Sten Rynning looks at what choices the Alliance must take if it is to renew itself.

On track for renewal: With the Cold War well in the past, NATO's ambitions are now aligning with reality (© SHAPE )

On track for renewal: With the Cold War well in the past, NATO's ambitions are now aligning with reality (© SHAPE )

NATO's death has been foretold many times following the end of the Cold War and with even greater frequency following the debacle provoked by the 2003 Iraq war. The writers of NATO obituaries are not in agreement on the causes of death - which range from power asymmetries to diverging world views across the Atlantic - but they agree that NATO, while lingering on, is effectively dead.

As Mark Twain would have put it, these reports of NATO's death are greatly exaggerated. Since the turn of the century, Alliance decision-makers have learned to recognise and act within the constraints within which the Alliance must operate if it is to survive. This is significant. In the late 1990s, political ambition and reality clashed in Kosovo, producing NATO's worst post-Cold War crisis. Now NATO is preparing for a Riga summit that will continue the investments made since the 2002 Prague summit of Allied leaders on NATO's transformation into a 21st century alliance. Today, ambitions are aligning with reality and NATO is on track for renewal.

Aligning ambition with reality

The intervention in Kosovo in 1999 displayed several symptoms of malaise within the Alliance and it is in the reaction of the Allies to this intervention that we discover the reasons why NATO is headed for renewal. NATO's intervention in Kosovo developed into an unexpectedly prolonged low-intensity air war, causing the Allies to disagree about NATO strategy, the United States to conclude that military campaigns must be run outside the collective bodies of NATO, and European Allies to support the European Union's new security and defence policy (ESDP).

A number of factors make NATO's renewal possible, but trend is not destiny

The intervention represented the culmination of almost a decade of political flirtation with the ambition of "unity" in various guises: Europe must be whole and free, the democratic community must be enlarged, NATO must act as one, and NATO must embody and in its actions represent universal democratic and humanitarian values. Moreover, in the absence of a strategic threat, these impulses and ambitions naturally resulted in the effort to make NATO a collective security organisation for the European region. Kosovo was just this test case: NATO acted without a UN mandate and laid claim to legitimacy in universal values.

Reality then intervened. The Allies discovered not only that they were not ready to really fight for these values (hence the absence of a ground war) but also that values are no substitute for politics and the interests they generate (hence the controversies within NATO and notably also with Russia). These lessons inspired a change of pace in NATO. The preparations for the 2002 Prague Summit, the summit itself, and the transformation agenda that will now be updated in Riga represent an alignment of ambition with reality. The starting point is not the ambition to act in unity but the need to craft an Alliance that stands united but acts flexibly in coalitions driven by interests and capabilities.

There are already positive signs of change: the NATO Response Force, capping off the new force structure focused on ready and deployable forces; the slimming of the command structure and investments made in mobile headquarters below the level of strategic command; and the new political focus on asymmetric threats arising from outside the European region. They signal that NATO means business when it chooses to make an issue its business, and they ensure that Allies who choose to cooperate in particular missions will be able to do so. NATO is an alliance of choice, which is to say that there is nothing inevitable about its renewal. It will happen if decision-makers make the right choices. Happily for NATO, they have.

Alliances and coalitions

Critics will point out that coalitions undermine the Alliance because in the absence of shared risks, alliances come apart. This is allegedly what happened in the Iraq war of 2003. The United States pursued its controversial policy of "the mission must determine the coalition" to the point where NATO almost renounced on its treaty commitment. Specifically, when Turkey in early 2003 requested security consultations - an inherent right under Article 4 - France, Belgium, and Germany sensed an American attempt behind this request to unlock stalemated diplomacy and garner international support via NATO's treaty commitments. These allies therefore resisted NATO consultations in order not to prejudice UN Security Council deliberations. It took diplomatic ingenuity to reach a compromise in those heated days of February 2003.

The Iraq debacle was serious, in particular because it reflected neglect on the part of the Alliance leader, the United States, of the value of its allies. Partly a reflection of the lessons of Kosovo, partly inspired by currents of assertive nationalism and neo-conservatism running through the George W. Bush administration at this time, American policy failed to appeal to NATO as an alliance and sometimes verged on the disdainful.

Students of Realpolitik, so-called realists, see in this affair the outcome of power asymmetry and the unhappy effects of unbalanced power. Such power invites excessive policy, they argue, and will do great damage to both the great power itself and the institutions it has engendered. The realists have a point but NATO is not finished for this reason: American power is in a strict military sense unrivalled but in broader political terms it is not. Nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq is proving so strenuous that any hope of success resides in a sustained collective effort to achieve it. Moreover, the new policy of shaping coalitions to undertake particular missions has proven to be controversial in part because of the abrupt manner in which it was introduced, but it is nevertheless the appropriate policy for NATO.

The alternative to this new use of coalition-building would be to ask for NATO unity in all missions, but that brings us back to the 1990s and the danger of hiding the reality of diverging interests behind the grand but hollow ambition of unity. The fact of the matter is that in today's environment of asymmetrical and unpredictable threats, national caveats are not about to go away and if NATO is to survive, it must enable coalitions.

The key to reconciling the Alliance with coalition-building resides in a sustained strategic dialogue touching on all relevant issues, in the absence of any artificial restriction. Such a dialogue will serve to clarify strategic interests and prepare decision-making. It will notably help the Allies bargain among themselves: the Allies standing ready to form a coalition that satisfies their perceived interests will bargain to get the support of NATO as a whole because they know that down the road they will need it. The other Allies will bargain because it will provide them with an opportunity to shape the coalition without participating in it. In short, NATO as an alliance can enable coalitions by clarifying strategic interests and by providing a setting for bargaining.

Such a strategic dialogue has been in the making since early 2005, when German Chancellor Gerhard Schröeder gave impetus to the idea and when NATO leaders subscribed to it, and it is now on the agenda for the Riga Summit. It is a question of choosing strategic primacy or a secondary role for NATO, in the words of Chancellor Angela Merkel, and it should be considered NATO's most urgent summit concern.

Best option

Some would argue that NATO should be replaced by or rather transformed into a new two-pillar partnership between the United States and the European Union. The idea is not far-fetched because European integration is advanced and Europeans have interests in Europe's near-abroad that the United States does not necessarily share. A two-pillar structure would bring to life the dumbbell design originally envisaged in the 1940s by George Kennan but which has been frustrated by NATO's dominance in European security matters since 1949.

The EU attracts widespread allegiance and has policy advantages compared to NATO, notably in the domain of civilian reconstruction. Yet the EU is no alternative to NATO. In today's security environment, both organisations face the same challenge - adding flexible coalitions to strategic dialogue. In fact, NATO may be further advanced than the EU in meeting this challenge because it is a less complex organisation.

Still, the EU is advancing in the direction of flexibility with its effort to introduce majority voting (still very circumscribed, admittedly) and develop the concept of framework nations. If the EU halts this development in the name of national sovereignty, unanimity, unity or something else, it will lose out. Moreover, if it wants to be a player in the world of 21st century security policy, it must keep moving in the direction charted by NATO: devising methods for the coordination of strategic policies and enabling coalitions to emerge from within the collective framework.

There is no need to suspect that the EU will be superior to NATO in this new environment. NATO builds on two formidable pillars: a shared sense of purpose related to the values inherent in the treaty's preamble, and clear leadership related to the superior power of the United States. The EU may build on a similar shared sense of purpose but it has no mechanism for providing leadership in security policy. The EU may one day acquire the strategic culture and integrated political institutions to deliver leadership but recent controversies related to the constitutional treaty, enlargement, and economic rejuvenation reveal that if it happens, it will happen only in the long run.

The way ahead

A number of factors make NATO's renewal possible, but trend is not destiny. Decision-makers must still make the right choices and invest in them.

One item on the agenda is military modernisation, an obvious priority but also an on-going concern in an alliance. Money is one dimension of modernisation because Allies must pay for new forces and must devise ways of footing the bill in collective engagements. Common funding is therefore on the Riga agenda but it may be appropriate to apply this formula only to missions that involve all Allies; coalitions supported by NATO might usefully operate according to the old formula of "costs lie where they fall".

New global partnerships are on the agenda as well, reflecting NATO's interest in facilitating cooperation with those countries that join NATO in concrete missions. The idea to reach out to like-minded nations wherever they may be and simultaneously rationalise the Alliance's toolbox of partnerships is sound and should be adopted. However, NATO would do well to distinguish carefully between partnership and membership. There is a temptation to at least "signal" prospective membership to new members of the family of democracies, but the temptation should be resisted. One of NATO's pillars was a shared sense of purpose and it emerges not only from formal institutions (a system of democracy) but from the way in which history, culture, and politics have moulded the Atlantic community.

This community has limits and enlarging NATO beyond them will seriously impact on the Alliance's good health. A big NATO will lose its sense of purpose and become a coalition toolbox, most often in the service of the hegemon, the United States. It will then be a matter of time before NATO is challenged by more closely knit organisations. The EU might do it, provided it does not enlarge to the point where it loses its own sense of purpose.

On the other hand, a NATO built on the Atlantic community would maintain its sense of purpose and thus anchor coalitions in a real Alliance. Enlargement should therefore not go beyond the point where the old Atlantic community could dominate NATO. A few Balkan countries might still join the Alliance but the admission of the Ukraine, Georgia and others would mark a turning point.

NATO would also do well to ponder the role of its strategic dialogue. This dialogue should not concern the mechanistic exchange of national views and doctrines in the hope that these can be coordinated. It must define an Atlantic vision of global order that builds on partnerships between NATO and not only other democracies but also the major powers of the international system.

The right choices are thus not easy - they involve money, the Alliance's geographic borders, and strategic vision - but they can ensure NATO's continued renewal.