© DPA / Reporters

NATO’s remodelling is urgent, according to Peter van Ham.

Here, he argues that NATO's makeover should start with an attempt to forge a new Strategic Concept.

Pointing the way: Businesses use Madonna as a role model of self-reinvention. Now it's NATO's turn.

Healthy firms reinvent themselves every few years. Without innovation, they lose market power and become irrelevant.

That is why NATO needs policy entrepreneurs who are willing to give the Alliance a new lease of life and a new focus.

Today, there is hardly a challenge facing the West that NATO has not been obliged to add to its already crowded agenda. On top of traditional tasks such as territorial defence and peacekeeping, the Alliance now deals with WMD proliferation, missile defence and cyber-security.

In its multifunctionality, NATO begins to resemble a Swiss pocket-knife with all its tools exposed. But as we all know, unfolded pocket-knives are unwieldy affairs, and whilst prepared to do everything, are actually good at nothing. This is why NATO needs to retool itself, starting with a revision of its outdated strategic concept.

The current strategic concept, which is the core mission statement of the Alliance, was adopted in April 1999, in the midst of NATO’s Kosovo-campaign. This key document therefore predates the strategic paradigm-shift of 9/11, as well as NATO’s Afghanistan mission, the first outside the Euro-Atlantic area.

In the past, allies have not prepared strategic concepts frequently (in 1952, 1967, 1991 and 1999), but history seems to go at fast-forward speed these days. This is why NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called for a new strategic concept in February 2007, arguing that on-going operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo have offered the Alliance “lessons of 21st century security. We need to enshrine them in our guiding documents so that they are implemented in practice.”

The “ if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality underestimates the strategic challenges facing NATO today

However, many officials in NATO capitals are concerned that the risks of such a strategic review are too great. They fear that it might revive the transatlantic controversies of 2002-3, and open wounds that have just begun to heal. They also suggest that with the Comprehensive Political Guidance-document that was endorsed in November 2006 at the Riga Summit, a solution has been found to NATO’s predicament.

Still, merely kicking the can down the road would be a serious mistake. This “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality underestimates the strategic challenges facing NATO today.

In the current debate, German chancellor Angela Merkel is the only political leader who has clearly stated she would like to see a new strategic concept endorsed at NATO’s Summit in 2009. This will be difficult to achieve given the electoral calendar in the United States where a new administration will take office in January 2009, and will need several months to get a new team together.

Presenting a new strategic concept at NATO’s 60th anniversary would be a welcome birthday present. But more important than nice timing is that at NATO’s Summit in Bucharest, allies commit themselves to biting the bullet and doing what is necessary: accept the inconveniences of temporary disagreements and aim for a new NATO strategic concept that clarifies the Alliance’s political and military strategy - and communicates this clearly to the wider world.

Why? And why now?

The current debate about a new strategic concept is déjà vu to strategic analysts: all arguments, pro and con, which could be heard in the 1990s, are now rehearsed. Why open Pandora’s Box? Why waste diplomatic energy that could be spent on more important, operational matters? Why risk failure by washing NATO’s dirty linen in public?

Interestingly, both the 1991 and 1999 strategic concepts were innovative and instrumental in getting NATO ready for new members and missions. So recent experience does not support a cautious approach, but rather suggests that a more daring spirit serves the Alliance well.

Arguably, NATO is facing a litmus test which determines whether the organization is really still an “Alliance”, based on shared interests and values, or merely a glorified security coalition. There are four pressing reasons why a strategic recalibration of NATO is required.

To be successful, NATO needs a package-deal of painful compromises, where each member state has to give and take.

First, allies need to find a workable consensus about the legitimacy of using military force in non-article 5 operations (i.e., for purposes other than self-defence), and, in the extreme, even without an explicit UN Security Council mandate. In a way, this has been the most controversial, unresolved issue of the 1999 strategic concept, which has gained even greater relevance with the US invasion of Iraq and the American doctrine of preventive wars.

If NATO aspires to deal with terrorism and WMD proliferation, the timing and legitimacy of military force will be a key issue on which the allies have to see eye to eye. But as a look at some core strategic documents shows, this is not the case today. The EU Security Strategy of 2003 opens with the sanguine observation that “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure, nor so free”, whereas the US Security Strategy of 2006 starts with the ominous statement that “America is at war.” This testifies to the potential of infecting the Alliance with a level of strategic schizophrenia that is unhealthy and untenable.,

The current ostrich-reflex, with the head in the sand in the hope that the problem will go away, will no longer do. A commitment must be made to turn NATO into a true, functioning political organisation, prepared to debate key strategic challenges facing the Alliance. That this is not happening today explains the diverging threat perceptions which make collective NATO-action problematic. The North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO’s key political governing body, now focuses its deliberations largely on the Alliance’s on-going operations, with too little time spent on potential crises lurking over the horizon. A new strategic concept should bring an end to this imbalance, for example by changing procedures for agenda-setting within the NAC.

Second, choices must be made regarding NATO’s future as a defence organisation. Obviously, collective defence remains the backbone of the Alliance. But what does this mean in an era where energy cut-offs and (cyber-)terrorism are the preferred lines of attack? NATO’s collective defence clause under Article 5 was duly invoked after 9/11, which means in theory that NATO as a whole remains in a quasi-state of war. The fact that we simply forget this indicates that the Alliance needs to rethink the nature of collective defence, its responses, and the importance of retooling its operational kit to address new security challenges more effectively. NATO’s military operations suggest a new strategy of “forward defence”, where allied interests and values are protected “at the Hindukush.” But with energy security topping the agenda and relations with Russia at freezing point, the true, and possibly novel, meaning of Article 5 requires serious collective thought.

All this implies that NATO has to set priorities. The expectations–capabilities gap of the Alliance is becoming dangerously large. As an organisation, NATO cannot bring many policy tools to the table and depends on member states’ willingness to work together and pool their collective resources and capabilities. But the continuing acrimony over funding and force generation for NATO-led operations exposes the crumbling consensus within the Alliance, especially in the case of ISAF. NATO should begin to cut its coat according to its cloth. The new strategic concept should clearly explain what Article 5 means in the 21st century, and, based on that new assessment, set limits to the scope and nature of NATO-led missions.

Third, NATO should bring its relationship with new, often global partners and key players like the EU and UN on a new level. In Afghanistan, ISAF includes crucial allies such as Australia, whose 1000 soldiers are engaged in the country’s risky southern province of Uruzgan. Since numerous NATO member states remain reluctant to risk life and limb in these dangerous missions, the Alliance risks becoming a “coalition of the willing”, which would undermine internal solidarity, and hence NATO’s raison d'être. If NATO chooses to go truly global, it must draw global partners closer to the organization, and clarify their rights and obligations under new and transparent rules of the game.

There is no perfect time for a strategic extreme makeover of the Alliance. So today is as good a time as any.

This also applies to NATO’s ties with the EU and UN. The Alliance takes prides in the “comprehensive approach” it takes towards operations. In reality, however, this can only be realized by bringing the resources of key international organisations (IOs) such as the EU, UN, and World Bank into play. This is why these IOs were invited for the first time to discuss the reconstruction of Afghanistan during NATO’s informal meeting of defence ministers in Noordwijk, in October 2007. Since 21 EU states are also members of NATO, more coordination and joint action between both organisations is obviously required.

The Berlin Plus-arrangement foresaw the EU using NATO resources. Now it is time for a so-called Berlin Plus in reverse, as the Alliance may want to draw upon EU tools like the European Gendarmerie Force (EGF), as well as the EU’s civilian crisis management capabilities. Since the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) now has 90,000 troops deployed under its authority (based on a US$ 5 billion annual budget), NATO-UN ties obviously need to be strengthened and formalized. Numerous modalities are informally discussed, but choices have to be made urgently.

Fourth, confronting NATO’s strategic choices and dilemmas head-on will have a cleansing effect within the Alliance.

Those who fear that the road towards a new strategic concept will be paved with conflict and mutual recrimination are only partly right. The main problem with NATO is that maintaining the status quo is more risky than reform—muddling through is the clearest sign of failure. Today, some key NATO players worry about bringing their different perspectives together in one new strategic concept. Some want to be a truly global NATO: others fear this could detract from the construction of a strong European approach.

It will no doubt be difficult to square this circle, but NATO owes it to itself to give it a serious try. Although the main prize should be an innovative and activist strategic concept, for NATO the process of generating consensus may be as valuable as the end-result itself. Perhaps the Alliance should take courage, and take a leaf from the EU’s book, whose recent constitutional crisis has had a cathartic effect on the process of European integration, rather than stopping it.

Madonna or die?

The quality of adapting to new tasks whilst staying true to one’s own principles is something which business analysts qualify as the Madonna-curve. This curve is named after the legendary pop-diva who reinvented herself each time her style and stardom went into inevitable decline, but whose audacity has lifted her up to ever higher levels of relevance and fame.

NATO should follow the Madonna-curve, and not wait till its controversies escalate into public wrangles. The argument that tinkering on the edges will do since all challenges can be dealt with one at a time simply does not hold. To be successful, NATO needs a package-deal of painful compromises, where each member state has to give and take. This requires a comprehensive reform effort which only a new strategic concept offers.

There is no perfect time for a strategic extreme make-over of the Alliance. So today is as good a time as any.

Remember that the present strategic concept dates from 1999, when NATO was conducting the first fighting war in its history. This should give the Alliance the required confidence that they can pull it off this time as well, especially since the only alternative to the Madonna-curve seems a steady decline in relevance and merit.

Lest we forget, the rest of the world carefully scrutinizes NATO’s actions, and some obviously long for an Alliance immobilized by disorientation and rigidity. A new and ground-breaking strategic concept would prove NATO’s critics wrong and assure the long-term strength of the Alliance.