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NATO’s Political Transformation and International Order

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 45-55)

Adrian Hyde-Price

The Lisbon Summit (19–20 November 2010) marks another waypoint in NATO’s evolution from an alliance focused on East–West deterrence and defence to one re-tooled to address the challenges of a more fluid and uncertain international environment. Like previous summits in Prague, Washington and Strasbourg, it sought to answer the question posed by the end of Cold War bipolarity: what is the purpose and function of an Alliance designed, in the oft-quoted words of its first Secretary General, Lord ‘Pug’ Ismay, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. This paper focuses on the impact of the changing inter-national political order on NATO, and the political challenges facing the Alliance as it seeks to make itself relevant to this new global power configuration. The most significant international trend affecting NATO is the shifting global constellation of power, which is creating a more complex and uncertain global political order. This is reflected in the ‘reset’ with Russia, the growing saliency of new global security concerns, the importance attached to ‘partnerships’ and the security challenges emanating from the ‘greater Middle East’. The complexities of the international environment are, in turn, exacerbating the political problems of consensus building within the Alliance, which is highly sensitive to domestic political and economic developments within member states. These domestic and international problems are placing growing pressure on the transatlantic relationship, within which the NATO Alliance is embedded.

NATO’s post Cold War evolution

Since the early 1990s NATO has adopted a multiplicity of new tasks and missions, from disaster relief to peace support operations and, more recently, counterin-surgency and counter-terrorism. This broadened agenda has, however, deepened the underlying ambiguity about the strategic rationale of the Alliance, and made consensus building and effective decision-making more difficult. “The more com-plex strategic landscape in which NATO operates”, Charles Kupchan has noted,

“has diluted the solidarity that NATO enjoyed during the Cold War. Like it or not, NATO is growing more unwieldy and a consensus approach more elusive”.

His solution is for the Alliance to adopt “a more flexible approach to decision making on most other issues apart from questions of war and peace” – a proposal

that would facilitate ad hoc ‘coalitions of the willing’, but further erode Alliance cohesion and political solidarity.

The recent summit in Lisbon (19–20 November 2010) was a further step forward in defining NATO’s place in the changing international order of the twenty-first century. It provided an opportunity for the twenty-eight member states to hammer out a consensus on their most pressing strategic concerns and their future role and profile in a changing international system. The most important manifestation of this was the New Strategic Concept, which sought to identify the challenges facing NATO and to specify the broad political and strategic response to them. In the Cold War, Strategic Concepts were classified documents dealing with military strategy. Since the end of the Cold War they have become instruments of public diplomacy, their purpose being to define a legitimate and politically acceptable role for NATO.

In order to evaluate the significance of the Lisbon Summit and its New Strategic Con-cept, it is helpful to situate Lisbon in its political and strategic context, and to view it in relation to previous ‘landmark’ summits. All Alliance summits are ‘children of their time’, reflecting the contemporary Zeitgeist and prevailing political mood. NATO itself has undergone some major changes since the end of the Cold War. The 1991 Strategic Concept addressed the end of the Cold War, and signalled a switch from what the NATO Public Affairs Division likes to term version 1.0 to version 2.0 (using the language of software programmes). The Washington Summit of 1999, when the last Strategic Concept was adopted, took place in the context of the Kosovo war and NATO’s first round of enlargement into East Central Europe, and marked a high point of the Euro-Atlantic’s ability to re-order the post communist East through the dual enlargement process (NATO and the EU) and humanitarian military intervention.

The Prague Summit of 2002 signalled the switch from NATO version 2.0 to version 3.0.1 Taking place in the wake of 9/11 and in the context of the unfolding ‘war on terror’, it signalled a switch from concerns about ‘saving strangers’ and re-ordering Europe to collective defence and expeditionary warfare far from the heartlands of the Euro-Atlantic region (‘defending Europe on the Hindu Kush’). Prague was also billed as the ‘transformation summit’ that sought to re-tool NATO for the demands of power projection and joint expeditionary operations.

The changing global power constellation

The Lisbon Summit and the New Strategic Concept, ‘Active Engagement, Modern Defence’, were coloured by two key international developments: the shifting global

balance of power and the global recession. These two factors provide the key to un-derstanding many of the political and strategic decisions reached in Lisbon, and are crucial in defining the structural context within which the Alliance now operates.

In the 1990s NATO operated in the context of the apparent triumph of Western values, ideas and institutions. ‘History’ had ended, and democracy and free market capitalism had no ideological contenders: post communist Central and Eastern Europe could be reshaped by NATO and the EU, and the Alliance could focus on enlargement and ‘saving strangers’. In the following decade the mood darkened but there was still a lingering belief that the American ‘unipolar era’ had dawned and that capitalism was stimulating a new phase of economic growth and rising prosperity.

Lisbon signals the demise of these comforting illusions. The international system is experiencing a power transition from a unipolar to a multipolar order, characterised not so much by the ‘decline of the West’ but the ‘rise of the Rest’. With the emergence of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), established patterns of international diplomacy are being upturned, and the existing institutions of global governance are increasingly weak and ineffective. A ‘post-American world’ is emerg-ing, as Fareed Zakaria has argued, “one defined and directed from many places and by many people”.2 This power transition is now taking place against the background of the global recession that began in 2008, and which is creating a harsher and more competitive economic environment. This in turn is making international cooperation and global governance harder to achieve, as many states focus on their own interests and priorities.

The rise of the BRICs and the shifting global balance of power marks a further disintegration of the European/transatlantic dominium that shaped international society from the seventeenth century onwards, and which reached its apogee in the Western-designed and US-led international order forged in the late 1940s. In his Strasbourg speech of April 2009, President Obama noted that the world is now more complex than in the past, and that the days of Pax America or Pax Britannica have ended. “If there’s just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that’s an easy negotiation”, he noted. “But that’s not the world we live in, and it shouldn’t be the world that we live in”.

The shifting tectonic plates of the global power balance have had five major im-pacts on the Lisbon Summit and the New Strategic Concept. These are the reset with Russia, security threats beyond NATO’s borders, relations with the

Mediter-ranean and the Gulf States, NATO’s modest global ambitions and the emphasis on partnerships:

1. The ‘reset’ with Russia

One of the primary achievements of the Lisbon Summit and a key manifestation of the changing constellation of global power relations was the forging of a new, more cooperative, relationship with the Russian Federation. In the 1990s a weakened Russia could do little to resist NATO’s eastern enlargement and its military interven-tion in Kosovo. From Moscow’s perspective a newly enlarged NATO was engaging in offensive military operations to restructure the international order to its design.

The unilateralism of the George W. Bush administration only reinforced this image, with the unilateral abrogation of the ABM treaty; NMD and bases in Poland and the Czech republic; the acquisition of new military bases in Central Asia, and the courting of Georgia and Ukraine as future NATO members. Since 2000, however, Russia’s strength has revived and a more confident Moscow has not hesitated to use energy as a tool for political leverage. More potently, the August 2008 Georgian war signalled that Russia was back as a great power, willing and able to use military power to defend its geopolitical interests.

After a brief cooling of relations with Russia after the Georgian war, the Obama administration has ‘reset’ relations with Moscow, focusing primarily on practi-cal cooperation in arms control agreements (the new Start Treaty and the CFE re-negotiation). The Lisbon Summit was the occasion for re-setting the Rus-sia–NATO relationship, based on three tangible areas of cooperation: first, revamping the NATO–Russia Council, which has long been regarded as an inef-fective talking-shop. The Council met for the first time since the Georgian war in Lisbon, and will focus on talks to create “a common space of peace, security and stability”. Second, cooperation on theatre missile defence: a NATO–Russia Council working group on missile defence will be resumed, focusing on creat-ing an ‘Active Layered Theatre Ballistic Missile Defence’ (ALTBMD). Third, cooperation on Afghanistan: Russia will aid NATO by keeping open land supply routes for non-lethal materials and will provide assistance with helicopters to the Afghan security forces.

Working out a more cooperative and more balanced relationship will not be easy, given the powerful constituencies within both Russia and NATO that remain sus-picious and mistrustful of each other. Nonetheless, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted, “the fact that we are talking to Russia about common threats and the

chance to cooperate with Russia on missile defence is an extremely important step.

That could be proof that the Cold War has finally come to an end”.

2. Global security threats beyond NATO’s borders

The second significant impact of the shifting balance of global power is the awareness that NATO countries are increasingly vulnerable to security threats from beyond the Euro-Atlantic area, and that existing mechanisms of global security governance need refashioning. “Instability or conflict beyond NATO’s borders can directly threaten Alliance security, including by fostering extremism, terrorism, and trans-national illegal activities such as trafficking in arms, narcotics and people”, the New Strategic Concept notes (§11). Furthermore, “all countries are increasingly reliant on the vital communication, transport and transit routes on which international trade, energy security and prosperity depend. They require greater international efforts to ensure their resilience against attack or disruption” (13). The Lisbon Summit identified two relatively new issues that are increasing in saliency on the NATO agenda: energy security and maritime security. The importance of the latter has great potential significance, given the crucial need to keep open SLOC (Sea Lines of Communication) – the arteries of the global economy. For this reason NATO, in the future, may well find itself taking on additional responsibilities for maritime security, which will require a shift in resources towards naval capabilities and maritime power projection.

3. The Mediterranean and the Gulf States

NATO’s growing concern about the two interlocking issues of maritime and energy security have focused attention on the countries bordering the southern Mediter-ranean and the wider Middle East and Gulf region. The Gulf remains the key energy source for Europe, although North Africa’s importance in this regard is growing. The Mediterranean is already the site of a maritime counter-terrorism operation and the Gulf of Aden is seeing a counter-piracy initiative. In the light of possible confrontation over Iran’s nuclear programme, the SLOC running through the Straits of Hormuz will become vulnerable. More generally, the MENA region is the focus of many of NATO concerns about terrorism, nuclear proliferation, regional conflicts and failed states.

Consequently, the Lisbon Summit stressed the importance of deepened cooperation within the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue and of opening this up to other countries in the region. The New Strategic Concept also placed emphasis on the importance of NATO’s ‘security partnership with our Gulf partners’ and noted that it remained “ready to welcome new partners in the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative”.

This focus on MENA and the Gulf is part of a broader geostrategic reorientation of

NATO away from its Cold War East–West focus to a new axis of concern running from North to South.

4. More modest global ambitions

One of the longest-running post Cold War debates in NATO has been that on ‘out-of-area’. The US has long advocated a more ambitious and far-reaching role for NATO beyond its traditional North Atlantic hunting ground. The current NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has also apparently advocated this. France and Germany, on the other hand, have sought to limit the scope of NATO’s reach to more regionally focused concerns. With the Afghan campaign NATO has clearly acted

‘out-of-area’, but the broader debate continues. The Lisbon Summit appears to have made relatively modest claims about a global role for NATO, stressing instead the importance of partnerships. Lisbon also seems to have reinstated the key role of the UN, which was weakened by both the Kosovo war and the US-led invasion of Iraq.

The modest global ambitions of NATO reflect opposition from rising powers like Russia, China and Brazil, all of whom oppose a ‘global policeman’ role for NATO.

Russia’s Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has explicitly noted that “Russia can’t be happy with NATO’s transformation into a world policeman” or “something like Orwell’s Big Brother”, whilst the semi-official Chinese People’s Daily voiced explicit fears in September 2006 about a ‘Global NATO’, capable of interference in hotspots around the world.3 In the run-up to the Lisbon Summit the Brazilian Defence Minister Nelson Jobim also mounted a concerted diplomatic offensive to signal his country’s strong opposition to any role for NATO in the South Atlantic (fears kindled by some rather inept Portuguese diplomacy).4

5. NATO’s partnerships

Rather than trying to carve out a high profile global role for itself, the NATO Al-liance has sought to shape the wider international system by developing a series of partnerships. This theme was reiterated over and over again at the Lisbon Summit, and the Strategic Concept also stressed the need for partnerships “so that it [NATO]

continues to be effective in a changing world, against new threats, with new capabili-ties and new partners” (Preface). The importance of these partnerships is clear from the Afghan campaign, where there are currently some 3,000 troops from eighteen non-NATO countries participating in ISAF. These partners do not play a purely symbolic role (as with many of the US-led coalition’s partners in Iraq), but perform significant operational roles. More generally, NATO recognises the need to cultivate partners if it is to be able to respond to global security problems (from maritime security to crisis management).

The Lisbon summit and the global recession

The second ‘elephant in the room’ at Lisbon, alongside the changing global balance of power, was the global financial crisis that erupted with the financial crash of 2008.

The euro has taken a battering following the crisis in Greece, then Ireland, and now Portugal. The European response to the recession has been economic austerity, fiscal retrenchment and budget deficit reduction. The American response, on the other hand, has been a policy of monetary expansion and a weaker US dollar, generating new fissures in the transatlantic relationship.

The real worry for NATO decision makers is that fiscal retrenchment in Europe has resulted in severe reductions in European defence budgets. Defence expenditure reductions in the ‘big three’ (Germany, France and the UK) are seen as particularly troubling. The German Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, for example, has been told to find savings of €14bn by 2013. Consequently conscription is to be ended, the Bundeswehr is to be reduced in size from 250,000 to 190,000, a number of barracks will be closed and a streamlined command structure will be introduced.

Collectively, European NATO states have reduced their defence expenditure from

€228bn in 2001 to €197bn in 2009 (despite Afghanistan, the Global War on Terror and a greater number of EU and NATO missions).

Given that defence cuts are politically and financially unavoidable in Europe, the key question is how European NATO allies will manage these cuts. Broadly speaking there are two choices: a series of ad hoc, uncoordinated cuts by different member states, which would further exacerbate existing problems of duplication, wastage and functional incompatibility; or coordinated cuts leading to more collaborative, and therefore more effective, defence procurement programmes and to a restructuring of defence industries. The latter approach would reflect the need for greater industrial defence specialisation, the pooling of resources, greater functional specialisation and more cooperation – resulting in leaner but more integrated European NATO militaries. “Every European government that is a member of the EU or NATO knows exactly what should be done”, as Kees Homan of Clingendael (Netherlands) notes.

“We should pool resources. When it comes to military equipment, countries should specialise. But duplication continues. It means less efficiency and higher costs. NATO will go nowhere as long as the Europeans fail to harmonise their military equipment or specialise”.5

The recent UK–France Defence Cooperation Treaty is a step in the right direction in this regard; it involves sharing equipment and nuclear missile research centres,

and establishing a joint force of 9,000 soldiers with air and sea support. However, across Europe as a whole defence cuts seem to be proceeding with little coordination and Europe’s defence industrial sector remains wasteful and inefficient. Europeans, for example, have 21 naval shipyards (the US has three) and 89 different weapons programmes (the US has only 27). The problems with the procurement process are highlighted by the travails of the A400M air transport carrier and the spiralling costs of the eurofighter jet. Until and unless the political will is generated in Eu-rope to address the problems of declining defence expenditure, ineffective defence procurement and duplication in the defence industries, Europe’s military weakness will continue to create transatlantic disputes over burden sharing.


The New Strategic Concept adopted at the Lisbon Summit noted that Alliance members face a ‘changing’ and ‘unpredictable’ world, which is generating a “broad and evolving set of challenges to the security of NATO’s territory and population”.

The Strategic Concept itself was designed to “guide the next phase in NATO’s evo-lution, so that it continues to be effective in a changing world, against new threats, with new capabilities and new partners”.

NATO remains a key pillar of European security and a factor of stability in an uncertain international system. As well as serving as an insurance policy for the territorial integrity of Alliance members, its greatest added value is that it serves as a military toolbox for pragmatic, ad hoc cooperation for addressing threats to Alliance members beyond their immediate borders. However, it faces a number of pressing problems that will require concerted political energy to manage.

The first problem is that NATO’s enlargement from the 16 Cold War members to the 28 of today has greatly exacerbated the difficulties in building consensus on a series of diffuse security threats in an unpredictable world. Despite claims that NATO is a ‘unique community of values’, the reality is that NATO members as diverse as Albania, Norway, Turkey and Spain share very few values in common and, more importantly, they see the world in very different ways and do not necessarily share common geostrategic interests. At the same time, the North Atlantic Council has failed to offer an effective forum for transatlantic debate on substantive issues of common concern, such as Iran, Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen or North Korea. The NAC’s arteries are clogged with routine work, limiting the time available to discuss broader security issues.

Second, the Afghan campaign has highlighted the problems of burden sharing, not just between the US and Europe, but also between NATO’s European members. The UK, the Netherlands and Denmark have all engaged in major combat operations alongside the US and Canada. Germany, Italy and Spain, on the other hand, have sought to avoid significant risk to their troops by hiding behind a series of national caveats. This in turn is linked to a further worrying trend – the ‘demilitarisation’

of significant parts of Europe. Noting the deleterious impact of European defence cuts and the fact that only 5 of 28 NATO members had reached the agreed defence spending target of 2% of GDP, US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates warned in a speech in February 2010 that;

“These budget limitations relate to a larger cultural and political trend affecting the Alliance. One of the triumphs of the last century was the pacification of Europe after ages of ruinous warfare. But I believe that we have reached an inflection point, where much of the continent has gone too far in the other direction….

….The demilitarisation of Europe – where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it – has turned from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st

….The resulting funding and capability shortfalls make it difficult to operate and fight together”.6

Thus whilst the Lisbon Summit and the New Strategic Concept represent sig-nificant and important steps forward for NATO in adjusting to an unpredictable and increasingly complex security environment, the Alliance continues to face serious political, economic and strategic problems. Building a new relationship with Russia and fostering new partnerships are clearly important steps forward, but much work remains to be done in recalibrating transatlantic relations and establishing a more cooperative security relationship between NATO and the EU.

NATO therefore remains a work in progress and, as Winston Churchill noted about European defence cooperation in 1948, “We’re not making a machine, we’re growing a living plant, and we must wait and see until we understand what this plant turns out to be”.7

In document DIIS REPORT (Page 45-55)