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Empire on demand

Patrick Stephenson investigates the causes of NATO's new growing agenda.

In demand: Global demand for NATO's service as a supplier of Western liberal and democratic norms has never been greater. Through an interpreter, information on ISAF's presence is disseminated to the locales (© British Crown Copyright/MOD)

At the May 2006 NATO Parliamentary Assembly meeting in Paris, a bitter rhetorical feud broke out between Iceland and the United States. The issues involved air defence, stationed soldiers, money, fractured egos, and American promises that the Icelanders felt had been betrayed. Knowing only this, one may suppose that NATO member Iceland was fed up with the American military presence in their country, and was demanding that Allied forces formulate a deadline for withdrawal.

The reality, of course, was the opposite. The Icelanders were adamant not that a fellow NATO Ally's forces leave their country, but that they stay. A proposed realignment of the American global military footprint threatens to leave Iceland without air defences (and without the local jobs that the American presence provides), and Icelandic parliamentarians felt obliged to vent their grievances in the sympathetic forum of the Parliamentary Assembly. The Baltic States, too, have expressed their alarm that a temporary agreement obliging NATO aircraft to patrol their airspace might soon be allowed to expire; who are they, the Lithuanians ask, to leave us unprotected?

Indeed, the cries of indignation that erupt when a NATO member's forces prepare to vacate a country's territory compare well with vociferous demands voiced by the Moldovan and Georgian governments that lingering Russian troops vacate Soviet-era military bases at the same time they are clamouring for entry into the NATO club. For these post-Soviet countries, the presence of Russian forces on their territories weakens national sovereignty, while the potential presence of NATO would strengthen sovereignty. If NATO constitutes an 'empire' in any sense, then it apparently exudes a peculiar sort of attractive power that makes it, in many cases, a welcome imperium.

The lengthening chessboard

The examples cited above are far from exceptional. Power expands, and acquisitive power repels; but a certain kind of benevolent power attracts. For example, the range of countries participating in NATO's Partnership for Peace program includes those passionate about their neutrality, determined in their historical choice not to choose: the Swedes, the Irish, and the Swiss, among others. But this is just the beginning. Whether it is assisting the African Union in the Sudan, providing humanitarian aid in the aftermath of the October 2005 Pakistan earthquake, engaging with Middle Eastern countries through the Mediterranean Dialogue, assisting in the destruction of anti-personnel landmines in Moldova, or cooperating with Australia, New Zealand, and Japan in Afghanistan and Iraq, NATO's chessboard is being pulled across the globe.

Much of this is related to the NATO response to global terrorism, while much else appears to be an ad-hoc reaction to crises as they erupt. Whatever the cause, the boundaries of NATO Partners now extend all the way to China, as the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council now counts the Kyrgyz Republic and Tajikistan as members. There is even talk of engaging China itself in some form of dialogue. It appears, then, that what was originally an political and military alliance of North Atlantic countries arrayed against a specific Soviet threat has become a vaguely Western politico-military association aimed at nothing less than the omnipresent and amorphous danger of 'instability' itself. Were the signers of the original Washington Treaty here today, they could well be pardoned for asking: what is going on?

A good offence is the best defence

To answer that question, we need to backtrack a bit by taking a look at what is going on. Current NATO activities can be subsumed under three very broad categories. Firstly, the Alliance continues to manage the lingering consequences of the collapse of the Soviet Union through peacekeeping in southeastern Europe. It is also exploring the possible membership aspirations of ex-Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Georgia while partnering with others not interested in full member status such as Kazakhstan. Secondly, NATO is expanding its efforts under the rubric of the war against global terrorism through, among other measures, Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Thirdly, NATO is 'engaging' with regions that are important to Allied interests through mechanisms such as the Mediterranean Dialogue and more recently through humanitarian assistance.

One common thread that runs through most of these activities is that few were predicted by the strategies of Allied decision-makers. The sudden and largely unforeseen retreat of Soviet power, for example, made possible the absorption of former members of the Warsaw Pact. Massacre in Bosnia and Kosovo forced NATO into the role of peacemaker in southeastern Europe. The shock of 9/11 pulled the Alliance into Afghanistan. The Orange and Rose Revolutions unexpectedly presented the Alliance with an opportunity for serious talks with Ukraine and Georgia. Natural disasters and the spectre of genocide involved NATO in Pakistan and Darfur. At each step, the Alliance found it necessary to improvise in situations that policymakers had only vaguely anticipated, if they had contemplated them at all.

We even see this pattern of action-through-reaction in NATO's current dealings with those countries who have expressed their desire to become full Alliance members, Albania, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia*, Georgia and Ukraine. Pro-Western elites in these nations are not quite knocking on NATO’s door — they are banging on it. Leading politicians in each country believe that joining transatlantic institutions would solidify political reforms made at home, provide them with security from residual revanchisme in Russia, and bring them closer to the European modernity that the previous half-century has denied them. They have, in short, extended an invitation to NATO to extend its soft imperium - 'soft,' because the only requirements for participation are the right political and defence institutions and the right defence choices, but not, crucially, the right domestic political choices beyond a fundamental commitment to human rights and to the extradition and prosecution of war criminals.

Power expands, and acquisitive power repels; but a certain kind of benevolent power attracts

For both self-interested but mainly idealistic reasons too complex to be explored here, NATO Allies generally support the reformers governing these countries and thus their bids for NATO membership. This fact must give us pause. Just fifteen years ago, the Alliance's raison-d'être was the defence of the territories and democratic institutions of its standing members; now, the Alliance seeks to protect the democratic institutions of potential members or partners. What was before a very specific defensive mission has evolved into a project for the Euro-Atlantic (even Eurasian) protection of liberal norms that must be fundamentally offensive in its nature. And indeed, NATO's 1999 Strategic Concept more or less says this directly, even if the consequences of such a policy are only now being fully explored: NATO will "provide one of the indispensable foundations for a stable Euro-Atlantic security environment, based on the growth of democratic institutions and commitment to the peaceful resolution of disputes, in which no country would be able to intimidate or coerce any other through the threat or use of force." The upshot is that the promotion or protection of internal democratic institutions in even non-Allied countries must become an international, and thus NATO-led, endeavour.

This may not be a bad thing; it may even be a good thing. But it is certainly a very big thing, because it implies that NATO policy may be defined less by well-crafted strategies formulated in the glittering executive residences of NATO capitals and more by the impromptu reactions of the Allies to political developments in countries that are either candidates for membership (Georgia), partners (Kazakhstan), current areas of Allied operations (Afghanistan), potential areas of operations (Sudan), or areas merely suffering from catastrophes (Pakistan). If this is true, then the 'demand' for NATO's unique services has become external to the Allied decision-making process. If an outward-looking alliance with centralised decision-making can be described as an organisation run from the "inside out", then it appears that we have a demand-driven alliance run-at least occasionally-from the "outside out". This explains the apparent paradox that while the desire in Allied capitals for future NATO missions has plummeted in recent months, the world appears to need NATO more than ever-the short-lived talk of NATO in south Lebanon is only one case in point - and a hesitant Alliance reacts with yet more initiatives, dialogues, and missions.

Slipping towards empire

And this brings us to the central irony of NATO's current existence. At the same time that many of the Alliance's sceptics are predicting its demise, and when pundits everywhere are, at the very least, noting the presumed divergence of interests and capabilities between the 'Anglo-Saxon' Allies (particularly the US) and all other members, the global demand has never been greater for NATO's services as the unique supplier of Western liberal and democratic norms through political and military means. While governing elites in the Western world seem increasingly divided, elites in the developing world appear increasingly united both in their desire for the freedoms, institutions and riches of quotidian Western life and in their belief that an association with NATO is one way to obtain these things.

There may also be a subtler influence at work here that is provoking NATO's increased activism: the conflict between macroeconomic trends and local political conditions, or 'micropolitics,' as perceived by globalisation theorists. International economic growth, after all, needs strong local political institutions to enforce the rules of the market and to compensate the losers who inevitably remain in the wake of fast economic change. But if these local institutions prove inadequate to the task, or fail outright, then many of the losers may then throw in their lot with extremists who blame the West for their plight and whose theats the Alliance can no longer ignore. For example, when the global economic demand for heroin leads to a thriving opium industry in Afghanistan that, in turn, undermines new and fragile political institutions in a way that allows substate political actors such as a resurgent Taliban to thrive, NATO intervenes in an attempt to restore the local political structures that the global demand for heroin has helped destroy.

We see, then, that a phenomenon that is partly macroeconomic in origin can become a transnational security concern that inevitably provokes Western political involvement amid widespread demands for a NATO-led quick fix. The chaos at the cutting-point between macroeconomics and micropolitics is the impulse for NATO's new global presence. In turn, the Alliance responds to the dislocation caused by global economic trends in the only way it knows how - through the projection of stability through force. In short, the Alliance has become an ad hoc substitute for the 'macropolitics' that the world really needs, but that the Allies are unwilling and perhaps unable to supply. NATO reacts, imperfectly, because there is simply no credible alternative that can back its modernizing political and humanitarian intentions with Western military might.

There is, however, a disturbing implication here: NATO's new activism may be the result of a lack of Allied strategy. The whole point of strategy, after all, is to discriminate between worthwhile and impractical operations by balancing political ends with military means. The lack of any such discrimination may betray the absence of a guiding strategic rationale. The natural consequence of such an absence, were we to witness it, would be the multiplication of ends beyond any real means to achieve them. The result would be an Alliance that acts, but without either the firm political will to muster the resources that it needs to achieve its goals nor an internal mechanism for even matching means with goals. It follows, then, that an empire pulled outward by events will sooner or later reach a point where it can no longer sustain its own multiple engagements. And sure enough, some commentators have begun to argue that this point has already been reached in Afghanistan, where a continuing stream of Allied fatalities could force upon the Alliance a profound reconsideration of NATO's role in that country.

The demand for modernity

The interpretation of NATO as an organisation pulled into activism by outside forces may evoke unease. After all, it runs counter to traditional notions of an Alliance that is driven not by any collectively held military force that NATO HQ can supply, but by the geostrategic demands of the Allies. In this traditional view, NATO's destiny will be shaped mainly by internal and not external variables. In the words of a recent article by Stephan De Spiegeleire and Rem Korteweg that appeared in the summer 2006 edition of the NATO Review, many experts believe that "developments within the Alliance more important to its future than whatever happens outside NATO in the wider security environment."

It is always a comforting thought to believe that we hold the keys to the future in our hands. Yet the traditional interpretation of NATO as a self-conscious strategic actor pursuing clearly defined common interests may no longer reflect Alliance reality. There is now an altogether different set of demands on NATO's chessboard-the demands of reformist elites in many countries who wish, with NATO's help, to become modern in the Western sense of that word.

This demand is powerful. It appeals to our liberal and democratic instincts more than to our interests, and there is something commendable in that. The phenomenon is similar to the Norwegian scholar Geir Lundestad's notion of an "empire by invitation" where European countries invited an American presence into Europe in the aftermath of World War II. The world's 'invitation' to the Alliance, however, is really a demand for a hesitant NATO's increased activism whether the call comes from Georgia, Afghanistan, or the African Union. In that sense, the boundaries of the alliance are not being pushed outward, but pulled outward. If this is an empire, then it is not an empire by invitation, but an empire on demand.

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