enable members to reach fresh consensus on the role, functions and tasks of the Alliance. It is more a matter of renewing the tried and tested concept rather than developing a completely new one. Nearly all the key points of the 1999 Concept are still correct. Security, consultation, deterrence and defence as well as crisis management and partnership have lost none of their relevance. The Alliance must strike the correct balance between collective defence as defined in Article 5 and crisis management and the transfer of stability.

For deterrence the necessary wide spectrum of capabilities must be retained.

We need new initiatives on arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. And we need a further significant reduction in the considerable stockpiles of warheads that still exist worldwide.

The Alliance upholds its open-door policy whilst retaining the common basic values. Partnership relations must be even more effectively shaped. We need Russia as a true strategic partner, as enshrined in the NATO-Russia Founding Act a good ten years ago. We must develop this partnership and our mutual trust.

The comprehensive approach, our concept of networked security, must become a core element of the new Strategic Concept. We must improve our capabilities. We need flexible, deployable and sustainable forces across the entire spectrum. And:

The defence planning processes in NATO and the EU must be further harmonized and also synchronized.

This list of ideas represents a mid-point between the two main camps in the debate, an attempt to reconcile the old 'out of area or out of business' idea, and the need to provide for collective defence. It is noteworthy that while Jung would like to see a reduction in nuclear weapons, he calls for NATO to retain a 'wide spectrum of capabilities' for deterrence, rejecting an end to the nuclear capabilities of the Alliance. It is not clear whether Germany wishes to retain nuclear weapons in Europe, or simply the strategic deterrent based on British and American Trident forces. In either case,

David Miliband, also supported a broadened vision of the alliance's contribution to global security. It will be no surprise that the UK has moved quickly to align itself with the Obama administration on how NATO should address security concerns..

... It is about concern for territorial integrity and protection of state sovereignty. In parts of Eastern Europe, the Balkans and the Caucasus, countries remain suspicious of their neighbours; or nationalist tensions threaten internal cohesion. Such fears are real, and they reate a potent sense of insecurity. In Bosnia and Kosovo people are still struggling to escape ethnic divides and heal the scars of bloody conflict. The conflict in Georgia last summer showed how vulnerable individual states are when there is a breakdown in respect for basic principles like peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The second debate is about new threats to our security; above all terrorism, but also the impact of the global economic downturn, climate change and energy security. Thanks to the post war recipe of collective defence and economic integration, much of Europe no longer has any reason to fear conventional conflict. Yet the paradox is that while our nations are more peaceful and prosperous than ever, our citizens still do not feel secure. Why? Because they know how the breakdown in law and order in Pakistan or Afghanistan can threaten their security - in London, Hamburg or Istanbul. They understand that without rapid action to secure a stable, global climate, untold damage could be done to our planet - and our way of life. They know that the threats we face are global - and that it is increasingly difficult for the individual nation state alone to provide the protection and security they seek. ...

NATO provides a commitment to collective defence. The Article 5 Guarantee and the integrated military structures reassure each and every one of our Allies that their borders are inviolable. Backed by the political and military might of 26 democracies, including Canada and crucially the US, it is a commitment that builds confidence at home and allows us to focus on addressing new threats abroad. This is a significant change. The post-cold war reality demands a more expeditionary and more comprehensive approach; because we have learned from bitter experience how instability abroad can lead to insecurity at home.

The message from the newer members of NATO was far less about global responsibilities, and far more about the need to ensure European security through collective defence. For example, Czech Vice-Prime Minister Vondra told delegates that:

In the nineties Senator Richard Lugar made his seminal statement about NATO going either out of area or out of business.. However, the challenge of today is more complex. On the one hand, we have to continue in completing the enlargement agenda. On the other hand, we must return NATO in the area and in business.

Internally, we need a new strategic concept, in which the common defense remains our key mission but which will also enable us to respond to new security challenges, be it terrorism, WMD proliferation or energy security risks. We also need efficient and modern military capabilities as well as the ability and will to pool our capacities and resources.

Europeans and Americans also need to enjoy the same level of protection. This has been the core principle of the transatlantic relationship since the end of the WWII. Weakening this principle would inevitably lead to divergence in strategic thinking and to undermining the cohesion of the alliance.

There is no room here for the global security vision of the NATO Secretary General or the US. The purpose of NATO is to defend its members, and it must reorient tightly around that goal. It is also clear, although not directly stated, that Russia is the main security threat that the Czech Republic perceives. These points were backed by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who was firmer in his focus on Russia, when he said that:

.. we - the European NATO members - but the whole issue concerns also out great friend and ally - the United States of America - must ask questions about Russia, we need to be assured that this country will act as our partner in regard to the most complicated matters of our region and the whole world. All the questions should be asked honestly, without fear, prejudice, aggression, but also without gullibility. If there is a crisis of trust in our relations with this potentially great partner, we would like to hear directly from him what he is going to do in order for us to treat the credence we place in him as something reliable, not something wobbly the way it was last year, after the events in the Caucasus or after the gas crisis... No serious improvement, however, will be possible without the full trust.

Tusk is concerned that the US commit itself fully to the defence of Europe, and clearly doubts that this is the case. He went on to reiterate that Poland wishes to move forward with the mid-course missile defence system he agreed to host last year. Vondra also made the same point. Both nations are feeling somewhat betrayed by the Obama administration's intent to review the BMD system, and in so doing to slow or stop deployment for the foreseeable future. Tusk is also clearly signaling that Poland does not trust Russia, and that the US needs to take this into account while settling its NATO policy.

The President of Estonia, Toomas Ilves, was stronger still. He spoke of the "collapse" opf the European security order last August, and that NATO and the EU allowed "borders to be changed unilaterally by force." He went on:

When a child purposefully breaks a toy in order to get a bigger and different one we have to decide do we reward this behaviour? When a party purposefully breaks a fundamental principle of European security and then uses this to argue for a new security architecture, one might be forgiven for finding it a bit disingenuous. ... Must we in the democratic West accept that the democratic choice of a country that happened once to have been a part of the Soviet Union matters less than the privileged interests of its neighbor? Is respect for democratic choice something only for those already in the EU and NATO club?

It seems to me that a security architecture of Europe based on this notion of privileged interests so egregiously violates the fundamental values and assumptions of liberal democracy that binds the West together, that we have to approach such new structures with extreme caution. First we need to return to the core mission of NATO, the defense of the alliance, and only after that begin to discuss other, new structures.

This hardline vision of the role of NATO contrasts starkly with that laid out by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. He talked of the need to strengthen the relationship with Russia, and also to strengthen the trans-Atlantic bridge.

So, the lines of debate are clearly drawn. This was the most lively discussion on the future of NATO in years. There are very real differences between Allies. The US and the UK are united in promoting a new vision for NATO. In their desire to build on the Afghanistan mission and to transform NATO, they have the support of Canada. Eastern Europeans are far less concerned with this than with territorial defence. The Germans try to straddle both camps. Beginning in April, NATO leaders will have to begin to resolve these contradictions. There is little sign that the divides can be bridged in the short term.

The desire for a strongly reinforced arms control policy for the Alliance working in tandem with Russia, will also have to be reconciled with the desire of some to retain nuclear weapons in Alliance deterrence policy. There is a limit to how long countries beyond NATO will be prepared to tolerate Cold War nuclear programmes as part of its defence strategy. NATO ministers must also consider the effect that their policies have on wider non-proliferation and disarmament goals. If nuclear weapons remain 'essential' for NATO's defence, then how can they be less so for other nations? If NATO will not reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the collective defence, then why should others do so? This is the kind of debate that NATO cannot avoid, and yet shows no signs of a willingness to engage in. it is good that many mentioned the need to engage Russia in arms reductions, but the wider context matters too.

Can NATO reform its internal structures and methods of working to enhance its chances of success in Afghanistan? Are member states ready to give up consensus as the rule for decision-making even on the smallest tactical decisions? Will they accept, as they did during the Cold War, that military commanders must be allowed to conduct operations unhindered by political considerations? Or will the current situation prevail? What role is there for NATO in global security making? Indeed, is there a role for NATO? For the moment, the Alliance has adapted itself a little, but must do much more to abandon its old Cold War ways of thinking if it is to survive in the 21st century.

Martin Butcher

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© 2009 The Acronym Institute.