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The need for change

Henning Riecke considers the need for change in international organisations, arguing that NATO's transformation must be based on a firm political foundation.

Action man: The NRF is now the focal point for force transformation, serving as a testing ground for new technology, doctrine and procedures (© NATO)

When the German Chancellor went on record at this year's annual Munich Security Conference in February saying that NATO was "no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies", he was only stating the obvious. But what is most troubling is that there is no other such venue. The reason Gerhard Schröder chose to highlight the Alliance's predicament is that NATO is designed, in part, to build consensus between Europe and North America in the security field and he believed it should be doing a better job. Schröder proposed the creation of a high-level panel to discuss how to improve transatlantic relations, with the goal, among others, of re-establishing a culture of strategic dialogue within the Alliance. To achieve this, NATO has to adapt.

The Alliance is not, of course, the only international institution that has to adapt to today's fluid and complex security environment. Both the European Union and the United Nations have to be equally reform-minded and ambitious, if they, too, are to move with the times and contribute to building a more stable world. Nor is it the first time that NATO has found itself in such a situation. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a time that the Alliance has not been in the process of reinventing itself.

Though frequently written-off over the years as irrelevant or dying by critics and advocates alike, NATO has made adapting to new challenges something of a speciality. That said, change has not always come easily. Indeed, more often than not, the process has been characterised by frustration, friction and protracted consultations, making the Alliance appear at times a hotbed of infighting rather than a consensus-building institution. But no matter how acrimonious the discussions leading to eventual compromise, such adaptation has been critical to NATO's successful evolution as well as to maintaining wider stability. Moreover, NATO is currently in the process of an extremely dynamic military transformation. Why then does the Alliance appear so divided politically?

Understanding the way that NATO adapts requires an analysis of the driving forces behind Alliance cohesion. At times when the security environment changes, issues such as a joint threat perception, a shared interest in maintaining the US presence in Europe and common values inevitably come under scrutiny. This was very much the case, for example, in the 1960s when the United States became vulnerable for the first time as a result of the development of Soviet intercontinental missiles. At the time, the Alliance responded by changing its strategic doctrine from one of massive retaliation to one of flexible response and, following adoption of the Harmel Report in 1967, by redefining the Alliance's future purposes as both providing deterrence and promoting détente.

In this way, adaptation relates not only to the instruments at the Alliance's disposal, but also to the purpose of NATO as a whole, and to the rules that guide cooperation. The emergence of non-traditional threats since the end of the Cold War has made negotiations about a shared perception of security difficult. At the same time, however, responding to these threats has demanded greater openness and flexibility in strategic planning so as to prepare the Alliance for a wider range of tasks.

Global threats

Today's global security threats have two qualities that make efficient application of pre-designed tools difficult. Firstly, non-traditional threats stem from societal developments rather than from governmental decisions, thereby forcing strategists to reconsider traditional instruments such as military intervention and deterrence. Secondly, uncertainty is a defining feature of security policy today, since the motivation, intentions and capabilities of non-state adversaries are often unknown. Moreover, calculating the impact of events and actions on one side of the world on the security of the other is extremely difficult, making exaggeration of the threat at least as likely as complacency about it.

In these uncertain circumstances, NATO members have had to develop forces that are rapidly deployable to wherever they might be needed. At the same time, Allies have also sought to reduce levels of uncertainty by helping build political stability and transparency in crisis regions. This dual approach has guided the adaptation process that, albeit hesitantly, NATO has undergone since the end of the Cold War, in which it is possible to identify three elements, each with its own motives and driving forces.

The first element has been the construction of security partnerships aimed at extending the zone of stability within Europe. In response to the vacuum created by the demise of the Warsaw Pact, NATO offered cooperative structures to tie in former adversaries, including eventually a mechanism for joining the Alliance, and to integrate Partner militaries into crisis-management operations in Europe. The second element relates to the growing willingness of NATO to use force in crisis management and stabilisation - first in the Balkans, now in Central Asia. Having started out as an organisation focused on maintaining security in Europe, extending the scope and range of its operations has at times been divisive for NATO, with some members seeking to resist the process.

The third element grew out of the restructuring of Cold-War forces during the 1990s and has evolved into today's ambitious force-transformation programme. The military requirements of the Alliance's new operations put the original reforms under strain. In response, principles like flexibility, deployability, sustainability, technological superiority, effectiveness and most of all interoperability have become the cornerstones of NATO's relevance as a security organisation.

Military transformation

In this area, the United States effectively acts as a political entrepreneur pushing the agenda forward. Indeed, NATO's military transformation consists largely of the transfer of the technological, doctrinal and structural innovations, the revolution in military affairs that has transformed the way in which the United States is able to conduct military operations, to the rest of the Alliance. This process gathered momentum during the first term of George W. Bush's presidency and may be viewed as a means of developing interoperable forces for coalition operations, thereby ensuring that Allied militaries are equipped to operate alongside US forces in the future.

Military transformation is a dynamic process without a foreseeable end, with implications for soldiers, equipment and technology, as well as structures and principles guiding force deployment and the conduct of military operations. In this way, NATO is not only overseeing transformation inside its members' forces, but is itself subject to transformation.

The most visible manifestations of NATO's military transformation have been the establishment of Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States and the development of the NATO Response Force (NRF). The NRF is now the focal point for force transformation, serving as a testing ground for new technology, doctrine and procedures. Since there is regular and frequent rotation of forces, returning contingents are rapidly able to bring back expertise and skills developed within the NRF and inject them into their national forces. Since the NRF consists predominantly of Europeans, it also serves as a vehicle for fostering more coherent procurement policies within Europe. Clearly, transformation is no longer simply an item on NATO's agenda, but has become a defining feature of the Alliance today.

Frequently written-off over the years, NATO has made adapting to new challenges something of a speciality

Transformation is not, however, of itself a sufficiently convincing common purpose to keep the Allies together and NATO united. Alliance cohesion in a changing world requires more fundamental agreement on the nature of the security challenges and approaches to dealing with them. However, although most observers consider the Alliance's 1999 Strategic Concept - the agreed document analysing the strategic environment and the ways the Alliance addresses the threats it faces - to be out of date, the transatlantic disputes of the past two years have undermined any prospect of updating it. Indeed, it is revealing that The Strategic Vision, the document providing the strategic underpinning of the transformation process, is not an official Alliance-agreed document but a publication issued by the Alliance's Supreme Commanders: Supreme Allied Commander, Europe General James L. Jones and Supreme Allied Commander, Transformation Admiral Edmund P. Giambastiani.

As noted above, NATO is not the only security organisation in need of reform. Two other organisations with close ties to the Alliance have also been adapting to changes in the security environment, but with different results. The rapid development of a European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) has contributed to giving the European Union a security personality in its own right. By contrast, the slow pace and administrative nature of reform at the United Nations risks undermining the legal underpinning of international stabilisation efforts. Given the interrelationship between NATO and these two organisations, it is worth examining the reform processes currently underway there.

EU evolution

The European Union has been developing ESDP as an important element of its foreign policy to add military vigour to the economic power that was already at its disposal. With a view to addressing the root causes of threats such as those posed by extremism, migration and organised crime, the European Union had long focused on non-military instruments to foster stability abroad. The military element of the Common Foreign and Security Policy is now helping to rebalance this approach and provide the European Union with greater policy options, though the European Union's willingness to think of itself as a military player is growing only slowly.

The European Union's Security Strategy of 2003, drafted and negotiated by the Council's secretariat, has helped create a new dynamic in its internal security debate. The document is both a compromise, bridging differing positions on the legitimate use of force, and a provocative call for action, demanding more and earlier European engagement, as well as greater efforts to make European foreign-policy instruments more coherent. These new approaches are now being tested both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and elsewhere. Moreover, many of the coherence problems have been addressed in the course of negotiations about the EU Constitution. In this way, even if the Constitution is not ratified, many of these measures would survive, including the creation of a European Defence Agency to help coordinate military procurement.

Increasingly, as a result of operations in the former Yugoslavia, the European Union and NATO are working effectively together in accordance with the Berlin-Plus arrangements by which the European Union has access to NATO assets. Despite this practical cooperation, many analysts predict that the two institutions may eventually become competitors. Many Europeans believe that the set of multi-dimensional instruments they hope to establish for EU foreign policy are more appropriate tools to address modern security challenges than any approach based on military might. That said, the strategic consensus at both the European Union and at NATO is actually very similar. Moreover, only very few EU members wish to build the European Union into a counterweight to the United States. The majority simply want Europe to become more powerful in order to be a more attractive and therefore more influential partner for the United States. While the motives behind ESDP might be diverse, the conviction underpinning it is sufficiently great to drive the process forward.

UN reform

The reform process at the United Nations is an example of organisational adaptation in the absence of both a lead nation to act as the political driving force and converging interests among member states. In this case, the Secretary-General and his team are influential players, but do not have sufficient weight to achieve more than efficiency gains in the UN administration and are unable to initiate a thorough transformation of the United Nations organisation as a whole.

The end of the Cold War appeared to herald new possibilities for the long-paralysed UN Security Council. The 1992 Agenda for Peace offered a bold outline for peacekeeping and peace-enforcement tasks for the United Nations and helped guide the streamlining of the UN Department for Peacekeeping Operations. Moreover, in the following years, the secretariat was reformed to make it more efficient and effective. However, any change requiring both consensus and commitment from the member states has been more difficult to achieve.

One element of this complex endeavour is the reform of the UN Security Council itself. While there is general agreement that the Security Council would be a more credible instrument if it more accurately reflected the actual distribution of population and power in the world, there is no consensus on its reform in sight. To break the stalemate, Secretary-General Kofi Annan set up a high-ranking committee that reported last December. In addition to presenting streamlined proposals for Security Council reform, the committee suggested a number of radical changes to the United Nations, including specifying criteria for preventive military action. The report has therefore generated additional pressure for comprehensive reform and serves as a much-publicised reference document for the debate.

The future shape and effectiveness of the United Nations is important to NATO's transformation. This is because legitimacy based in international law, such as a Security Council mandate, is an important, if not necessary precondition for most European Allies to consider the use of force. A close connection between NATO and the United Nations when it comes to the deployment of the NRF would therefore help reinforce the Alliance's transformation with greater political consensus.

NATO prospects

During the 1990s following the end of the Cold War, NATO managed to stay alive and remain in business by focusing on crisis management in Europe. While this work has been critical to wider European security and stability, it has been no substitute for the existential threat previously posed by the Soviet Union in terms of fostering political cohesion and a common Alliance identity. Likewise, the transformation agenda that has driven the Alliance forward effectively since 9/11 and in particular since the Prague Summit of 2002 has failed to overcome political divisions among Allies.

Some analysts believe that the current transformation agenda represents the greatest possible degree of consensus that can be achieved today in NATO. As a result, they fear that whatever consensus does exist will likely disintegrate as soon as the Alliance has to confront decisions about the use or the threat of force, humanitarian intervention or engagement in some more remote strategic region, thereby putting NATO's existence in jeopardy once again. Alternatively, the Alliance might survive but only as a service provider making available capabilities for coalition operations led by the United States and possibly in the future by the European Union.

In drawing attention to the lack of strategic discussion at NATO, Schröder is putting these very issues on the table. He may well also have launched precisely the kind of dialogue that he believes is necessary to revive the transatlantic relationship. While his suggestion to create a high-level panel has not been taken up, US representatives have been quick to indicate that they, too, are eager for such dialogue and that they also have a purpose for NATO. "Should not NATO's motivating purpose now be to help extend the flag of freedom, security and peace to peoples and countries farther south and east?" former US NATO Ambassador Nicholas Burns asked in a newspaper interview on the eve of his departure from Brussels. The question is whether this is a flag that Europeans can follow.

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