Michael Rühle explains how and why NATO must become a more effective forum for political debate.

Debating chamber: The first dimension of NATO's political transformation must be to offer Allies a forum for a broader strategic debate ( © Nato)

For decades, it has been common wisdom that the growing asymmetry in military power between the United States and its NATO Allies constitutes a serious problem in the transatlantic security relationship. After all, Allies who can no longer cooperate militarily risk dividing politically as well. Retaining the ability of the Allies to make meaningful military contributions to common operations thus remains a key priority.

Events of the more recent past, however, have revealed that military transformation in itself is not enough. New threats, the changing character of NATO’s new missions, and the emergence of new security actors require the Allies to approach NATO’s transformation in a more comprehensive way. If the Alliance wants to maintain its role as the key framework for transatlantic coordination and common action, it needs to complement its military transformation with a decisive move towards more frequent and frank political debate. In other words, NATO needs to become more political – an objective that ranks high on the agenda of NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer.

To make the case for a more political NATO is not to deny the Alliance’s numerous political achievements. In the Cold War, NATO’s mere existence not only ruled out any change of the political status quo in Europe by force, it also denied the Soviet Union the political use of its military power. The NATO framework also facilitated the political reconciliation of former adversaries. And the consolidation of Europe after the end of the Cold War through NATO’s enlargement process and its various partnership mechanisms was, above all, a political achievement. Yet even though NATO remains a firm part of the Euro-Atlantic political order, the new security environment compels the Allies to develop a clearer understanding of, and seek a greater influence over, the political context in which NATO operates.

Debating new threats

When previous NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson took office, he quipped that his three priorities were “capabilities, capabilities, capabilities”. The slogan caught on. The Kosovo air campaign revealed significant shortcomings in European military capabilities and increased long-standing concerns that diverging military capabilities could become a major source of political friction. The immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States vindicated this analysis yet again. Washington did not use the Alliance to the degree some had expected – a development that merely seemed to reinforce the case for NATO’s military reform.

However, the Iraq controversy of spring 2003 made clear that Lord Robertson’s formula no longer sufficiently captured transatlantic reality. The serious frictions which this controversy caused within the transatlantic community, including within NATO, were not a result of asymmetries in military power, but of an asymmetry in threat perception. On a general level, the transatlantic partners agreed that terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and failed states called for new approaches. The specific strategy chosen by Washington, however, namely to use force to combat proliferation by changing the political status quo in Iraq, went beyond what some Allies considered legitimate. In short, the most severe breakdown of the transatlantic security consensus, and the deepest crisis in NATO’s recent history, was not caused by a lack of collective military power, but by fundamental political differences over its use.

Even if Iraq may well remain a singular case, it has brought home the need to generate a broader and more solid transatlantic security consensus. The range of today’s security issues, from the pre-emptive use of force to the future of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, no longer allow for the convenient assumption that the Allies will always arrive at similar answers. Controversial debates about the nature of the new threats and about the appropriate responses may well become the rule rather than the exception. Building consensus will become harder.

Against this background, the first dimension of NATO’s political transformation must be to offer its Allies a forum for a broader strategic debate. In its current set-up, political dialogue in NATO is mainly triggered on a case-by-case basis by the need for decisions on specific operations, missions or military transformation issues. This approach tends to limit the scope of political dialogue to NATO’s role as a force provider rather than a forum in which the Allies’ shape common perspectives and approaches to wider issues. To instil what Secretary General De Hoop Scheffer has called a “culture of debate” will thus require changes in NATO’s working methods as well as in Allied attitudes.

For example, providing the North Atlantic Council with more time to debate wider issues requires the delegation of less pressing matters to subordinate committees. How this can be achieved is currently under review. Allies must also resist the tendency to regard certain themes as off-limits. NATO’s decisions to support the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Darfur and, more recently, to provide humanitarian relief to the victims of the earthquake in Pakistan, both show how quickly a seemingly distant issue can become relevant to the Alliance. Last but not least, Allies need to accept that discussions in NATO need not be confined to subjects of military relevance, but should include issues of common political interest as well. If debate in NATO were regarded only as a precursor to military engagement, a discussion on many pressing issues would be impossible.

Political say in operations

Another reason for a more political NATO stems from the nature of NATO’s current and future military operations. Most of these operations are long-term stabilisation missions, characterised by close interaction between military and civilian actors. These operations require NATO to seek closer cooperation with other international institutions as well as with non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Above all, they require NATO to have a voice in the political processes that are aimed at ensuring self-sustaining peace, and not be relegated to the role of a mere troop provider. The riots in Kosovo in spring 2004 were a stark reminder of how quickly NATO troops can become hostage to – and a scapegoat for – unresolved political issues. The riots led to the creation of the Contact Group Plus on the future of Kosovo, in which NATO has a distinct political influence in addition to its military role. The future of Afghanistan requires a similar broad engagement by the Alliance. All this suggests that NATO needs to articulate a political strategy to help shape the context in which it operates militarily. The success of NATO’s various initiatives to promote regional cooperation in Southeastern Europe shows that the Alliance is perfectly capable of playing such a role.

The deepest crisis in NATO’s recent history was not caused by a lack of collective military power, but by fundamental political differences over its use

Even where NATO is engaged only as a cooperative security institution, it will be vital to stay attuned to the regional political context. This is relevant with respect to NATO’s relations with its Partner countries, especially those in the Caucasus and Central Asia. But it is relevant, in particular, with a view to the Alliance’s developing relations with countries in the Middle East and the Gulf region, where even seemingly technical military cooperation can have major political implications. Not surprisingly, the Middle East peace process has now become an accepted topic for discussion at NATO foreign ministers’ meetings. NATO’s new geopolitical focus calls for an Alliance with solid regional expertise. In the years to come, NATO will have to acquire this expertise, both by developing the appropriate skills within the organisation and involving outside experts

Reaching out to new actors

The third reason for a more political role of NATO stems from the changing institutional setting and, in particular, the European Union’s emergence as an independent military actor. A European Union with a distinct military dimension constitutes the most profound institutional change within the transatlantic security community since its creation almost six decades ago. It means that 19 of the 26 current NATO Allies now organise themselves in a framework that also covers security – and conducts its own dialogue with Washington. In order to avoid rivalries and competition in this complex setting, NATO and the European Union need to develop a strategic partnership that extends well beyond their cooperation in the Balkans and covers the entire spectrum of modern security challenges. Eventually this could lead to a relationship that would not only allow the European Union to call on NATO’s military assets, as is already the case with the so-called “Berlin-Plus” arrangements, but that would also allow NATO to draw on the European Union’s unique civilian capabilities.

A more structured relationship with the United Nations is another element of a more political NATO. NATO and the United Nations work together in many areas, but practical cooperation in theatre contrasts with a lack of political consultation at the strategic level. This is about to change, however. As NATO is emerging as a major enabler of the United Nations, a more coherent strategic relationship is also taking shape, including more regular contacts between the Secretaries-General of both institutions and their staffs. In addition to building closer relations with major organisations, NATO will also establish more sustained cooperation with other important national actors, such as Australia and Japan, as well as with the non-governmental community. With its presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its involvement in operations in Sudan and Pakistan, NATO has finally overcome the Euro-centrism that characterised the organisation for half a century. In the new international context, such relationships can no longer be discredited as vestiges of Western imperialism, but will be valued for what they are: strategic assets in an era that requires truly global coalitions.

Enlightened debate

A more political NATO is not without risk. It will put additional burdens on an Alliance that is already heavily taxed by its day-to-day operational demands. Moreover, inviting more debate might well result in inviting more division. After all, dialogue will not always facilitate consensus, but might also deepen existing rifts. Some will argue that a more political NATO risks wandering on classical EU turf, thereby increasing rather than diminishing the tensions between the two organisations. Others may argue that truly fundamental issues, such as the war on Iraq, will always remain beyond dialogue.

Nevertheless, there is no real alternative to a more political NATO. If the Alliance is to continue its role of shaping the wider strategic environment, it must aim beyond maintaining its military competence and develop a stronger political identity as well. Such an enhanced political identity will not only allow NATO to calibrate better its contributions to the efforts of the wider international community. It should also help to do away with the double standard that views debates in the European Union and United Nations as a demonstration of these bodies’ vitality, and debates in NATO as a sign of the organisation’s impending demise. As French philosopher Joseph Joubert put it more than 200 years ago: “The end of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but enlightenment.”