NATO in a Changing World – Outdated Organisation or Indispensable Alliance?

April 2, 2009
By Cameron Abadi

NATO Conference, March 6/7, 2009
A report by Cameron Abadi


Ralf Fücks set the stage for the conference by outlining the dramatic changes in geopolitics since 1999, the year that NATO’s current strategic concept was drafted. Fücks argued that the major global problems now on the West’s agenda – Afghanistan, climate change and nuclear disarmament, among them – couldn’t be solved through purely military means. The purpose of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s NATO conference would be to contribute new ideas to the upcoming re-evaluation of NATO’s mission and explore what sort of contributions NATO should be expected to make to future global security.

Keynote Address, Jürgen Trittin
Does NATO Have a Future?

Jürgen Trittin suggested that we should, while acknowledging NATO’s achievements, resist the impulse to develop new, broad visions for NATO. Rather, Europe should acknowledge its own independent interests. This might make discussions with the United States more uncomfortable. But, the transatlantic relationship wouldn’t be damaged through honest exchanges.

To answer what NATO can become, Trittin argued that one must examine what it was designed to be – namely, a military alliance against the communist threat in Eastern Europe, an organisation of military character focused against a concrete risk. But, military means are not sufficient to counteract today’s global challenges, like climate change, nuclear disarmament and international terrorism. NATO wants to expand its mission to include “networked security” and civil-military partnerships, but its core competence is still purely military. Indeed, no other country can militarily compete with NATO.

Nonetheless, Trittin cautions, NATO might fail in its Afghanistan mission – but, if it does, the military alliance should not be held responsible. NATO was never suited for tasks, like state-building in Afghanistan, that are essentially civilian. The same goes for problems that have political solutions: Iran’s nuclear program or Eastern Europe’s tense relationship with Russia.

EU has become a confident player alongside NATO in all these issues. Europe must develop its capacity to act independently in security and defence policy, not least because it is more capable than NATO of practicing civilian-military co-operation. But, a precondition would be Europe’s better coordination of its foreign and security policy. There have already been successes: the EU currently has 16 current foreign security operations, 13 of them with a military component. As a whole, these missions show that the EU is a more efficient security guarantor than NATO. But, the EU desperately needs to expand its capabilities.

This would not mean a militarisation of the EU: its strength will remain its “soft power.” But, it needs to take more responsibility in issues involving the co-operation of civilian and military resources. The EU’s goal would not be to distance itself from the United States. Rather, Europe would focus on assuming more responsibility.

Nonetheless, there is real competition between NATO and EU. Europe must decide how to use its limited resources – will EU or NATO missions be prioritised? There is much to speak for strengthening EU military and security policy, Trittin said, not least the fact that is respected internationally for its democratic basis and legitimacy.

But, NATO could also afford some major revisions. Firstly, the alliance should be expanded to include Russia, realizing Ronald Reagan’s vision of security from “Vancouver to Vladivostok.” And NATO should more narrowly concentrate on its core competence: collective security and transatlantic relations. In that way, NATO’s goal could one day be “to keep the Americans in, to keep the Russians in and to keep the weapons down.”

Strategic Dialogue I
Wanted: A New Vision for NATO

Jamie Shea remarked that it’s a good thing that NATO is constantly changing. By doing so, it’s keeping up with the evolution of the world. But, there’s no need to change NATO’s principles. Firstly, NATO will continue to enlarge to include those countries that want to join, so long as they are in Europe. But, NATO also has to secure European security by deploying in other regions of the world. To that end, there is also a new emphasis in NATO on building bridges to other countries through partnerships, i.e.: the African Union requests assistance regularly, Qatar is the home of air defence systems in Afghanistan, the NATO-Russia council has again convened, etc.

Moreover, the alliance needs to make sure its military capability and doctrine are sufficient for the missions: this is becoming a serious issue in Afghanistan. Generally, Shea suggested, there’s a basic difference between the strategic concept of 1999 and the one we need today. NATO has to place a greater emphasis on networking both with other organisations and between the member countries so that it can acquire all the necessary resources for its operations. Finally, Shea pointed out that there’s a general understanding and acceptance that Europe will play a bigger role. Indeed, America would welcome such a development because it would make more resources available to allies.

Jürgen Trittin suggested that it’s important to ask oneself about the pros and cons of NATO having a global mission. He wondered whether the West would not better pursue its peacekeeping missions through the United Nations.

In response, Shea outlined three preconditions for all NATO operations: American participation; emphasis on military capabilities rather than civilian capabilities; some kind of UN mandate and acceptance from local government. In general, Shea argued that NATO should be used for as little time as possible. But, in order for that to be effective, regional organisations and the UN need to be made more effective.

In discussing Afghanistan, Trittin emphasised that the American-led Operation Enduring Freedom is hindering the progress of NATO’s ISAF mission. Shea and Trittin both agreed that there needed to be more commitment from NATO in its training and preparation of Afghan police forces. In discussing NATO’s institutional troubles, Trittin emphasised the divergence of interests between Europe and America. Shea responded with a reminder that there are a host of inconsistencies between all of NATO’s member states that need to be constantly managed.

Panel 1
Russia and NATO: Confrontation or Security Partnership?

Marieluise Beck cautioned against the expectation that relations with Russia will change overnight simply because of the recent presidential election in America. Instead, she suggests looking back at Russia’s rocky history with NATO since 1990. Vladimir Putin has especially governed with the assumption that NATO is Russia’s strategic enemy. Putin’s aggressive foreign policy has been defined in opposition to the country’s policies of the 1990s, when former spheres of influence joined the enemy alliance. Putin has tried to change Russia’s reputation and he has succeeded; NATO must now consider Russia’s viewpoint.

According to Przemyslaw Grudzinski, we are now beginning a new chapter in relations between Russia and Europe. NATO has to be ambitious, but also pragmatic, avoiding a return to the Cold War, but also moving past the temporary solutions of the last 20 years. Relations with Russia should be built gradually, beginning with a clear and modest focus on mutual interests. We should measure progress modestly: consistent talks and contacts would already improve the current deficit of understanding and trust between the EU/NATO and Russia. This sort of progress would not be hindered by Russia, nor would Poland stand in the way for the sake of historic grievances.

Dmitri Trenin emphasised that the principle security problem in Europe is Russia’s not being integrated into a Euro-Atlantic security system. NATO and the EU are not sufficient to ensure the continent’s security and prosperity. NATO’s eastern enlargement has already its safe limits; it may go forward, but it wouldn’t be security-building; it would mostly succeed at upsetting Russia.

Beck suggested that Russia, under Putin, cannot be counted on to keep its word. She points to the contradiction between Moscow’s avowed support of NATO’s Afghanistan mission, and its pressuring of Kyrgyzstan to close the military air base that the alliance relies on. After a humbling, inward-looking period in the 1990s, Putin has made the pursuit of national strength his first concern. This was evident in his handling of the continuing situation in Kosovo, but especially in his speech at the Munich security conference where he suggested there might be another Cold War.

Trenin agrees that Russia’s ambitions have changed, but reminds the audience that Russia desperately wanted to be integrated to the security alliance in the 1990s, but the West thought that Russia was irrelevant. Even Putin showed interest in a respectful security partnership, but was rebuffed. Since 2005, there has been a clear turn in Russia towards a go-it-alone great-power stance. Putin thinks the world is about competition as a prelude to co-operation. He will only co-operate on the basis of reciprocal interests and with a show of respect and equality. Obama has already shown a greater willingness to solicit Russia’s considerations.

Strategic Dialogue II
Europe and the United States: An (In)dispensable Alliance?

For Claudia Roth, the connection between the United States and Europe is deeply established. America is the country from which Europe imported great swathes of popular culture and political style after World War II. But, Roth emphasised that transatlantic solidarity is not “unlimited,” as Gerhard Schröder suggested after the terror attacks of September 11. Instead, the partnership should be based on issues. According to Roth, the current issues most urgently requiring partnership are: climate change; reform of financial markets; the food crisis; and protection of human rights.

Daniel Hamilton argued that the present moment offers a chance to reform NATO. He also disputed claims that the alliance has lost its relevance. NATO, Hamilton said, is the bearer of the acquis atlantique – the norms, values, treaties and procedures that bind Europe and America. Furthermore, it’s the NATO alliance that makes other and larger global coalitions possible: the NATO allies are indispensable, but insufficient partners. Europe should also not underestimate the new threats it faces, Hamilton said, and those threats require that NATO reform itself.

Claudia Roth thought that Europe has failed to present a more unified set of foreign policies: why, she wondered, do European countries compete with another when dealing with the United States rather than together send a single EU representative? The EU should focus on its core strengths: “soft power” and dialogue.

Hamilton reminded that NATO was formed with more than one goal in mind. In addition to protecting against the communist threat, it was also meant to strengthen transatlantic ties and to prevent the nationalisation of European security policy. But, NATO’s reform will have to make clear what role the alliance plays “at home.” Indeed, the alliance should distinguish between “home” and ‘away” missions and develop strategies and institutional structures for each.

Workshop 1
Civilian-Military Strategies: The Test Case of Afghanistan

Afifa Azim claimed that women play a stronger role in today’s Afghanistan compared to earlier years. But, Azim suggests that while the voices of Afghan women are heard by the international community, little effective action is taking place on their behalf. There is often little coordination between international projects and local Afghan projects. As a result, international aid agencies create projects without proper evaluation of local needs and these projects often duplicate existing projects carried out at the grassroots level. Furthermore, Azim said, local organisations that offer their local expertise are often ignored. Azim also argued that foreign advocacy groups could play an important role in ensuring that women stay involved in reconstruction efforts.
Ralf Schnurr described in detail how the German military forces in Afghanistan pursue reconstruction in close coordination with Afghan authorities, local projects and international aid organisations. Schnurr stressed that civilian operations are one of the tools used in Afghanistan to promote peace: indeed, military means alone cannot succeed stabilisation and reconstruction, Schnurr emphasised. Nonetheless, military engagement establishes the security that is a necessary condition for civilian reconstruction. Nonetheless, Schnurr believes that specifically civilian engagement -- particularly provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) with civilian leadership -- deserves more media attention. The military, including Germany and NATO, could do a better job promoting its reconstruction successes.
Ejaz Haider emphasised that there can be no success in stabilizing and reconstructing Afghanistan without understanding the local customs and traditions. The central government in Afghanistan never extended its control over Pashtun tribal areas. Pashtun tribes have a perception of the state as a distant broker of local interests. In Pakistan’s federally administered tribal areas, the state had made special arrangements with tribal leaders, under which the state promised non-intervention and tribal leaders, in return, guaranteed the maintenance of order. Arrangements between the state and the tribal leaders were generally based on revaj, the system of local customs and traditions. In general, tribal communities see themselves as autonomous and resent state intervention as intrusion. For instance, ideas promoted by the former communist government, including promoting women’s rights, were never well received by the Pashtun tribes.

Workshop 2
ESDP and NATO: Competition or Division of Labour?

According to Nick Witney, the division of labour between ESDP and NATO happens on a case-by-case basis. Experience has shown that policy makers need not worry about duplication and waste of resources. In fact, Witney argued, the organisations have proven that they are complementary and can mutually reinforce one another. Ultimately, though, it’s the member states that matter: NATO and ESDP are both just tools to pursue the members’ interests. ESDP and NATO will both continue evolving with time and we should exercise patiently.

From the perspective of the Czech Republic, according to Sadi Shanaah, only America can provide plausible security guarantees – Europe and Russia both have a history of betraying their promises. Thus, there’s great support for NATO membership among Czechs, Shanaah said. Similarly, there’s support for the proposed missile defence system because of its implied strengthened relationship with the United States. Czechs are well aware that America has by far the largest defence budget in the world.

Reinhard Bütikofer cautioned against seeking joint decisions between NATO and EU defence policy. These are not the sorts of “better conversations” that we should seek. There is a limit to the capacity for unanimity: Europe has its own unique perspective. Moreover, ESDP does not try to shoulder the burden of maintaining the core security of the European continent, Bütikofer said: that should still be NATO’s responsibility for the foreseeable future. Bütikofer also emphasised the need for ESDP to co-operate with NATO to define regional priorities: North Africa, the Arctic, Central Asia, etc. Finally, Bütikofer suggested that the organisations also co-operate in increasing the efficiency of global governance.

Workshop 3
Is NATO Ready for Disarmament?

Oliver Thränert highlighted the current initiatives by elder statesmen on both sides of the Atlantic to restart new efforts for nuclear disarmament, as well as the interest shown by the presidents of Russia and America to consider negotiating the reduction of their nuclear stockpiles. Both of these developments are based on the recognition that only the large nuclear powers can give the necessary credibility to efforts to prevent large-scale proliferation in regions such as the Middle East and Asia. A failure of the review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2010 and a complete breakdown of the regime could only be avoided if the major nuclear powers show serious efforts of renewed disarmament themselves. Talking about nuclear disarmament and arms control also helps solving differences on the missile defence shield and the crisis around Iran’s nuclear program.

Ulrike Guérot questioned how realistic a “Global Zero” approach actually is, even though she acknowledged that it might be important as a vision. She underlined that the West does not just need to keep its credibility but rather has to regain it. Guérot was sceptical that France would soon be ready to give up its nuclear arsenal. France’s return into the full NATO architecture was rather a sign to increase its role in international security structures, partly in realisation that the progress of the European Security and Defence Policy had been stalled.

Thränert and Guérot intensively debated the remaining chances of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb. While Guérot was rather pessimistic about the international efforts, Thränert stressed that avoiding an Iranian nuclear bomb was essential to keep the current nuclear order from slipping into anarchy. Iran, in contrast to North Korea, is the first NPT member state that is threatening a breach of the treaty by pursuing a path to nuclear weapons.

Workshop 4
Can NATO Play a Role in the Middle East?

Mark Heller admits that in the wake of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, Israel will need to make changes in its security policy, including the possibility of joining NATO to acquire additional nuclear deterrence. But, Israel may feel compelled to pre-emptively strike Iran to prevent that from coming to pass. In any case, Heller says, NATO may have a role to play in resolving the conflict between Israel and Palestine. For Israel, the formulation “land for peace” is no longer coherent, because “territory is itself a security issue for Israel”; thus, Israel may prepare to withdraw from land before it has achieved a substantive peace agreement, in which case a neutral military force would have to take over ceded land. NATO would be the ideal candidate, because it has access to substantial resources and could earn the confidence of both Israel and Palestine, in addition to the UN.

Kerstin Müller insisted that Israel should focus on achieving a ceasefire before contemplating future military arrangements. The problems between Israel and Palestine are essentially political, she said; NATO shouldn’t be expected to play much of a role, because it is a military alliance and it is liable to escalate the conflict. Perhaps NATO could play a role as peacekeepers, but in that case, a political solution would already have to be on the table. Right now, though, the Mid-East Quartet is the more relevant international actor. Müller was also not optimistic about the prospect of Israel joining NATO. She reminded the audience that states are not eligible to join NATO if their own boundaries are in dispute.

Heller countered that the world should be prepared to pursue new options rather than repeat what has been tried again and again during the last 40 years. Indeed, Israel and Palestine should consider more creative solutions to their conflicts; Israel may never be able to afford evacuating its settlements – Israeli politicians won’t tempt a civil war for the sake of a “dubious peace” with Palestine. Israel should explore, then, the possibility of Jewish settlers eventually living in a Palestinian state under Palestinian law. Müller, by contrast, had more confidence in the current path than in radical new options. Indeed, the international community already recognises the pre-1967 borders; it would be difficult to revise that recognition.

Concluding Panel
The Future of NATO in a Plural World Order

Karsten Voigt insists that there are clear reasons why Germany should enthusiastically maintain its participation in NATO. First, the alliance binds Germany to its most important ally, America. Secondly, alliances like NATO are the precondition for effective international co-operation. Thirdly, NATO prevents the nationalisation of European security policy and allows European countries to use their resources for common purposes rather than against one another. In this way, the anti-NATO movement is objectively nationalist and right-wing.

Jeremy Shapiro cautioned against fetishising NATO, reminding the audience that the alliance is simply a tool intended to serve its members’ interests. Indeed, the member states can shape NATO to suit their needs. In that way, the West already has the NATO that it wants and deserves. The problems that are evident in the Afghanistan mission are political, not technical. Incoherence reflects differences over goals and priorities, and it won’t be corrected unless the member states think their interests are not being served.

Sherri Goodman suggested that NATO turn its attention to the effects of climate change. Global warming will change migration patterns, weather patterns and shipping routes. The international community can try to mitigate some of the effects and minimise the catastrophe, but everyone will have to adapt. Goodman argued that the U.S. military, which is the country’s single largest consumer of energy, could be a leader in encouraging the use of clean energy and green technology.

Alexander Bonde emphasised that NATO fulfils important functions of both a military and a political nature and that nation states should keep that efficiency in mind when considering which security measures they prioritise in their budgets. Indeed, the NATO alliance plays a similarly efficient role in defence budgeting: no single European country on its own could afford the AWAC systems to which they gain access through NATO. Furthermore, NATO plays an important function today also in providing legitimacy for western defence missions. Going forward, Europe will have to decide whether its limited financial resources for defence and security should continue being spent on NATO, or whether it should give increased attention to the United Nations or to common European security measures.

Voigt encouraged Europe to pursue greater independent military capability, but said that the EU should acknowledge that it will never have the military power of the United States. Europe could perhaps most fruitfully pursue greater civilian-military co-operation. Shapiro agreed; NATO’s civilian capabilities have been the greatest failure in Afghanistan. Goodman pointed out one of the reasons that the United States lags in it state-building capabilities: politically, it’s much easier to get funding for military operations. Alexander Bonde pointed out that there’s a pernicious ideological split in Europe between military and civilian state-building capabilities that prevents effective co-operation between the two.

Shapiro acknowledged that Americans also started off badly at integrating military and civilian capabilities in Afghanistan. They’ve gotten better, while Europeans have still lagged. The results have damaged the alliance, because Americans are beginning to wonder whether Europe can do the comprehensive approach. Voigt said a first step for Europe would be to contribute more troops to Afghanistan – not least, because that would require fewer air strikes that are morally and strategically indefensible. Goodman added that NATO as a whole should support the “responsibility to protect” doctrine by pursuing capabilities to intervene in pre-conflict situations before they degenerate.