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Remaining relevant

Jonathan Parish offers a personal account of both NATO's and his own transformation.

Transformational vision: The 1990 London Declaration was the genesis for NATO's ongoing transformation and the Prague Summit kept that process moving in the right direction (© NATO)

The navigation was easy. All I had to do was keep the big fence on my left and continue south. My passenger was from the British Frontier Service and he knew every inch of the fence. My task was to fly him along our sector so that he could check for any unusual signs of activity on the other side. But this was no normal fence - this was the Inner German Border in March 1983 - and every move I took in my British Army Gazelle helicopter was closely mirrored on the other side of the border by a Soviet Hind helicopter.

For the next six years I flew anti-tank helicopters in the Federal Republic of Germany. Every morning started with the same routine: a weather forecast for the area, and then a detailed study of Warsaw Pact and NATO military equipment so that we would be able to differentiate between them on the battlefield when launching our anti-tank missiles.

Following my tour in Germany and staff training in the United Kingdom, I was posted to SHAPE in 1990. My colleagues joked that my golf would improve because SHAPE stood for Superb Holidays At Public Expense. This was the image that had been generated by over 40 years of the Cold War, NATO's static headquarters, pre-planned military options and stovepipe responsibilities. The plans for defeating the Soviet armoured masses on the plains of northern Germany required little updating, so my predecessors, when not enjoying superb holidays, had all managed to reduce their golf handicaps.

However, I arrived at SHAPE only a year after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and shortly after the London Declaration On A Transformed North Atlantic Alliance. And it soon became clear that NATO was no longer the same organisation that it had been when I'd been flying that border patrol. NATO's transformation had already started.

But what is transformation? It appears to mean different things to different people and I cannot find an agreed Alliance definition of the term. I would suggest that the purpose of transformation is to keep the Alliance relevant to the security environment and capable of carrying out effectively the roles it wishes to undertake.

The changes initiated by the London Declaration in 1990 were prompted by the end of the Cold War. They can be summed up as a change from an approach to security that was defensive and reactive, to one that was more proactive and focused on spreading security and stability. While the collective security commitment embodied in the Washington Treaty continued, and will continue, to underpin the Alliance and bind Europe and North America, NATO's transformation in the last decade of the 20th century was most visibly demonstrated by partnership and crisis management.

Crisis management kept me busy during the 1990s. At SHAPE in the early part of the decade, I was involved in NATO's first operational deployment when support was provided to Turkey during the first Gulf War. I was also kept busy as NATO assisted in the airlifting of humanitarian aid to the former Soviet Union. And I was even busier when NATO became progressively more involved in the Balkans, initially supporting UN monitoring of heavy weapons, then monitoring the "no-fly" zone, and subsequently with maritime operations in support of UN sanctions.

It is essential that a common vision, understanding and sense of purpose underpin NATO's roles and capabilities

During the latter part of that decade, I was in national military appointments and commanding a helicopter regiment. This involved further work resulting from NATO's crisis-management role: operational deployments to Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as intervention in Kosovo.

At the beginning of this decade, I joined the International Military Staff at NATO Headquarters. It was there I witnessed the next stage in NATO's transformation with the Alliance decision in 2002 to break out of its Euro-Atlantic geographic straitjacket. But I was surprised that so many people spoke then, and continue to speak now, of Prague as the Transformation Summit. For me, London had already set the course; Prague was a hand on the tiller.

The threat from terrorism and the dangers posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, mean that Allies' security has become increasingly dependent on events a long way from their national territory. At Prague, the Alliance recognised this and further adapted accordingly. Part of this adaptation was the understanding that in the face of these new threats, the widest possible cooperation is required, not just with states, but also with other international organisations and institutions, hence the Prague call of "new members" and "new relationships".

But these areas of transformation were only taking further the changes we had already undertaken: they were not entirely new initiatives. In London in 1990, NATO was an Alliance of 16 countries and by the time of Prague membership had already increased to 19. In 1990, NATO had initiated a comprehensive partnership policy by extending the hand of friendship to the East. The hand of friendship had been extended South to the countries of North Africa and the Middle East in 1994 (and last year at Istanbul was extended further afield to the states of the Gulf region). In addition, by the time of Prague, NATO had already taken its place within the network of international organisations, cooperating increasingly with the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United Nations.

It is a similar story for "new capabilities". The Prague decision to create the NATO Response Force was a logical step in taking further the London call for highly mobile and versatile multinational forces, which had led to the establishment of the Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC). Changes to the NATO Command Structure announced in Prague built on an earlier decision in the 1990s to reduce the three major NATO Commands to two by eliminating Allied Command Channel. The Prague Capabilities Commitment focused on the capabilities required to defend against terrorism and gave additional impetus to the acquisition of better equipment that had already been instigated with the Defence Capabilities Initiative at the Washington Summit in 1999 (when three new members joined the Alliance and the new NATO Strategic Concept was approved).

Looking back, both London and Prague can be seen to be reactions to changes that happened around NATO. Whereas London was a response to the end of the Cold War, Prague was a response to the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9/11. So Prague was not the Transformation Summit, but it ensured that the Alliance remained on the path it had embarked upon in London - ensuring NATO's continued relevance by undertaking new roles and acquiring the capabilities necessary to carry them out effectively.

We need to acknowledge, however, that even access to unlimited quantities of the most advanced military hardware will be worthless if the Allies cannot agree when and how to use it. Recent events have shown that there are also changes within NATO that now demand "transformational" attention. Whereas previous threats united Allies, current threats bring the potential to divide them, as demonstrated by the Iraq crisis in 2003. It is therefore essential that a common vision, a common understanding and a common sense of purpose underpin NATO's roles and capabilities. That is why the Secretary General has recently campaigned to promote political dialogue within NATO, and indeed, Allies had stated their intention to enhance the Alliance's political component in the London Declaration back in 1990.

In conclusion, I believe the London Declaration was the genesis for NATO's ongoing transformation and that Prague kept that process moving in the right direction. My work over the years has involved me in the consequences of many of the transformational initiatives from these summits. However, I feel that all these initiatives will be rendered worthless unless NATO urgently transforms itself to promote greater political dialogue. A common position will never be found among Allies if they shy away from the controversial political and security issues. In today's security environment, these issues must be discussed; they must be discussed early; and they must be discussed widely. If Allies are not prepared to confront the challenge of debating these issues within NATO, then the Alliance will lose its relevance and an alternative forum will be found. I am convinced that NATO is the ideal forum for these debates, but I am also concerned that if we don't use it, we'll lose it.

PS I, too, have transformed. Last year I swapped my green military uniform for a grey civilian suit and the most dangerous weapon that I am now permitted to handle is a sharp pencil. It is for others to judge whether I have managed to remain relevant and capable.

Read more: history of NATO
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