Fraser Forum | 9.1.09
By Alan W. Dowd

NATO officially launched the process of revamping its Strategic Concept in July. NATO considers the Strategic Concept “the authoritative statement of the alliance’s objectives,” providing “the highest level of guidance on the political and military means to be used in achieving them” (NATO 2009c). Think of it as NATO’s mission statement. NATO last reworked its Strategic Concept in 1999, which means this process is overdue.

As of now, the next Strategic Concept is “a blank sheet of paper,” in the words of Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO’s outgoing secretary general (de Hoop Scheffer). But NATO’s current challenges offer plenty of guidance on how to fill the page.  

The common defense

First, NATO nations must invest more in defense, and they must remember that NATO is, above all, a military alliance. As de Hoop Scheffer has observed, military operations are “NATO’s core business” (de Hoop Scheffer).

While the US spends 4 percent of its GDP on defense, only five NATO members have mustered the will to meet the alliance’s standard of investing 2 percent of GDP on defense (NATO 2009a). Investing 1.3 percent of GDP in the common defense, Canada is in line with Germany (1.3 percent), Italy (1.3 percent) and Spain (1.2 percent) (NATO 2009a, 6). With the exception of the United States, all of these percentages are considerably lower than they were in 1994, when NATO had far fewer responsibilities on its plate (NATO 2009a, 6). Even Britain, generally considered America’s nearest technological peer within NATO, invests only 2.2 percent of GDP on defense—“its lowest level since the 1930s” (Gardiner).

NATO’s combat effectiveness is suffering as a consequence. This was on full display during NATO’s summer offensive in Afghanistan, as Britain’s deeply committed but under-resourced force lost 15 troops in one 10-day stretch. Many British policymakers blame the country’s growing list of casualties in Afghanistan—recently surpassing British losses in Iraq—on the government’s inadequate investment in helicopters and training (Alexander and Donaldson). In fact, Britain has only 30 choppers to support its 9,100-man contingent in Afghanistan (Burns). So stretched is the British helicopter fleet that Britain’s top military commander recently was forced to fly into Helmand Province in a US Blackhawk helicopter. “Self-evidently, if I move in an American helicopter, it’s because I don’t have a British helicopter,” he testily declared when asked about his mode of transportation (Burns).

By the end of July, NATO had lost 1,246 troops in Afghanistan, including 750 Americans, 189 Brits and 125 Canadians (CNN). No other NATO member has lost more than 30 troops. Even so, European publics and governments are growing anxious as casualties mount (Boyes). In other words, inadequate defense investment not only makes it difficult for NATO to carry out its mission on the battle front; it also may have the effect of undermining support for the mission on the home front.

Actions and words

Second, NATO needs to make its words matter. Only once in its history has NATO invoked Article V—the alliance’s collective defense clause. That was on September 12, 2001, which explains why NATO is in Afghanistan. However, some NATO members don’t seem to take Article V all that seriously.

If they did, Washington wouldn’t have to beg for more troops to support NATO’s Afghanistan mission, the troops that are there wouldn’t have limits on where they can go, and individual governments wouldn’t handcuff their militaries with onerous rules of engagement. German forces, for instance, refer to a seven-page guidebook before engaging the enemy. Until mid-2009, they were even required to shout warnings to enemy forces—in three languages—before opening fire (Boyes).

The halfhearted, constrained commitment of certain allies to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan even prompted de Hoop Scheffer—succeeded by Anders Rasmussen in August—to argue that the new Strategic Concept needs to “reassure our new allies that NATO takes its Article V collective defense commitment seriously” (de Hoop Scheffer).

One way to do that is to abolish what NATO euphemistically calls “caveats,” which allow members to opt out of combat operations. As a blue-ribbon panel of former NATO commanders argues, caveats “prevent the operational commander from making adequate use of allocated forces” (Naumann 80). Worse, they strike at the heart of the alliance’s cohesiveness. After all, an ally that promises to help only when the guns are quiet and only where the scenery is serene is not much of an ally.

To its credit, Canada, which has deployed some 2,800 troops in the thick of the fighting in southern Afghanistan, understands there are responsibilities as well as benefits to NATO membership. Regrettably, countries like Canada and Britain are the exceptions.

If NATO’s own don’t take Article V seriously, neither will NATO’s current and future enemies, which leads to an existential question for the 60-year-old alliance: As Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay puts it, “If NATO cannot deter or defeat the real physical threat facing alliance members, and indeed contribute to the building of security for the larger international community, then we have to ask ourselves, what is NATO for?” (Baker)

It would be a grim irony of history if a ragtag gang of stateless terrorists and rootless tribesmen were able to do what the Red Army never even attempted: defeat the NATO alliance in battle.

Expansion and the unexpected

Third, NATO needs to be open and creative about expansion.

While the 2009 NATO summit promised that “NATO’s door will remain open” (NATO 2009b), Russia’s lunge into Georgia has had a chilling effect on expansion plans. The remaining shards of what was once Yugoslavia may join NATO in the coming years, but Georgia and Ukraine—promised in 2008 membership at some unspecified future date—could be on the outside looking in for a while. To be sure, NATO held exercises in Georgia earlier this year, and the United States has signed bilateral charters with both Georgia and Ukraine referencing support for “sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders” (US State Department). But all sides understand that none of this equals a NATO security guarantee.

That doesn’t mean NATO expansion should be put on permanent hold, however. There are other opportunities for partnership and perhaps even expansion.

Once a small club of Western nations clustered near and around the Atlantic Ocean, NATO added West Germany and Turkey in the 1950s. The former was a longtime enemy of most alliance members, the latter an Asian country with Islamic roots. In the 1990s, NATO made room for three former Warsaw Pact members. And in the 2000s, the alliance added seven countries once trapped behind the Iron Curtain, including three former Soviet republics.

NATO now encompasses a wide swath of the northern hemisphere and maintains what it calls “unique” relationships with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea (NATO 2008). One or more of these partnerships may need to grow into something more formal, as NATO leaders suggested during their Bucharest Summit (NATO 2008).

Finally, and most importantly, NATO needs to expect the unexpected. After all, when NATO’s last Strategic Concept was approved, no one envisioned that the alliance would be where it is today. At the time, NATO’s 19 members were concerned about stabilizing post-communist Europe and smothering ethnic wars in the Balkans. Indeed, reading the 1999 Strategic Concept is like sifting through a time capsule. The document focuses on Europe’s “ethnic and religious rivalries,” commits the alliance to “partnership, cooperation, and dialogue with other countries in the Euro-Atlantic area,” and vows to promote “the vision of a Europe whole and free” (NATO 1999).

All of these were legitimate concerns and worthwhile goals, but there was nothing about NATO’s current worries: the Arctic, Africa, Afghanistan and al Qaeda. In fact, terrorism was something of an afterthought, mentioned alongside organized crime and sabotage.

Ten years later, the alliance includes 28 members, enfolds virtually all of Europe and is fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. In the past decade, NATO has deployed aircraft to North America as part of its Article V commitments, formed the basis of an international armada to intercept weapons of mass destruction on the high seas, fought piracy off the Horn of Africa, transported African Union peacekeepers, trained Iraqi soldiers, delivered equipment to Central Asia via Russia, and scrambled to assist a member crippled by cyber-attacks.

Just as these missions were not on NATO’s radar a decade ago, the form and function of tomorrow’s NATO is difficult to predict.

Will the NATO of the next decade be “an expeditionary alliance,” as former President George W. Bush envisioned, stabilizing the world’s trouble spots in order to protect NATO’s core (Bush)? Will it help “combat fear and want wherever they exist,” as President Barack Obama has suggested (Obama)?

Will it be an extension of Washington or of the European Union? Will it become a global gendarme or a mini-UN?

Will it need to carry out military operations in space or cyberspace, airstrikes in Iran or Lebanon, humanitarian interventions in North Korea or Nigeria, peacekeeping missions in Palestine, defensive maneuvers in the Arctic, or airlifts into Tbilisi, Georgia—or, for that matter, Atlanta, Georgia? Or will it retrench, retreat and retract?

The new Strategic Concept may not answer those questions, but it could help determine how tomorrow’s NATO answers them.


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