international analysis and commentary

Globalized NATO or Fortress NATO? The European dilemma


The 2010 NATO Strategic Concept sets an ambitious challenge: to re-orient the alliance’s main effort away from coping with enlargement and towards “active engagement”. The Strategic Concept defines the challenge thus: an alliance “…effective in a changing world, against new threats, with new capabilities and new partners”. This global political and military statement of intent itself implies a new relationship between the protection of peoples and the projection of force in a world markedly different than that described by the euro-centric 1999 Strategic Concept. However, can NATO accept such a challenge?

For most Europeans the most important strategic event in Europe in 2010 was neither November’s NATO Strategic Concept nor the Franco-British Defence Treaty, important though they were. Rather, it was the Irish debt crisis and the threat of financial and economic contagion across the eurozone. Implicit in the Strategic Concept is thus a dilemma; whether to play away or at home. Therefore, if such a challenge has any chance of being met the alliance must balance strategy with affordability, risk with ambition and capability with capacity. Global NATO or fortress NATO?

Certainly some very difficult and clear strategic and political choices will need to be made.  Indeed, as the ink dries on the NATO Strategic Concept four profound questions must be answered.

Question one: Is strategic ambition shared across the alliance? To meet the twin challenges of engagement (for that is the very essence of the Strategic Concept) and austerity, the alliance will need to promote real unity of purpose and effort. The Strategic Concept is clear: NATO is in the business of organizing large military (and increasingly civil) means for large political-stability ends. However, in meeting those challenges a firm grip of reality will be essential. If NATO has indeed adopted (beyond the merely rhetorical) a globalized strategic concept, the alliance by definition has immediately become weaker given its much larger context of operations and responsibilities (collective defense, crisis management, and co-operative security). Effective strategy is always more important for the relatively weak (and relatively poor) than for the relatively strong. Two possible avenues are thus apparent. Either the Strategic Concept leads to a truly strategic alliance built on a shared level of global ambition and girded by unity of effort and purpose. Or, the Strategic Concept is another rhetorical flourish masking weakness without strategy, i.e. without accepting the inevitable risk that comes with ambition.

Question two: Is there a common strategic method? The title “Active Engagement” implies a new balance between protection and projection. Capability, capacity and credibility will thus underpin modernized collective defense, effective crisis management and co-operative security.  However, all will demand a careful balance of investments as part of a strategically-conceived whole. “Modern defence” implies a similar set of challenges and order of magnitude. Indeed, even traditional Article 5 territorial defence – in its contemporary, 21st century version – will require both combined and joint deployable forces, with such capabilities and their supporting and associated capacities becoming the litmus test for effective alliance engagement in a globalized world.

Question three: What role for Europeans? For all the talk of globalized security the world is rather made up of inter-linked security regions. Indeed, the main linkage between those regions is the United States, which remains and will remain the critical enabling and stabilizing factor the world over, in spite of planned cuts in its 2011 defense budget. Therefore, should non-American NATO forces be organized around America’s global role or should Europeans ease the pressure on the Americans by focusing on a regional role? The implications are profound. If the alliance is organized to support the US global role, then force transformation (and in particular Allied Command Transformation – the integrated structure devoted to innovative concepts and procedures), must be seen as the means to ensure that European forces are part of an American-led force concept.  If, on the other hand, Europeans focus on the Northern and European strategic theatres that would require a new force concept, organized as part of a new European pillar within the alliance and along with it the fostering of a European strategic culture. By extension, that would also make much closer relations with the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy an essential element in an efficient and effective European defense effort. At present Europe is trapped in a no man’s land between two very different force concepts with no clear idea apparent in the Strategic Concept as to the balance to be struck between the two.

That is not to suggest that a euro-focus would be an easy option. Indeed, one only has to look at Europe’s neighbourhood to see the challenges: the High North, North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and/or Central Asia. And, of course, the link with US forces would need to be maintained at all costs, in any case. Certainly, the continued presence of American combat brigade teams (in whatever form or number) will be vital for strategic reassurance. However, for such a pillar to be fashioned the key Europeans, such as Britain, France, Germany and Italy, would need to be in agreement over the purpose and structure of such a pillar. If not, there are likely to be two NATOs; one interventionist, the other purely defensive.

Question four: What is the way ahead? Implicit in the Strategic Concept is a balance between strategy, affordability and capability that must necessarily be built on effective interoperability between militaries. This is not just to ensure interoperability with US forces, but also to close the growing intra-European gap, and to ensure that when NATO forces deploy with partners, be they Australian, Japanese or whomsoever, or indeed key civilians under the Comprehensive Approach, coalition force generation and leadership does not mean reinventing the command and control wheel each and every time. Indeed, if there is one strategic “product”, which is the unique selling point of the alliance, it is NATO interoperability standards, particularly those pertaining to command and control. Thus, all NATO strategic and deployable headquarters should be considering how best to enhance that product in light of the Strategic Concept.

Ultimately, the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept will be about money, specifically the relationship between forces and resources. Radical new threats to security, such as cyber-terrorism, energy security and even the consequences of climate change are to some extent germane to the alliance crisis management mission. However, they also pose a danger to alliance cohesion if the relationship between a globalized NATO and a fortress NATO is not understood. In such circumstances new security threats could merely become the latest political alibi to retreat into unauditable security challenges either to mask and justify further cuts in defense budgets or avoid sharing burdens and danger. No alliance (or union) can survive such strategic dissonance over time. Ultimately NATO is a military organization that must think about and prepare for the successful fighting of future wars.

Global NATO or fortress NATO? Until that question is answered, the 2010 Strategic Concept could well remain an ambiguous enigma and a potentially dangerous one.