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Reinventing NATO (yet again) politically

Surveying the horizon: NATO is both able to wage
war and to build peace and both capabilities may
be required in the years to come
(© SHAPE)
Ronald D. Asmus examines the remake that NATO requires to meet the challenges of the post-post Cold war era that are centred beyond Europe

The North Atlantic Alliance today faces a paradox perhaps best illustrated by the following three observations. First, a quick visit to NATO Headquarters reveals an Alliance that today is engaged in more missions and activities than ever before. It is not an exaggeration to say that NATO today is busier than at any time since its founding over half a century ago and in many key areas on the verge of being over-stretched.

Second, there is no shortage of new problems where people would like to see NATO become involved or enlarge its current missions –- an expanded role in Afghanistan, more responsibility in Iraq, stepped-up outreach in the wider Black Sea region or playing a supporting role in establishing Middle Eastern peace. There is a queue of countries seeking closer strategic ties and eventual membership in the Alliance, including several Balkan countries, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine. One even sees the stirrings of a debate in Israel about exploring closer Euro-Atlantic ties. Obviously, there is still a demand for NATO, and it exerts a considerable magnetic attraction in Europe and beyond.

Third, NATO is seen as less central by some key actors in key capitals on both sides of the Atlantic. Whether it be US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's downgrading of the Alliance to a "toolbox" or German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's comments suggesting the Alliance was no longer the place to debate the grand strategic issues of the day, such remarks would have been unthinkable a decade ago when the US Secretary of Defense and German Chancellor would have been NATO's greatest advocates and defenders.

The reason for this paradox is actually fairly simple. After the collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union, NATO had to reinvent itself politically for the initial challenges of the post-Cold War era. Indeed, the Alliance's post-Cold War reinvention is one of the main reasons why Europe as a whole is more peaceful and secure today than at any time in recent history. In the wake of 9/11, however, the Alliance faced the need to reinvent itself a second time to face the challenges of the post-post-Cold War era that are centred beyond Europe, especially in the broader Middle East. Whereas NATO successfully reinvented itself to meet the challenges of the first, it has not – at least not yet –- made the leap required for success in the second.

What were those challenges of the 1990s that the Alliance successfully managed? They were primarily to stop the ethnic wars in the Balkans, anchor the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe to the West and establish a new and cooperative relationship with the Alliance's former adversary, Russia. To be sure, the Alliance was initially slow in moving to halt ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. And the evolution of both NATO enlargement and NATO-Russia relations were not without their own trials and tribulations and an occasional near-death experience. Nevertheless, in the space of a decade NATO successfully transformed itself from a North American-Western European alliance focused exclusively on territorial defence into a pan-European institution with new members stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea and missions centred increasingly on what used to be called "out of area". It was no small accomplishment.

New strategic challenge

While such changes seemed enormous at the time, today one can see that they were inadequate to keep pace with world politics at the dawn of the 21st century. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were a second geopolitical earthquake that would force the Alliance to rethink the political parameters that had guided NATO's previous strategic remake. The Alliance was confronted strategically with the need for yet another great leap forward – one that would take it beyond the official confines of the Euro-Atlantic area and into regions such as the broader Middle East. The collapse of the Twin Towers in Manhattan shattered our old definition of Article 5 threats. Osama bin Laden also demonstrated that the divide separating the Euro-Atlantic and the Middle Eastern security spaces was crumbling. And Americans and Europeans started to wake up to the realisation that the greatest threats to the Euro-Atlantic community no longer emanated from Europe but beyond.

In the late 1990s, NATO had begun to debate whether it should extend its strategic scope beyond the borders of Europe and into the Middle East in connection with discussions on its new Strategic Concept. But that process stalled. In spite of Washington's urging, a majority of European Allies at the time preferred to limit NATO's future role to managing security in and around Europe's periphery and not cross the line on potential future roles in the Middle East. Yet that view turned out to be anachronistic and would crumble under the weight of real world events – just like the conventional wisdom in the early 1990s that NATO could not and should not adopt missions beyond territorial defence had shown itself inadequate for a new era. US Senator Richard G. Lugar captured the Alliance dilemma at the time with the phrase that NATO would "go out of area or out of business". The point was simple but profound: if NATO hoped to remain the West's central alliance, it had to rethink and address the central strategic issues and challenges of the day, irrespective of where they came from.

Today, it is easy to forget just how badly divided the Alliance was at the time over Bosnia and Herzegovina. One should also note that it was Franco-US reconciliation that was the key to resolving the crisis. That in turn proved to be a catalyst for a new sense of strategic purpose that set the stage for NATO's political and strategic remake that unfolded over the rest of the decade. It was a classic example of leaders using a historical crisis to overcome inertia and internal resistance and launch a strategic breakthrough of needed reforms that revived an alliance.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for 9/11. NATO did of course invoke Article 5 for the first time in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States. Historians will judge whether the United States –- the undisputed leader of the Alliance – made a historic mistake in turning away from and not involving the Alliance more deeply in the initial phase of operations in Afghanistan. Even had such a role initially been limited, it would have had enormous and positive political consequences in terms of putting the Alliance on a different trajectory and consolidating a shared commitment to addressing the challenges presented by the new security environment. For someone who had worked hard during the previous years to encourage the Alliance to move beyond Europe, it certainly seemed like a golden opportunity to sweep aside past opposition and pull NATO once and for all into a new era.

The Bush Administration did, of course, subsequently correct its course. And today Afghanistan is among NATO's most important missions. But historical momentum was lost, and the subsequent rift over the necessity and justness of the war in Iraq left the Alliance badly divided and made past disputes, such as the one over Bosnia and Herzegovina, pale in comparison. Rather than becoming the harbinger of a second broader political remake of the Alliance and the kind of breakthrough that would open the door to wider reform, 9/11 has left the Alliance with the paradox described at the beginning of this article: busier than ever, still courted in some circles but also feeling somewhat sidelined.

Another reinvention

What is the way out of this situation? In the mid-1990s the question was often asked: if NATO did not exist, would we reinvent it? And if we would still create it, what would we do differently? At the time, it was pretty easy to answer such questions. It was obvious that Europe and North America still wanted a strategic alliance; that such an alliance had to embrace all of Europe and not just half of it; that it would reflect a new balance between Europe and North America; that it would be oriented towards new as opposed to old threats; and that we would try to build partnerships with key countries on Europe's periphery like Russia. In a nutshell, that answer contained all the core elements of the kind of reforms that NATO needed – enlargement, a European Security and Defence Policy, new missions and partnership outreach – and which were implemented.

The precondition for NATO's second reinvention is Europe and the United States reaching closure on a new sense of strategic purpose
Posing the same question today can be an equally helpful exercise in terms of sketching out the kind of remake or reinvention the Alliance requires today. I, for one, still believe unequivocally that the United States wants and needs a strategic alliance to address the key threats confronting both sides of the Atlantic. Moreover, I would argue that NATO today faces two different but increasingly connected agendas that must be at the heart of its second reinvention.

The first is to continue the strategy of promoting and extending democracy and stability deeper into Eurasia and especially into the broader Black Sea region. More specifically, this means helping to consolidate the victory of the Orange and Rose Revolutions and anchor a democratic Ukraine along with Georgia and the southern Caucasus in the West. Such an anchoring is also, one of the best and most effective ways Europe and the United States can promote democratic development in Russia, which must be our ultimate objective. The second, related to the first, is the need to project stability into the broader Black Sea region – not only as part of the effort to build a Europe whole and free but also with an eye towards the broader Middle East. Together, this will constitute the third great wave of Euro-Atlantic outreach and integration. Just like NATO enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe helped eliminate the age-old sources of geopolitical conflict and rivalry on the continent, anchoring Ukraine and the wider Black Sea region to the West would again redraw the map of Europe for the better.

These agendas would also better position NATO to become a more important actor in the broader Middle East, the part of the world from which the most dangerous threats to our societies are likely to emanate in the years and decades to come. One should never forget that NATO is able both to wage war and to build peace – and both capabilities may well be required in the years to come as we confront the threats posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and international terrorism. Indeed, if there is one area where NATO planners need to think creatively about how the Alliance can help develop new frameworks and partnerships and roles and missions that can contribute to security, this is it.

Way ahead

The onset of the second Bush Administration and its new commitment to repair relations between the two sides of the Atlantic may provide a second chance to complete the post-9/11 reinvention that NATO requires. In assessing what needs to be done, several considerations will be key.

First, this is primarily a political challenge. The precondition for NATO's second reinvention is Europe and the United States reaching closure on a new sense of strategic purpose and unity to face the very different challenges of a new century. NATO is about war and peace, and there are no questions that are more political than these. Member states will simply not make the tough decisions on how to build or restructure their armed forces and create new capabilities unless and until we have a new and agreed unity of purpose.

Second, the problems we face are not always or necessarily military ones. The strategies required must be political, economic and military. NATO will therefore only be one part of the answer and one instrument and framework among several. The role of the European Union and of EU-US cooperation will grow and at times be equally or even more important because the issues we need to address are so different. But the role that NATO can play will be unique and critical – and no other institution can provide it. NATO is an instrument to build peace as well as to wage war. We need to think about how to use both of these capabilities. It may very well be its peace-building activities and components that are as critical as its war-waging capabilities in this part of the world.

Third, a core part of a future NATO reinvention must be an internal rebalancing between North America and an increasingly integrated Europe. We need a functioning EU-NATO relationship as well as a new EU-US relationship that is increasingly strategic in character. As much as some Americans are loath to admit it, one reason why some Europeans today are so reluctant to turn to NATO is their belief that its structures are too weighted in favour of the United States and do not sufficiently reflect the growing importance of the European Union and progress made in European integration. It is noteworthy that the one key component of reform that we came close to achieving in the 1990s was France's full-fledged reintegration in NATO. Today, the Alliance still pays a price for that missed opportunity and failure. A second political reinvention of the Alliance today will have to successfully conclude that work.

NATO today needs a second political reinvention –- one that would rebalance the Alliance and extend its engagement deeper into the Euro-Atlantic community and well beyond into the broader Middle East. It is a strategic remake as ambitious as the one undertaken and accomplished in the 1990s. Many will deem it too ambitious. Sceptics and critics will say it is mission impossible. Similar voices could be heard in the early and mid-1990s. Today we are much better off because our leaders ignored them and faced the need to modernise the Alliance for a new era. Indeed, if there is one lesson that can be drawn from the 1990s, it is that we were not ambitious enough at the time.

Ronald D. Asmus is director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States' Transatlantic Center in Brussels, Belgium and author of "Opening NATO's Door" (Columbia University Press, 2002), a diplomatic history of NATO enlargement.
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