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Growing pains

Peter van Ham examines the challenges NATO is facing as it takes on an increasingly global role.

Boldly going beyond Allied territory: NATO's
"out-of-area" debate ended when the Alliance took
command of the International Security Assistance Force
in Afghanistan (© Canadian MOD )

NATO’s overflowing policy agenda is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the Alliance is no longer held back by its “out-of-area” debate, where an excessively narrow reading of the Washington Treaty, its founding charter, placed severe limits on activities beyond Europe and North America. On the other, it seems that today no security challenge falls outside NATO’s remit.

Since invoking its Article 5 collective-defence clause the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, NATO has arguably been evolving into what Christopher Coker of the London School of Economics has called the “West’s Globocop”, an organisation helping make the world safe for democracy and globalisation. Today, NATO is not only boldly going beyond Allied territory, it is increasingly expected to take on everything from fighting international terrorism, through dealing with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), contributing to the democratisation of the Greater Middle East, training Iraqi security forces and supporting the African Union’s peacekeeping operation in Darfur.

The Alliance is also taking on new responsibilities in the field of civil-emergency planning. In the wake of the Asian Tsunami, De Hoop Scheffer suggested that if something similar occurred within the Euro-Atlantic area, NATO’s Response Force (NRF) would have been deployed to assist. And sure enough, elements of the NRF provided some relief in the wake of the enormous devastation caused by hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in the southern US states of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

The many initiatives, activities and operations on the NATO agenda clearly reflect Alliance efforts to meet the challenges of a changing strategic environment. At the same time, however, they are also critical to keeping the Alliance relevant in terms of US foreign-policy priorities. NATO’s “to-do” list is growing rapidly in large part because US policymakers and opinion-leaders increasingly link NATO’s strategic weight to its contribution to US foreign-policy goals and European Allies have realised that NATO can only refuse calls to go out of area and take on challenging new tasks at its peril.

US analysts and policymakers have long argued that unless NATO shifts its strategic focus to the Middle East and redefines its mission to address the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, it risks becoming irrelevant. Countries like France and the United Kingdom may still hold some sway in Washington, but smaller European Allies know all too well that without NATO, their impact on US policy is negligible. Since the United States is the world’s only superpower, influencing Washington is akin to helping shape the course of world history. As a result, Europeans need a NATO that offers a functional political platform to devise a collective and cohesive Western strategy. Hence the rationale behind German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s complaint at February’s Munich Security Conference that NATO was “no longer the primary venue where transatlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies.”

Many in Europe fear that the United States’ often confrontational stance towards the United Nations and other international organisations will also affect NATO. Nobody can forget US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s oft-quoted remark that, in today’s world, “the mission will define the coalition – not the other way around”. For Europeans, the bottom-line is clear: when Washington calls for new NATO activities, they generally feel obliged to say yes. The question now is whether NATO has the political cohesion and the military means to live up to these demands and expectations.

Transforming NATO

In the course of little over a decade, NATO transformed itself from an alliance focused on collective defence into the world’s most experienced peacemaking and peacekeeping force. During the Gulf War of the early 1990s, NATO stood on the sidelines, with France, the United Kingdom and other European Allies contributing to the US-led coalition that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait. By 1995, however, NATO had moved centre stage, launching an air campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina that helped bring three-and-a-half years of fighting there to an end and then leading a 60 000-strong force to oversee implementation of military aspects of the peace agreement. Subsequently, NATO expanded its role on the ground, moving from peacemaking to peacekeeping and into nation-building.

As the 1990s progressed, NATO became increasingly interventionist in response to ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In the face of a humanitarian catastrophe, NATO launched a “humanitarian intervention” to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. And in 2001, the Alliance deployed pre-emptively in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* to help defuse a conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and the Skopje government that threatened to escalate out of control.

At NATO’s 1999 Washington Summit, the Allies agreed a new Strategic Concept, reflecting the changes in the security environment since the end of the Cold War. And at both the Washington Summit and at the 2002 Prague Summit, the Allies launched high-profile capabilities initiatives – the Defence Capabilities Initiative and the Prague Capabilities Commitment – to strengthen Europe’s military capabilities and ensure that European armed forces are equipped to move faster and further afield.

While the speed of NATO’s transformation since the end of the Cold War has been remarkable, every step has been accompanied by intense debate over NATO’s core functions. In the 2000 US presidential election campaign, for example, Condoleezza Rice, then an adviser to the Bush campaign, remarked that: “We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten” in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The Kosovo campaign, in particular, provoked mixed feelings among both Americans and Europeans, even though all major decisions were taken by the North Atlantic Council with unanimity.

Today, it seems that no security challenge falls outside NATO’s remit.
During the Kosovo campaign, the United States contributed more than 75 per cent of NATO forces, and hence determined both the course and the pace of the battle. As a result, European Allies felt marginalised, realising that their forces had serious shortfalls in areas such as C4 ISR (command, control, communications and computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), smart munitions, and all-weather/day-night assets. For many Americans, Kosovo also revealed the limits of waging “war by committee” and, rightly or wrongly, this experience has coloured US perspectives on NATO. Moreover, Kosovo already offered a glimpse of the future, since Europeans were mainly doing the peacekeeping after US war-fighters had left the scene.

It was during this acrimonious debate about a developing division of labour within NATO, that the terrorist attacks of 9/11 opened a new strategic era. Although NATO’s 1999 Strategic Concept only mentioned the threat of international terrorism in passing, the “global war on terror” rapidly became the leading security paradigm for all NATO Allies. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, with memories of Kosovo still fresh in their minds, European Allies took the initiative to invoke Article 5. Despite this, Washington chose to wage war against al Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan together with select allies, rather than NATO, arguing that most European militaries lacked the precision-strike capabilities for this kind of campaign. In this way, European forces largely deployed as peacekeepers once most of the war-fighting was over. Subsequently, in August 2003, NATO took command of the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, the Alliance’s first mission beyond the Euro-Atlantic area.

The invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent stabilisation operations enjoyed Allied support, since military action in both instances was legitimised by UN mandates. However, this was not the case in Iraq. Worse still, in the months leading to the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, the question of Iraq, that is the merits of invading the country at that very time, barely featured in the deliberations of the North Atlantic Council. Although possibly understandable given the diametrically opposed views of key Allies on this question, this omission undermined NATO’s role as a political platform on the key security challenges facing the West.

At the June 2004 Istanbul Summit, the Allies agreed to offer the government of Iraq assistance with the training of its security forces. However, in spite of US calls for a greater NATO role on the ground, the Alliance chose not to take on a similar stabilisation role in Iraq to that which it had already taken on in Afghanistan. Clearly, those Allies that opposed the invasion of Iraq had also drawn a line in the sand.

Way ahead

During the Cold War, NATO’s task was straightforward. Despite differences, therefore, it was relatively easy for Allies to remain focused and keep their eyes on the ball. Today, however, NATO is juggling so many balls that there is a risk that one or more may fall, thereby damaging the Alliance’s reputation and with it Allied security interests.

The further and the more often NATO goes “out of area”, the greater the pressure to take on yet more tasks and operations. Indeed, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called upon the Alliance to play a greater role in Africa. And other analysts and policymakers envisage a role for NATO in monitoring a future Middle East peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and even in assisting a normalisation process in Cyprus.

The Kosovo campaign made it clear to European Allies that they had to upgrade their military capabilities if they wished to remain militarily relevant to the United States. Indeed, some analysts warned that if the military-technological and doctrinal gaps between Europe and the United States continued to grow, NATO’s future as a military alliance was bleak. As a result, the Alliance has initiated an ambitious transformation process, including the creation of Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, in the United States. But the spirit of transformation has yet to have any impact on NATO’s Strategic Concept, which remains unchanged since April 1999.

In an ideal world, the Allies would begin formulating a new Strategic Concept to set out clearly NATO’s geo-strategic priorities, its policy stance on issues such as the use of force and the role of nuclear weapons. But arriving at consensus on such contentious issues will likely prove extremely difficult. As a result, the Allies have to date chosen not to open this potential can of worms. While this approach is understandable, it is not clear how long the Alliance can do without a new consensus on key strategic questions. Indeed, European Allies reasonably argue that if they are called upon to do post-war peacekeeping and nation-building, they should also be involved in the decision-making prior to going to war.

To reinvigorate NATO, the Allies must continue their efforts to strengthen the North Atlantic Council as the key forum for transatlantic security dialogue, along the lines of Chancellor Schröder’s suggestions. Here, the review process set in train by De Hoop Scheffer to make NATO a more political alliance will be especially significant.

In future, the North Atlantic Council will have to set priorities. In practice, this means that it will have to decide not to do certain tasks (however important they may be), and not to embark upon certain operations (however laudable they may be). An alternative may be to introduce the concept of “structured cooperation”, EU jargon for allowing small groups of member states to embark upon certain activities without everyone agreeing, a proposal put forward by Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot. This would make it easier for NATO to turn into the flexible organisation with the can-do mentality and structure to tackle the challenges lying ahead. But to assure that this flexibility will not trigger disintegration, all Allies will have to sing from the same song sheet. Irrespective of the difficulties involved, developing a new Strategic Concept may, nevertheless, be the transatlantic catharsis NATO requires.

Peter van Ham is director of the Global Governance Programme at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations “Clingedael” in The Hague, and professor at the College of Europe in Bruges, Belgium.


* Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia with its constitutional name.