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A Word From Afar: Is NATO No More?

A Word From Afar: Is NATO No More?

Paul G. Buchanan

G. Buchanan – image by Jason Dorday

What is to be done to an international institution that has outlived its purpose?

The Cold War ended as a result of the ideological defeat of Stalinism, materially reflected in the dissolution of its regional security apparatus in Europe. When the Soviet Union and its dependents collapsed at the turn of the 1990s, the Warsaw Pact disintegrated. As the USSR devolved and Eastern Europe moved out from under its sphere of influence, the opposing side in the “great dichotomy” of the Cold War, NATO, found itself without a raison d’etre. In spite of efforts to re-focus NATO’s institutional foundations and purpose while expanding its membership, it now appears to be in terminal decline.

NATO was, in its day, the prime example of a collective security alliance. Ideologically united in its anti-Communism and rooted in capitalist economics, Western Europe and North America militarily grounded their alliance in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Its purpose was to deter Soviet aggression with credible counter-force, and its strategic preparations were for a major regional war in Europe. Although NATO members undertook combat missions outside of the continent, the common focus was on its Eastern Front, centred along the Berlin Wall and Central European Plain. The end of the Cold War changed the threat environment in which NATO’s purpose and preparations were made, and the immediate response was to shift its strategic focus towards peace-keeping, low-intensity conflict (including counter-terrorism), cyberwarfare and activities other than war (such as humanitarian relief and search and rescue).

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In terms of strategic perspective, collective deterrence based on superior counter-force gave way to cooperative security based upon the promotion of confidence and security-building measures (CSBMs) that increased transparency between former adversaries in Europe. One way to do so was to expand NATO membership amongst former Warsaw Pact members such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia. Although mooted, Russian integration into the alliance was never a realistic possibility given ongoing mistrust and counterpoised strategic perspectives between Moscow, Brussels and major NATO members like the US, UK and Germany.

NATO also shifted regional focus. The original mission was obviated by the disappearance of the Cold War adversary, so attention moved to extra-regional engagements such as the 1990 Gulf War, the 2001 occupation of Afghanistan, 2003 invasion of Iraq and a host of peace-keeping and nation-building operations (in Lebanon, most importantly). The changing strategic environment required national militaries as well as NATO managers to adjust their sights on conflicts afield from Europe as well as on sub-national disputes within it, and in the measure that it could serve as a UN enforcement agency inside and outside the continent, expansion of membership to former Warsaw Pact states and their organizational integration under the banner of cooperative security provided more weighted options for NATO decision-makers and their constituent states. Given the relative professionalism of its members and its experience with peace-keeping, NATO mentoring of armed forces in the developing, post-colonial world was seen as another good reason to shift the alliance focus.

In practice the strategic shift fell short of what was intended. The move to cooperative security did not prevent and may have encouraged Serbian aggression against its post-Yugoslavian neighbours. It took the US to get NATO to militarily act against Serbian aggression under the new mandate, and given European reluctance to commit to the anti-Serbian cause, the US provided the bulk of military assets to the (mostly air) campaign against Belgrade’s forces. Political sensitivities limited NATO involvement in peace-keeping activities in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, with disastrous results for the people of Srebrenica among other places. NATO participation in post- Cold War peace-keeping operations has also been spotty, and commitment of material and human resources to the organization is very unevenly spread amongst the alliance’s 28 member states.

The September 11, 2001 attacks further altered the post-Cold War strategic environment. US military planning shifted to fighting asymmetric preemptive foreign wars under the guise of counter-terrorism. The shift away from a Euro-centric conventional focus towards a global asymmetrical warfare capability prompted a split within NATO over the relevance of the US strategic shift to NATO core interests. Although the ISAF mission in Afghanistan was authorised under several UNSC resolutions and NATO was given command of the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the commitment of its members has waned over time commensurate with a rise in domestic opposition. The 2003 invasion of Iraq met with the open resistance of senior NATO members such as France and Germany, prompting then US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld to dismiss them as “Old Europe” in contrast to the “New Europe” comprised of US allies from the former Warsaw Pact. Since then member perspectives on NATO’s core mission have continued to diverge to the point of fracture. Political-economic struggles throughout the European Union and Eurozone have accentuated national differences on key policy issues, to the despair of European integrationists and to the detriment of its regional institutions.

Without a centre of gravity, collective alliances cannot hold. The absence of a compelling threat to individual national interests after 1990 undermined collective commitment to the NATO cause. Extra-regional cooperative security could never substitute for the presence of a common existential threat, but the logic of institutional self-preservation dictates that NATO continue to demonstrate its importance in the new international security regime. 20 years after the end of the Cold War, it struggles do so.

In 2011 the end of NATO as a collective security alliance is seen in four events: the intervention in Libya, the downsizing of proposed US ballistic missile defence systems in Eastern Europe, ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan and the creation of the Visegrad Group.

The Libyan intervention was orchestrated by the UK and France with support from the US and Canada. Using UNSC 1973 as the excuse for intervention under the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine providing for collective defense of vulnerable civilian populations, NATO forces are in their fourth month of armed attacks on Muammar Gaddafi’s army and his command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) infrastructure. Although NATO members such as France, Italy, Turkey and Greece are contributing to the mission, several others, most notably Germany, have objected to the intervention and refused to collaborate with it other than in ordinance supply. It is also widely acknowledged that both the Cameron government in Britain and the Sarkozy government in France pushed for the intervention primarily because of domestic political considerations (both have elections within a year). “Mission creep” has set in where the original objective of protecting innocent civilians and enforcing a no-fly zone has given way to an armed push for regime change in which Gaddafi himself is targeted for assassination. The decision to change the mission was not made in Brussels, and may have already been made when the UNSC 1973 debates occurred.

For regime change in Libya to occur NATO will have to introduce ground forces. The Libyan rebels are too disorganised and incompetent to overthrow Gaddafi on their own. Yet no NATO member is prepared to engage the ground war required for rebel victory, and Gaddafi’s regional adversaries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE) will not commit to such an endeavor other than to supply arms to the rebels. Consequently, the Libyan intervention is at a stalemate in which NATO’s weakeness is exposed, with tensions in the UNSC 1973 coalition increasing in the measure that their individual level of commitment wavers. Given the mixed motivations and lack of long-term planning involved, the NATO intervention in Libya intervention appears to be war conducted by choice rooted in bureaucratic and political self-interest (on the part of NATO managers as well as national leaders) rather than as a legitimate collective defense obligation under the R2P doctrine (which could be applied equally to Syria). Strategic interest in securing Libya's oil supplies was a consideration in the decision to intervene, but it did not enjoy universal consensus within the NATO community and has in fact disrupted the short term supply.

The second event that demonstrates NATO’s terminal decline is the inability for the US to erect a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Eastern Europe due to Russian opposition. Justified by the US as a deterrent to Iranian missile attack on Europe, the Kremlin sees it as a cordon aimed at its forces. It has put concerted pressure on front line states along its western borders to refuse installation of the sites on home soil, among other things using its natural gas supplies as leverage. The US has had to downscale its proposals on the subject because of the reluctance of NATO states to become involved in a US-Russia standoff. This follows on NATO inaction in the face of Russian military intervention (and territorial annexation) in Georgia in 2009. What this means is that the dominant military power in NATO can no longer persuade or over-ride the geopolitical logics of individual member states, even those on the front line of the strategic divide with Russia.

The third event is ISAF withdrawal from Afghanistan. In spite of all of the operational lessons learned and force integration promoted while deployed under the ISAF banner, for a variety of reasons the NATO-led coalition militarily occupying Afghanistan has begun to unravel. Domestic opposition, moral-ethical or utilitarian concerns and other security threats have led to the defection of several actors (most notably the Dutch). US commitment to withdrawing the bulk of its forces by 2014 has sparked a round of accelerated draw-downs from key coalition partners like France and Germany. As NATO is in command of ISAF, 2014 represents the loss of its core external mission since 2001. Lower-level security deployments such as anti-piracy efforts do not substitute for a core mission, which leaves NATO with Libya and little else to focus on.

The final nail in the NATO coffin has been the creation of a security brigade (later to be expanded to division strength) for the Visegrad Group (VG). Founded in 1991, the VG was designed as a sub-regional, consultation-based business, cultural, tax and tourism promotion board. The member states—Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary—are all NATO “new members” and have traditionally configured their strategic perspectives around the threat posed by Russia. Since NATO was created to counter this threat and no longer does so, the establishment of the VG security brigade not only serves as an alternative tripwire against Russian aggression. It effectively dismisses NATO as a credible deterrent to the traditional source of insecurity in Eastern Europe. More broadly, strengthening German-Russian ties have come at the expense of Franco-German, Germany-UK and Germany-US relations, so the political cleavages within NATO are serious.

Confronted with institutional obsolescence, NATO managers need to find new reasons to keep the organization alive. The issue is put well by the open source intelligence provider Strategic Forecasting, whose assessment of NATO's survivability is morbidly optimistic: "European institutions rarely dissolve: They perpetuate their existence. NATO may very well continue to set up ad-hoc military interventions, akin to the ongoing operation in Libya, wherein a limited number of alliance members participate. It can act as a force multiplier, thanks to the considerable military resources and international legitimacy it brings to bear. NATO can also take on different security projects — related to, for instance, piracy, cybercrime or energy security — whose only purpose may be to perpetuate the bureaucracy. After all, someone has to populate NATO’s $1.4 billion headquarters under construction in Brussels" ( NATO clients, most importantly defense industries, have reason to encourage the expansion of military operations. In practice, this means finding new areas of focus beyond counter-terrorism, cyberwarfare, search and rescue and border patrol.

Given the need to re-create a core mission set, NATO leaders may become more prone to intervene or initiate conflicts in extra-regional disputes that otherwise do not impinge on important North Atlantic interests, sometimes using as a justification humanitarian-inspired international doctrines such as the Responsibility to Protect. Bureaucratic self-preservation, in other words, may see NATO engage in more extra-regional conflict mongering than during the Cold War, following strategic trends born in the immediate post-Cold War period and which were designed towards promoting peaceful conflict resolution rather than armed intervention.

Since New Zealand is a NATO ally and active UN multilateral military participant that has trained and fought with NATO forces since the Second World War, this poses some interesting questions. Does it follow the NATO lead and begin to shift its strategic gaze towards armed humanitarian interventions? Given that New Zealand has been given the status of US strategic partner in the 2010 Wellington Declaration, does the diverging US and NATO strategic perspectives require New Zealand to follow one or the other? How does New Zealand reconcile its commitment to non-intervention and respect for sovereignty with support for either NATO or US led military assertiveness abroad?

Of such externalities strategic dilemmas are made.


Paul G. Buchanan is the founder of Buchanan Strategic Advisors, a New Zealand-based political risk, market intelligence and strategic assessment consultancy.

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