Christoph Bertram argues that NATO should focus on stabilisation and give up the pretence of being a war-fighting alliance.
Frontline duty: NATO is needed for and suited to generating forces to help stabilise fragile parts of the world (© KFOR)
When NATO defined its role and purpose after the Cold War in its 1991 Strategic Concept, the possibility of becoming involved in a new, conventional war could not be ruled out. Since then, however, war-fighting has become NATO's least likely task. The Alliance's overriding military purpose today is that of promoting stability in parts of the world where instability could affect the well-being rather than the military security of its extended membership. Despite this, NATO has so far refused to recognise this new strategic reality and still pretends that the ability to prevail in conventional war should be the standard by which its doctrine, capabilities, culture and organisation are measured.
To be sure, NATO has demonstrated considerable adaptability over the past 15 years. The Alliance has enlarged its membership, thereby significantly extending the zone of stability in and beyond Europe. And it has recognised that security has become globalised with the result that, as the West's primary security organisation, it has to be prepared to operate beyond the Euro-Atlantic area if it wants to remain credible to its members and the wider world. What the Alliance has yet to accept, however, is that stability promotion is the only task NATO forces are now required to perform. Individual members may still want to maintain capabilities for fighting conventional wars. But NATO is no longer suited to address its original challenge, nor required.
Instead of worrying about Allies opting to develop stabilisation over war-fighting capabilities, NATO should be concerned by members trying to do both simultaneously but imperfectly
It is no longer required for war-fighting because its lead nation, the United States, has more than enough forces to fight and win conventional wars against any power on the globe. For reasons that according to Andrew J. Bacevich in The New American Militarism (Oxford University Press, 2005) reflect the strategic ambition of the last superpower as well as domestic dynamics, Washington has built and maintains so great a war-fighting capability that there is no need for the Allies to do likewise. Indeed, writing about the 1999 Kosovo campaign and the 2001 Afghan War in Simon Sefarty's edited Visions of the Atlantic Alliance (CSIS Press, 2005), James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation concluded that: "Both military campaigns demonstrated that the United States has more than enough capability for conventional combat and little military need to depend on material help from its allies... Looked at from a transatlantic perspective, improved European conventional capability is largely redundant, except in so far as it also improves Europe's capacity to deploy and sustain larger forces for stabilisation operations at greater distances." In the Iraq War, the United States again demonstrated that it does not need allies to defeat a military opponent.
Nor is NATO politically suited to fighting conventional wars, which will likely take place beyond Europe, if at all, thereby affecting the Alliance's ever-growing membership to different degrees of intensity. In such circumstances, Alliance consensus would be elusive. Conventional war-fighting would not unite NATO but rather expose its disunity and undermine its credibility. Conventional campaigns will therefore likely be waged either by the United States alone or by a coalition of the willing, comprising fewer members than the Alliance total as well as non-NATO countries.
Mission possible: stabilisation
What NATO is needed and suited for is what the Alliance has been doing ever since it deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, namely generating forces to help stabilise fragile parts of the world. This began in the Balkans, is expanding today in Afghanistan, and every look into the future suggests that there will be a growing need for such work. Every reading of recent NATO communiqués confirms that this is now NATO's day-to-day job. The NATO Response Force (NRF), which was originally invented to enable European forces to cooperate with US forces in the higher end of military conflict, has just completed a humanitarian mission in Pakistan. The most salient question for NATO's future, as Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer never tires of pointing out, is whether it "will stay the course" in Afghanistan, a still open-ended commitment.
Stabilisation is also what NATO is best suited for politically and militarily. Politically, recent experience has demonstrated that members tend to agree quite readily on stabilisation operations. Militarily, while no European armed forces can keep up with the United States in expenditure and high-end fighting capability, many are experienced in stabilisation operations. Moreover, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe in Mons is uniquely qualified to provide the necessary preparatory work, for members and Partners alike, to deploy forces on crisis-containment and peacemaking operations.
Despite this, the myth maintained in Brussels is that the Alliance's primary task still lies in being ready to defeat any direct military threat to the territorial integrity of its members. The same NATO communiqués that go on to talk about nothing but peacekeeping assert that the Alliance remains the basis for collective defence. Instead of embracing the obvious changes in the strategic environment, politically correct thinking ties the Alliance to the mantra contained in its latest Strategic Concept from 1999 that "the maintenance of an adequate military capability and clear preparedness to act collectively in the common defence remain central to Alliance security objectives" and that the capabilities for war-fighting are also "the basis of the Alliance's ability to contribute to conflict prevention and crisis management". The structure, procedure, language and culture of the organisation continue to convey the message that it must meet the highest dangers of military aggression. Deficiencies in capabilities are still largely defined by this standard, just as the command structures, though considerably adjusted, remain designed for the old model, not the new task. The most recent innovations, the NRF and Allied Command Transformation, were created specifically to deal with NATO's supposed deficit in high-end military power.
The reasons for this disconnect between reality and ideology do not primarily lie in blindness to the new challenges. After all, stabilisation operations are today widely recognised as NATO's chief concerns. Yet to admit that they must now be NATO's organising principle is made difficult both by institutional inertia and the worry that to do so would further weaken the already strained fabric of the Alliance. There is fear that a division of labour between military "stabilisers" and "fighters" would undermine Alliance cohesion and lead to a two-tier organisation in which some countries would only do one, not both. Moreover, in this way, nations would be able to renege on their commitments to the higher end of military engagements in favour of what are supposedly cheaper stabilisation tasks. Two-tier forces would soon produce a two-tier mindset. The gap between European and US levels of military preparedness would widen still further.
Such fears are, however, unfounded. In practice, a resolute embrace of the stabilisation priority would both strengthen the Alliance and offer the framework in which a number of its current problems can be approached with a greater prospect of success.
Uniting, not dividing
By concentrating on stabilisation, NATO would be doing a job that satisfies the security interests of all its members, on both sides of the Atlantic. There might be a risk of a two-tier Alliance if European forces alone were to be involved in stabilisation. But the US experience in Iraq has not been lost on US politicians and military planners who have belatedly designated stabilisation as a core military mission. Indeed, it has even brought home to the critics of "coalition warfare" the utility of allies that can provide the large number of forces needed for the long haul that serious stabilisation requires. Today and in the future, both US and non-US forces will be increasingly involved in that task.
Stabilisation should not be viewed as a cheaper option. Indeed, such operations are generally more costly than today's typically short military campaigns; they require well-trained and well-equipped forces; and they often entail greater risks for the individual soldier. NATO's first war, the Kosovo campaign of 1999, caused no Allied casualties and, though protracted because of a refusal to deploy ground troops, lasted less than three months. Since then, NATO forces have been deployed in Kosovo in large numbers and, although levels are being reduced, some kind of Western military presence in the province is likely to be required for many years to come. The cost of stabilisation and reconstruction has already vastly exceeded that of the original military operation. The 2003 Iraq War was over within weeks. By contrast, post-war stabilisation has already lasted three years, is far from over and has proved extremely costly in terms of both blood and treasure. Instead of worrying about Allies opting to develop stabilisation over war-fighting capabilities, NATO should be concerned by members trying to do both simultaneously but imperfectly. Precious few Allies possess the resources to be convincing in both disciplines.
Would a NATO that specialises in stabilisation widen the gap between European and US capabilities and security mentalities? Given that the most recent transatlantic rift resulted from the war-fighting inclinations of the dominant Ally, it seems at least questionable to ascribe such an effect to a common commitment to stabilisation. The gap between European and US capabilities and mentalities is widening as it is, and all the appeals of repeated NATO summits to close the capabilities gap have failed to produce the desired result. While wars have divided the Alliance because they failed to muster the support of all members and called on the capabilities of only a few; peacekeeping operations like those in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Afghanistan have united the Alliance because they appealed to common interests as well as capabilities that almost all Allies could contribute.
In Alliance decision-making, the bargaining power of the "stabilisers" should be no less than that of the "fighters". After all, the forces that clear up the debris are at least as important as those that kick in the door. Any member hoping to look to NATO's stabilisation capacity once the fighting is over would be well advised to gain the support of as many members as possible early on. Allies whose forces would be critical once the war is over should expect a commensurate degree of influence before it is begun.
Not only are fears unjustified that Alliance cohesion will suffer if it gives priority to stabilisation operations and capabilities, there are actually benefits. Once the choice is made, it will likely help resolve some of the problems the Alliance is facing today and tomorrow: unity, enlargement, the relationship with Russia, and cooperation with the European Union.
Unity in the Alliance in the post-Cold-War era has usually been strained by traditional military action and restored through the common interest in stabilisation. That is scarcely surprising in current strategic circumstances where the threats are ambiguous and hence the decision of how best to address them controversial. But there tends to be much less controversy over the need to prevent important regions declining into chaos.
Enlargement has successfully extended the zone of stability that NATO membership represents. Yet the Alliance is intrinsically unable to define its outer borders, and enlargement is bound to continue. But with every new member, NATO's claim to be primarily a collective-defence organisation becomes less plausible and the collective-defence commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty more diluted. Emphasising stability operations as the Alliance's primary function would remind newcomers that membership is not about demanding NATO's assistance with whatever difficulties they might have with their neighbours, but implies an active contribution to the joint stabilisation task.
With enlargement sooner or later likely to include Ukraine, NATO has to develop a strategy to make such a step acceptable to Russia. Emphasising its stabilisation mission over collective defence would help NATO both to present the addition of Ukraine to its membership as no threat to Russia and to open avenues for practical cooperation with Russia in this area.
Finally, it would help provide a basis for closer EU-NATO cooperation. Underlying the reluctance of a number of EU countries towards a more structured relationship is the suspicion that this would impede the European Union's own defence integration, granting NATO and its major member a veto over what Europeans are planning to do. Once NATO opts clearly in favour of stabilisation, such suspicions are likely to be more easily allayed.
Here the case rests. It does not imply that NATO has to give up the commitment to the collective defence of its members. Indeed, the forces it can call upon for stability operations will, given the likely challenges, also be adequate for this. But it does imply that renewing the Alliance can no longer be achieved by highlighting its prowess in war, conventional or unconventional, but only by demonstrating the extraordinary and unique role it can play as the major provider of military forces for crisis management and post-war stabilisation, making this the standard for force planning and force requirements. Since the Cold War ended, NATO has shown a remarkable readiness to adjust to new realities. Making stabilisation its central calling is the next necessary step.