Sophia Clément-Noguier explores the important questions that will face Allied decision-makers at the Riga Summit.

Means and ends: NATO has proven relevant and now it must remain committed to finding means to its political and military transformations(© ISAF )

At the NATO Summit in Riga, Heads of States and Governments will face difficult choices regarding NATO's future. The Alliance is confronted with missions and operations that go beyond its traditional competencies, and Allies lack adequate resources and capabilities for the new kind of missions that NATO is increasingly asked to undertake. Should the Alliance remain a Euro-Atlantic organisation whose primary mission is the collective defence of its members, or should it evolve into a security organisation ready to act when and where needed? If the latter, will the Alliance have to go beyond purely military missions and operations to encompass civil-military tasks? How would it then interact with other international organisations?

NATO's relevance is no longer at stake. It has proven relevant in the Balkans by adapting to peacekeeping missions. For many Europeans, it is still the sole credible mechanism for the maintenance of security and defence as the European Security and Defence Policy remains weak in terms of existing capabilities and political cohesion, especially since the failure to adopt a European Constitution. But in the aftermath of September 11, the emergence of "new" intensified threats such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have changed the situation. These emerging threats are diverse in nature, increasingly complex, and require a capacity to engage in a spectrum of actions ranging from pure military intervention to long-term peacekeeping and nation-building. In response, NATO has started a transformation process that is a first and major step forward if NATO wants to remain the first-choice political and military organisation to address current and future threats.

NATO's evolution

In a few ways, NATO has already evolved. Firstly, NATO's geographical limit is no longer an issue. NATO took a step beyond Allied territory with peacekeeping operations in the Balkans in the 1990s where NATO progressively developed stabilisation forces such as the Implementation Force (IFOR) and the Stabilisation Force (SFOR) in Bosnia as well as the Kosovo Force (KFOR). NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and NATO's mission to train Iraqi national police forces have closed the debate on "out of area" operations. The only remaining limit is an Allied consensus to act. NATO's missions and operations are decided on a case-by-case basis and will take place wherever in the world the Allies agree to go.

Secondly, restricting NATO to purely military missions does not reflect today's requirements. Indeed, NATO has already played a role in humanitarian relief at the request of both Allied and non-Allied countries. In the fall of 2005, the NATO Reaction Force (NRF) helped provide disaster aid in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and an earthquake in Pakistan.

Thirdly, NATO is getting more political. NATO is also the only political forum which brings together North American and European Allies to address global security questions. The North Atlantic Council now acts more and more like a forum for political discussion on an increasingly broad range of issues such as the Middle East, democracy, natural resources, and emerging threats. Enhanced political dialogue on a range of issues including civil-military relations and terrorism has been developed with Partners through the Partnership for Peace and the Mediterranean Dialogue. A dialogue with China has also begun.

Finally, NATO's ongoing transformation aims to improve Allied defence capabilities in order to respond quickly to emerging crises. With this goal in mind, the Alliance has launched the Prague Capabilities Commitment to achieve specific improvements in strategic air- and sealift, a NATO Response Force to respond quickly to emerging crises, and a streamlined military command structure through the creation of Allied Command Operations. The 2002 creation of an Allied Command Operations and an Allied Command Transformation has also helped to transform the way NATO does business.

Major challenges

Despite this transformation process, NATO faces three major challenges: how to bridge the gap between growing political ambitions and real military capabilities; how to address current means and capabilities with mission requirements that range from war-fighting to civil cooperation; and how to coordinate with other defence and security organisations, primarily the EU, in order to avoid duplication and friction. The question, in other words, is whether NATO can start and finish a mission alone, or whether, at the conclusion of hostilities, it should hand over the responsibility for missions to other international organisations, such as occurred in the Balkans.

NATO has no integrated civilian planning capacity for non-military contingencies. It has an operational civilian capacity in the form of the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre-a coordination mechanism which draws on national civilian capabilities. The Alliance also has political advisors integrated into its military commands, and it has a senior civilian representative in Afghanistan. This representative, however, mainly coordinates with other civilian forces from the European Union or the United Nations.

In practice, it appears that inter-institutional coordination occurs on a case-by-case basis even if balanced burden-sharing rarely occurs between NATO and the EU. In Bosnia, NATO remained on the ground for nearly ten years before the EU took over the command of SFOR. ISAF in Afghanistan is a NATO-led operation. In Darfur, NATO got involved after the EU decision-making process proved inefficient. Consequently, a division of labour between NATO and the EU cannot be preset. In addition, interests remain primary even in a crisis. Whether it is in Africa or Asia, US interests may be different than EU interests. Washington may not be willing to engage, or the EU may be thought to have more experience in a particular region.

A functional division of labour between the EU and NATO, if created, would largely determine NATO's future path

NATO's future path will be largely determined by whether a functional division of labour between the EU and NATO can be created. NATO and the US need a strong European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) as a credible ally for NATO operations, ad hoc US-led operations, or EU-led operations. Similarly, the US needs a politically and economically strong Europe to address new global threats and to act as a counterweight to certain newly emerging powers that could disrupt international order and stability. In addition, an EU-NATO division of labour, whatever form it might take, would by necessity respect the autonomy of each organisation.

The question is whether to coordinate with other international organisations before crises erupt. Prior planning would have the advantage of both ensuring Allied political support and enhancing operational efficiency and credibility. Such prior planning, however, would appear to be utopian in practice, for many reasons. Prior planning has not worked in many crises, most recently in Darfur. In addition, NATO-EU planning could meet opposition from both non-EU members of the Alliance and non-NATO members of the European Union. Experience has also shown the difficulty of handing over responsibility for a mission during its course, with the exception of the Balkans, due to the risks of destabilisation. The EU, in any case, does not have the means for such contingencies. An interesting alternative would be to consider giving non-military EU assets to NATO-a "Berlin plus" in reverse.

A realistic method of developing NATO's role, gained by experience, recognizes the need for inter-institutional complementarity and a case-by-case approach. In principle, NATO should be able to perform some civil-military functions. The Alliance, however, would not be in a position to undertake more than what all 26 members decide to do. A diversification process to undertake specialisation in civil-military functions would not be an easy task for NATO. In addition, certain areas such as Africa may be a priority for some European countries but not necessarily for the United States.

What are NATO's options for the future?

In light of all this, two major avenues remain for NATO's future evolution.

NATO primarily as a defence organisation

Under this scenario, NATO would focus on well-known, manageable tasks ensuring its credibility and efficiency as an Alliance. Its capabilities would be well-known and additional transformation would be limited. Allies would mainly focus on enhanced cooperation and coordination with other international organisations to address evolving threats. The adoption of this scenario would also reassure those European Allies such as France, Germany, and Greece, among others, who worry about a dilution of NATO's core Article 5 function and a disassociation from its Euro-Atlantic basis.

In addition, current limits faced by NATO would be respected. Firstly, Allied consensus would remain a prerequisite for action. Although most Allies share certain preoccupations, for example about secure energy routes and the fight against terrorism, Allied interests are not all aligned. European nations are more reluctant to accept risks, the farther away those risks are from Europe. Secondly, Allies do not have the capabilities and the budgets to harmonize their military means and their political ends. NATO's Secretary General has consistently raised this problem over the past two years.

Under this option, then, NATO would keep its current scope, objectives, and structures. It would essentially focus on Article 5 defensive military missions and act within Europe's immediate neighbourhood as a transatlantic Alliance in Europe. Political cohesion among Allies would remain at the core of the Alliance. Enlargement would be limited. This static scenario, however, does not take into account the new needs and realities that NATO is facing today, and risks being largely irrelevant.

NATO as a broader security organisation

Under this option, NATO would broaden its missions to include more civilian tasks, increase its capacity to address the whole spectrum of crises, and extend common financing for common assets such as strategic lift, force generation, and special forces. At the political level, it would reinforce political dialogue within the North Atlantic Council by putting new issues on the agenda such as securing natural resources and routes, economic stabilisation, and democracy promotion. It would expand its geographic range by intervening in areas outside the Euro-Atlantic sphere and by enlarging membership to include friendly countries with similar interests. As operations expand, NATO would forge special partnerships with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and other like-minded countries. The idea is to incorporate countries that are closer to new areas of crisis and therefore better able to provide funded capabilities for missions and operations. Such a scenario would meet many NATO members' desire for greater security. It would also "keep the US in", enhance international cooperation in crisis operations and help develop interoperability.

This option, however, implies a clear definition of what security encompasses. The initial Euro-Atlantic focus on Article 5 could be diluted as increased civilian tasks modify the nature of the Alliance. Political cohesion would decrease as crises become more geographically remote. "Ad hocism" and the complexity of a global Alliance could degrade NATO's effective institutionalized multilateralism, the source of real legitimacy in action, particularly if agreements within the United Nations Security Council become more difficult to reach. Shared values may decrease and discrepancies in democratic practices may increase. Common financing to improve the NATO Response Force's operational efficiency might be insufficient if not accompanied by more efficient force generation and a greater Allied willingness to conduct operations together. The fragmentation of different partnership programmes such as the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, the Partnership for Peace, and the Mediterranean Dialogue could promote an "26+N" approach that would diminish internal political cohesion among the Allies by redistributing them along new ad hoc transversal lines of competing interests. Above all, NATO ambitions would stumble on a lack of means and knowledge in matters related to civil, judicial, and police affairs. The development of new duties should never result in the detriment of strategic military superiority, interoperability, and the sustainability of simultaneous operations.


NATO has no equivalent. Its members are bound by treaty and it is the only political-military alliance that includes European Allies as well as the United States. It has already evolved much in a relatively short period of time, the rate of evolution is increasing as NATO follows a steep learning curve, and the Alliance cannot go back. If, however, NATO is to remain credible and coherent, it must first implement decisions to address a persistent lack of means relative to its ends. The danger exists that the Alliance will undermine its own standing by taking on more than it can successfully accomplish. NATO is neither a global policeman, a global humanitarian relief organisation, nor an alternative to the United Nations. The Alliance must match its means with its ends while addressing threats and evolving in a direction agreed upon by all members. The upcoming Riga Summit will not provide answers to all of these problems, but it could be the Summit where the questions whose answers will provide the Alliance's future orientation were finally put on the table.