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Taking the transformation agenda forward

Mark Joyce examines how NATO has been transforming since Jaap de Hoop Scheffer succeeded Lord Robertson as Secretary General.

Rallying cry: NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has called for the Alliance actively to shape the international security environment in line with shared strategic interests and values (© SHAPE)

Since Jaap De Hoop Scheffer took the reins at NATO he has taken forward and developed the transformational reforms initiated by his predecessor, Lord George Robertson. He has kept the NATO Response Force on course for full operational capability by 2006, while continuing the unglamorous and often frustrating work of cajoling Alliance members to honour the defence investment pledges made at the Alliance's Prague Summit in 2002. He has bolstered NATO's presence in Afghanistan, and has urged Allies to view the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there as a vital transformational catalyst to be embraced, rather than a tiresome operational burden to be endured. And he has made a strident case for NATO's latest "out-of-area" operation in Iraq.

As one would expect after a year and a quarter in office, De Hoop Scheffer has moved considerably beyond mere stewardship of his predecessor's legacy. Indeed, his short tenure has seen the transformation project shift into a second phase, in which ongoing capability reforms have been coupled with an attempt by NATO to position itself as a key conduit for broader transformational currents.

From the very beginning, NATO's transformation was conceived as a two-dimensional process, reflecting the organisation's dual roles as both a defensive military alliance and a pro-active political organisation. Until recent months, however, NATO's political work has consistently been overshadowed by its military reforms.

The outlines of a transformational political strategy have long been implicit in the Alliance's military reforms

Some of the reasons for this are clear. The milestones of military transformation, such as the launch of the NATO Response Force or the opening of a new Transformation Command in Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States are easier to quantify, assess and appraise than are the products of Alliance political programmes. While the expanding NATO membership provides one possible yardstick by which to measure political success, the impact of outreach programmes in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and North Africa is almost impossible to gauge. There have undoubtedly been periods, too, when the relatively low profile of NATO's political work has been helpful to Alliance diplomats seeking to dampen perceptions of triumphalism or hostility among certain neighbouring states.

Since becoming Secretary General, De Hoop Scheffer has re-stated the importance of framing NATO's military transformation within a broader, proactive political agenda. On top of established partnerships in the "near abroad" of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the Secretary General has argued for a more dynamic contribution to security in the Middle East and Central Asia, and the enhancement of partnerships with global powers such as China, Japan and India. He has also encouraged a thorough review of NATO's relationships with the European Union and the United Nations against the background of the Alliance's new proactive posture. In language that would have been inconceivable for a NATO Secretary General only a few years ago, De Hoop Scheffer has called for the Alliance actively to shape the international security environment in line with shared strategic interests and values.

A more political Alliance

This renewed call for an assertive, transformational Alliance political strategy is in part a response to external developments. Despite the enduring sense of crisis engendered by policy disagreements over Iraq, there have for some time been signs of a convergence in broad American and European strategic priorities. The European Union's security White Paper, A Secure Europe in a Better World, released in December 2003, argued for an activist European approach to the threats of terrorism, WMD proliferation, regional conflicts and failing states, in language that was for the most part hardly distinguishable from the Bush administration's National Security Doctrine of 2002, a document on which so much transatlantic anguish has been blamed. The subsequent months have seen France, Germany and the United Kingdom renew their faltering negotiations with Iran, while pursuing a wider European process of re-engagement with China. Although these initiatives have at one level been the source of fresh transatlantic tensions, they have also provided evidence of a growing European desire to head-off strategic crises through early, "pre-emptive" engagement. Europeans may balk at such grandiose terminology as "forward strategy of freedom", but their international political strategy is, nevertheless, becoming unmistakably transformational.

This trend was evident during the European visits of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and President George W. Bush in February. A year earlier, calls from the Bush administration for a transatlantic crusade to advance the causes of freedom and democracy might have been greeted with open derision in European capitals. This time, the reception was warmer than it has been at any time since the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Clearly, the carefully choreographed atmospherics of a set-piece presidential visit must be treated with a healthy dose of scepticism. There are encouraging signs, however, that both the Bush administration and its European critics have suspended their more polarising tendencies, seeking instead to emphasise the common ground between their respective transformational visions.

At NATO, the outlines of a transformational political strategy have long been implicit in the Alliance's military reforms. The shift from a static, defensive posture towards more agile, deployable and expeditionary forces has always indicated a future in which the Alliance would move beyond its borders to confront threats at their source. The ISAF mission in Afghanistan has exposed NATO forces to some of the new challenges they are likely to face in the future, and has acted as a catalyst to their ongoing capability reforms. Even this mission, however, was initially justified through a creative interpretation of NATO's traditional, defensive strategic rationale. ISAF was, essentially, a belated fulfilment of NATO's activation of Article 5 on 12 September 2001, and the mission was portrayed as a means of preventing the re-emergence of a terrorist base from which the Euro-Atlantic homeland had been struck on 9/11 and might be struck again. In the two years since NATO took responsibility for ISAF, the tone of transatlantic strategic discourse has changed markedly, and Europeans have begun to articulate their own version of pre-emptive, transformational international engagement. NATO, as a result, has been given an opportunity to position itself as a key conduit through which to channel this common strategic activism.

A separate set of external trends has given fresh impetus to NATO's ongoing military transformation. For all the progress achieved under Lord Robertson, there is no doubt that much of NATO's European membership remained dubious both about the term "transformation" and the principles perceived to underpin it. For sceptics, transformation became synonymous with a capital-intensive, network-centric, highly expensive and essentially US model of military reform, to which it was unrealistic and undesirable for them to aspire. Many also detected a more sinister subtext, viewing transformation as a thinly disguised attempt to open European markets to US defence exports.

In a NATO context, perhaps the most damaging criticism of transformation has been that it seeks to institutionalise an unflattering and politically unacceptable division of military labour. Afghanistan and Kosovo, according to this view, established an operational pattern in which the United States did the "killing and the breaking", before European forces moved in to conduct peacekeeping, stabilisation and reconstruction tasks. Little wonder Europeans are reluctant to invest in transformation, it is argued, if such investment merely equips them to wash the dishes after an American party.

Impact of Iraq

Experiences in Iraq have shattered the simplistic dichotomy between combat and post-combat activities, and with it the view that stabilisation, reconstruction and peacekeeping activities are for wimps. Terrorists and insurgents using asymmetric methods have turned the post-conflict "phase" into a far more intensive and costly experience than the relatively short phase of conventional combat that preceded it. Indeed, the very notion of warfare as a linear progression from high-intensity combat to lower-intensity post-combat phases has been undermined. Coalition forces have been forced to adapt to an amorphous situation in which the level of intensity and, indeed, the nature and objectives of the adversaries have been constantly shifting.

These experiences have had a powerful impact on the architects of US force transformation, prompting a general realisation that overwhelming dominance in conventional warfare is being undermined by inadequacies in combating unconventional threats. This realisation has not yet reached a sufficient level of urgency to force a fundamental overhaul of Department of Defense spending priorities. However, there are signs that "irregular warfare" has shifted from a secondary concern into a central priority of US defence planning. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review examines in a more systematic manner than ever before the utility and shortcomings of current and planned defence platforms for conducting operations against unconventional threats. Joint Forces Command, one of the key intellectual drivers of US force transformation, is meanwhile engaged in a more fundamental review of operational concepts and doctrine against the background of irregular threats. This review is likely to further undermine the assumption that network-centric transformation will facilitate the achievement of military "effects" with progressively smaller demands on military manpower. It will almost certainly also call for a more creative approach to the way in which the US military interacts with civil agencies and, crucially, with allies.

This shift in the focus of US force transformation creates more propitious conditions for a meaningful transatlantic exchange than have existed for a long time. Most obviously, the renewed emphasis on irregular warfare - a category that includes stabilisation, reconstruction and peace-support tasks - brings US force transformation much closer to a vision with which Europeans are comfortable and to which they can realistically contribute. The more specific concern with improving interaction and interoperability with allies creates a clear opportunity for NATO to enhance its reputation in US eyes.

Alliance military planners have recognised this, and have moved to position NATO as a key intellectual clearinghouse in the transatlantic discourse on force transformation. Allied Command Transformation is providing a conduit through which American and European ideas on, for example, civil-military interaction in a transformed operational environment can be exchanged and synthesised. The NATO Response Force, meanwhile, will soon provide a transformed military asset on which to pin these new operational concepts.

In both its political and military endeavours, broader transformational currents have provided NATO with opportunities to accelerate the reforms it has been pursuing for several years. In neither case, however, is there cause or time for hubris. While the emergence in Europe of something resembling a transformational international strategy is encouraging, the Alliance must still persuade sceptics that it has a useful role to play alongside the European Union in advancing this strategy. On military transformation, shifting currents in the United States provide NATO with an opportunity to establish a greater sense of equity in transatlantic transformational discourse. An equitable discourse must, however, be matched by greater equity of effort. As Lord Robertson pointed out, NATO's value as a strategic asset will ultimately depend on three things: capabilities, capabilities, capabilities.

Read more: Iraq, history of NATO
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