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Plus ça change

Günther Altenburg examines how NATO has dealt with crises in its history and considers how this impacts the current debate over modernising the Alliance.

Council meeting: Debates over NATO policy and strategy are not unwelcome disturbances, but constitute the very essence of the Alliance (© NATO)

"NATO, the cornerstone of our foreign policy, has not been adapted to changed strategic and political relationships... Unless the North Atlantic group of nations develops a clearer purpose it will be doomed."

"The Atlantic Alliance is in the early stages of what could be a terminal illness. The Alliance has been in trouble plenty of times before, but this is the worst yet."

"NATO is in deep, enduring crisis and may not even reach the end of the decade."

Anyone thinking that these statements were made after 11 September 2001, should think again. For these quotes are more than three decades apart. The first, a complaint by Henry Kissinger, dates back to 1961; the second, from The Economist, saw NATO going down the drain in 1982; and Christoph Bertram, former director of the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies, made his gloomy prognosis in 1994.

None of these and other dire predictions ever came true. Why? Because the Cassandras made a mistake quite common in thinking about the Atlantic Alliance: they mistook intra-Alliance disagreements for a sign of Alliance fatigue. Accordingly, they elevated legitimate debate about the future course of the Alliance into fundamental disagreements over its value. That value, however, was never seriously called into question. As NATO is gearing up to face a new major challenge - terrorism - it is useful to bear this fundamental fact in mind. Debates over NATO policy and strategy are not unwelcome disturbances, but constitute the very essence of the Alliance.

Military dilemmas: few means, diverging ends

In retrospect, the history of NATO might well be characterised as success disguised as perpetual crisis. From the outset, the notion of a permanent Alliance between North America and Europe seemed implausible. Indeed, at the signing ceremony of the Washington Treaty in April 1949 the US press quipped that the ceremony may be "more spectacular than the act itself". This captured the spirit of the day. And the State Department band seemed to reinforce it when they played George Gershwin's I Got Plenty of Nothing.

The history of NATO might well be characterised as success disguised as perpetual crisis

Gershwin's tune appeared to characterise NATO's military dimension. Starting with the ambitious Lisbon force goals of 1952, which were never met, Allies seemed to have adopted a habit of forever failing to meet the requirements they set for themselves. For many sceptical observers, NATO's inability to match means and ends represented an endemic failure of the Alliance. The same verdict was cast on NATO's military strategy. As the Alliance's military strategy was a compromise between conflicting Allied interests and limited military means, each reform was preceded by painful debate. For example, when the United States in 1961 advocated a shift from the strategy of massive nuclear retaliation to a "flexible response", Allies debated for no less than seven years before the changes were finally approved. Even then, this new strategy remained open to transatlantic differences in interpretation. It was not surprising that NATO's strategy, according to many defence experts, remained in permanent crisis.

Still, NATO's military dimension worked. For despite different interpretations and disagreement over strategies and their proper implementation, the Alliance managed to do what counted most: to convey the message that North America and Western Europe considered themselves to be one single security space. This message, far more then any specific strategy modification or procurement decision, reinforced NATO's wider role as a political community - a community that was ready to defend itself. Moreover, NATO had achieved far more than a common defence framework. By creating an integrated military structure, the Allies had developed a system of military command which strongly influenced the evolution of national forces. As this system was based on voluntary commitments, no nation could be held responsible if it failed to live up to certain commitments. Yet there can be no denying that, over the years, the practice of joint planning, review and assessment had a considerable cumulative effect in harmonising Allies' defence plans and policies.

Political dilemmas: solidarity without subordination

The transatlantic link, the essence of NATO, was also subject to permanent criticism. From the beginning, US analysts repeatedly warned that if the European Allies failed to increase their defence spending or otherwise help re-balance the transatlantic security burden, they risked losing the support of the United States, and the Alliance would unravel. The European Allies, in turn, repeatedly charged the United States with arrogantly trying to dominate NATO, both politically and militarily. And they scoffed at US ambivalence regarding European integration: rhetorically, the United States supported a stronger Europe, yet whenever it came to granting Europe more responsibility, the United States preferred the old-fashioned way of leading alone. So deep were the frictions that France left the military structure in 1966, causing a major crisis in NATO.

Yet even then, life went on. NATO relocated from France to Belgium. And while France left the integrated military structure, it retained other military links that would prevent estrangement from the military cultures of the other Allies. In any case, France's role as an active NATO member remained unaffected. The loss of NATO's strategic direction, which France's departure from the integrated military command had become to symbolise, was overcome as well. The 1967 Harmel Report, named after the Belgian foreign minister who chaired it, championed a dual formula of deterrence and détente, thus bridging the differences that had emerged among Allies over the opportunities and pitfalls of reaching out to Warsaw Pact countries.

The new phase of the Cold War that erupted after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 heralded another transatlantic dispute. Views on the Soviet threat grew further apart, as the United States seemed ready for a more confrontational policy, while Europeans were anxious to save what was left of détente. Yet despite difficulties in the transatlantic relationship, the Alliance mastered what in retrospect was one of its most severe crises ever: the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe. This decision, taken in response to a relentless Soviet build-up of similar weapons, had an effect that was initially unforeseen: behind the backdrop of a heightened sense of insecurity and fear of war, it galvanised public opinion and led to historically unprecedented opposition. For a democratic Alliance dependent on public support, this constituted a true crisis. Yet NATO stood firm, knowing well that this issue had now become a contest of will between NATO and the Soviet Union in which the Alliance had to prevail. And it did. Even its offer of a "zero-solution" on INF deployments - the proposal not to deploy in return for the removal of similar Soviet weapons - which was initially ridiculed by defence experts and peace movements alike, was accepted by Moscow.

In retrospect, NATO's INF decision could be interpreted as a prelude to the end of the Cold War. Even while the Allies had meanwhile been moving on to the next controversy over US plans for a space-based missile defence, the transatlantic link had demonstrated remarkable resilience. When the Cold War ended - not without considerable intra-Alliance squabbles over the question of whether Mikhail Gorbachev was a genuine reformer - the Alliance could look back with a sense of achievement. It managed to craft a new, sensible approach to conventional arms control, and it adopted a thoughtful policy to facilitate German unification while reassuring Moscow.

Post-Cold War dilemma: indifference or engagement

The end of the Cold War ushered the Alliance into a new period of uncertainty, with many observers arguing that the end of NATO was now a foregone conclusion. In the absence of the Soviet threat, the Alliance was bound to go into terminal decline. But the critics had it wrong again. The Alliance was still needed in the emerging post-Cold War Europe - not simply as a collective defence organisation, but as a security manager in the broadest sense. What was needed at the end of the Cold War was a comprehensive political-military framework to facilitate Europe's major transition to a continent "whole and free".

Within a few years, NATO played its newly assigned role as a framework for change. It created a set of policies that helped Europe to cope with the challenges of transformation. To be sure, Allies continued to disagree about the degree of reform. Some preferred to see NATO as a passive hedge against the return of some kind of a Soviet threat. Others wanted the Alliance to play a more active role in reaching out to former adversaries. As time went on, however, the case for an activist policy became stronger. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe were clamouring for closer ties, pointing to a strategic need for the Alliance to draw these countries closer and to help them in facing the daunting challenges of post-communist transition.

But should such outreach also entail an eventual invitation to join NATO? On this issue, too, the Alliance acted in line with its typical pattern: an initial controversial debate, followed by an emerging consensus and then by a road map to implement that consensus. In 1997, after several years of painstaking preparation, NATO invited three former members of the Warsaw Pact to join, as part of a gradual process that would lead to further invitations at a later stage. That way, the enlargement process would leave open the option for future invitations, while giving aspirant countries time to prepare for membership. Russia would require a privileged relationship - a fact that was never in dispute, even if Allies initially disagreed about the scope and depth of such a relationship. As a result, NATO played a key part in overcoming Europe's division.

The greatest post-Cold War challenge turned out to be the wars of Yugoslav dissolution. Initially, the NATO Allies had adopted a cautious approach vis-à-vis the conflicts in Southeastern Europe. They did not see any concrete strategic interests at stake and were uncertain as to the consequences of a direct military engagement. As a result, NATO's involvement remained limited, confined to supporting other institutional actors, such as the United Nations, without a distinct role of its own. As the wars of Yugoslav dissolution dragged on, however, this minimalist role appeared increasingly unsustainable. Frictions grew, particularly between the United States and the other Allies, over what constituted a proper course of action. In 1994, The New York Times characterised the transatlantic disagreements as the worst since the 1956 Suez crisis, echoing a widespread sentiment that an Alliance that had withstood Soviet pressure was about to be split by a handful of Balkan warlords. The time for debate was running out.

Yet NATO surmounted the Balkan challenge, just as it had overcome previous ones. Allies finally agreed on a tougher line, acted on it, and ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia). In early 1996, a NATO-led peacekeeping force, supported by many Partner countries, deployed to Bosnia. NATO had written itself into the history books - and the text books. Only NATO, with its well-established political and military arrangements, could have done it. The initial disagreements among Allies about how to deal with regional conflicts faded into the distance. By virtue of its actions, NATO had established itself as Europe's pre-eminent peacekeeper. And, along the way, NATO had also answered a question that had been debated for ages among Allies: whether the Alliance could act "out-of-area", that is outside its traditional collective-defence perimeter. It could.

With its commitment to underpin a peace agreement for Bosnia, NATO had made the cause of stability in Southeastern Europe its own. In this way, when the Kosovo crisis erupted, the Alliance had virtually no choice but to get involved. After all diplomatic means had been exhausted, NATO launched an air campaign to force Belgrade to abort its policy of ethnic cleansing. Again, the penchant to see NATO in crisis clouded the public perception. Legitimate criticism of how the campaign was conducted - too great a US and too small a European contribution - dominated the public image so much that the most important issue almost got lost in the debate. NATO prevailed in that conflict and, in so doing, stopped and reversed the largest ethnic cleansing campaign since the Second World War.

NATO's Balkan learning curve was steep. When the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* threatened to be engulfed in a civil war, the Allied response was quick. The rapid deployment of a NATO force prevented major conflagration and helped put the country on a reformist course. This conflict-prevention mission proceeded without major intra-Alliance debates. The lesson that engagement should win over indifference had been assimilated. Moreover, the fact that this mission was closely coordinated with the European Union indicated that another question that had haunted the Alliance for decades might soon be resolved as well: whether a distinct European Security and Defence Policy would be to the detriment of NATO. The building of institutional links between the European Union and NATO reflected an emerging consensus that NATO could not only afford but should actively seek a stronger, more coherent European contribution.

The new challenge: terrorism

What does this brief history of NATO's "crises" suggest for the Alliance's chances to play a meaningful role in combating terrorism? The answer is two-fold. First, NATO will successfully develop new strategies and policies to deal with this new strategic challenge. That challenge has manifested itself in ways far too dramatic to be ignored by the world's most powerful military Alliance. Indeed, the contours of such a new NATO approach have already become visible: a new relationship with Russia, a new military concept for the defence against terrorism, and a stronger emphasis on dealing with the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Second, despite these changes, NATO will not be able to shed its image of an Alliance in crisis. As in the past, critics will mistake debate for disagreement. They will interpret controversy not as a necessary precondition for change and adaptation, but as prelude to disaster. There is not much the Allies can do about that, except, perhaps, avoid inflammatory rhetoric in dealing with each other. Judging the Alliance by yardsticks so ambitious as to invite failure should be left to the outside critics.

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