Can NATO transform for the 21st century?

Author(s): Martin Butcher
27 November 2007

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Can NATO transform for the 21st century?

From Acronym Consultant Martin Butcher in Riga, November 27, 2006

NATO heads of State and Government meet in Riga, Latvia, on November 28/29, with many outstanding questions on their agenda. While NATO and national government sources agree that the worst of the conflict from the build-up to the invasion of Iraq has dissipated (and for some in Europe the firing of Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense helped), there is a sense that the organisation is somewhat adrift - carrying out missions from Kosovo to Afghanistan, but with no underlying purpose to tie it together.

The subjects that will be on the agenda at the specially made table in Riga - Alliance transformation, burdensharing, the Comprehensive Political Guidance, and even Energy Security - are far less significant than the subjects that will be overlooked - enlargement, the perennially troubled issues of NATO-EU and NATO Russia relations, and most notably the rewriting of the Alliance's mission statement, the 1999 Strategic Concept, with the role of nuclear weapons in Alliance defence policy at its heart.

All this throws up questions which will have to be answered if NATO is to be an influential and important alliance in the 21st Century - what is NATO's role and how should it accomplish that role. A shiny "transformation" exhibition at the Olympic Sports Complex Summit venue shows what the Riga Summit is meant to be about. But there are those in Riga who fear that the focus on the somewhat loose concept of 'NATO transformation' means less than meets the eye.

Riga 2006 was to have been the 'transformation summit', and settled those questions once and for all. Now, it is merely the latest in a line of summits, leading from Istanbul, through Riga, to another Summit in 2008, followed by a 60th birthday party Summit in 2009. Transforming the Alliance, it seems, is a long and politically contentious process.

So, what will the Riga Summit do?

To a certain extent, the transformation agenda will move forward. NATO leaders will declare the NATO Response Force operational. This 25,000 man unit will be available for quick notice, short-term military missions, pretty much anywhere in the world as eventuality requires. This is tempered by the knowledge that NATO cannot scrape together 2000 additional soldiers to join the fighting in Afghanistan at present, and that it lacks the strategic airlift to take the NRF anywhere easily.

Papering over the cracks in Afghanistan

There is a real sense that the mission led by NATO in Afghanistan has not received either the resources or political priority necessary for it to succeed, and no amount of new initiatives like the NRF can paper over the cracks.

2006 has seen the unprecedented spectacle of a Secretary-General of NATO being forced to beg publicly for troop contributions to strengthen the NATO presence in Afghanistan. Strains are also emerging in the Alliance as some nations, notably Germany and Italy, place constraints on the kinds of missions in which their forces can participate, leaving the bulk of anti-Taliban action to others. As the Canadian National Post reports today "Canada and the Netherlands are expected to issue a joint plea to reluctant allies at this week's NATO summit, asking them to pare down the restrictions they've placed until now on their combat forces in Afghanistan. The hope is that the pressure by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende will have an impact across Europe, where a number of countries have been reluctant to allow their troops to take part in offensives against Taliban militants."

Burdensharing or increased defence spending?

There will also be a revival of the burdensharing debate, a hardy perennial for NATO, in a modern guise. During the latter part of the Cold War, NATO leaders committed themselves to annual 3% increases in defence