international analysis and commentary

NATO at 60: back to the fundamentals


On April 4, the Atlantic Alliance celebrates its 60th anniversary: it had better be an occasion for reflection as much as for celebration.

NATO’s greatest historic achievement is to have successfully defended the independence of the countries west of the Iron Curtain during the long era of the Cold War without precipitating Europe into a new armed conflict. NATO’s major failure consists in not having fully solved the question of its ‘raison d’être’ after the fading of the Soviet threat. Even 9/11, despite its great symbolic impact and large-scale strategic implications, has failed to provide NATO with a new compass to navigate the 21st century. On the contrary, the Alliance was initially sidelined by the Bush administration which relied instead on ad-hoc ‘coalitions of the willing’ to carry out America’s new strategy, to be then involved at a later stage in an ambitious process of transformation. Such process has significantly expanded NATO’s functions and perimeter of action, but this was done without a prior agreement among member states as to the exact content and direction of this evolution. The case of Afghanistan is highly emblematic in this regard. There, NATO has been engaged since 2003, well beyond the traditional borders of the Euro-Atlantic area, in a mission which, despite its purported peace-building nature, has entailed heavy fighting, and whose final aims – strategic as well as political – remain to date the object of lively debate among allies.

It is in this context of great uncertainty and fluidity that the April summit should be seen as an opportunity to search for new answers. Each one of the current priorities will be dealt with more effectively if the ambition to transform NATO into a truly global security actor will be linked to a  reaffirmation of some of the Alliance’s fundamental functions and its original purpose.

The first priority is, precisely, Afghanistan. The risk here is that NATO might be defeated on the field in the context of an operation that it has been conducting as a direct and legitimate response by the international community as a whole to the terrorist attacks of 2001, through the first ever activation of the Treaty’s Article 5 on ‘collective defense’. The question, therefore, is not whether to stay the course in the face of the current spiral of violence, but what exact strategy to adopt to avoid military defeat, and what political and strategic criteria to use to eventually declare mission accomplished. The most promising course seems to involve following up on the recommendations contained in the strategic review recently conducted by the US government on the subject. However, the commitment to a renewed military effort should be linked to the fundamental but limited goal of neutralizing the terrorist groups connected to the Al Qaeda network. This may imply intensifying NATO’s cooperation with some of Afghanistan’s neighbors, such as Pakistan, and to consider an extension of its operations to border areas, provided that these are previously discussed and agreed with the interested parties. Such an approach will help focus the Alliance’s mission on the objective of countering a direct threat to the security of its members, as other and more ambitious plans ought to be dismissed as unnecessary or risky distractions from the legitimate and very practical goal of eradicating terrorist groups. It is one thing for NATO to carry out military operations outside the traditional perimeter of the Euro-Atlantic area to uphold international law and defend the security of the democratic world; it is quite another to transform NATO into an alliance which tries to reshape societies and export the Western model.

The second priority has to do with the adoption of a new Strategic Concept, to update the current document which dates back to 1999. Many complained after 9/11 about NATO’s failure to come up with a new strategic synthesis to incorporate such a dramatic paradigm shift, but this delay may now turn out to be, in fact, an asset. The eight years since 2001 should indeed allow NATO members to discern with greater clarity the true elements of change in the international system in the new century, and to put in historical perspective the significance of international terrorism compared to other threats. If the evolution of NATO into a security organization able to project its power globally seems in many ways almost an inevitable process, as it takes places in the context of an increasingly interdependent world, t it is less obvious today than it looked like soon after 9/11 that this has to happen through a ‘globalization’ of NATO dictated by the requirements and logics of the ‘global war on terror’ – an ideological and strategic perspective which several of NATO’s European members never fully accepted and which seems to have been discredited by the military and diplomatic failures of the past years. This does not mean that NATO ought to downgrade the fight against terrorism within the list of its security priorities. The case of Afghanistan suggests, in fact, that the opposite will be the case. What it does mean, rather, is that greater detachment from 9/11 and growing disenchantment with the paradigm of the ‘war on terror’, may help NATO place the terrorist challenge within the larger context and the longer tradition of Western security.

The third priority involves defining NATO’s role in Europe, starting with the issue of its borders to the East and its relationship with the European Union. In this case, the ongoing honeymoon between the new US administration and Europe may, of course, ease the task. In order for these questions to be fully and effectively dealt with, however, some notions regarding NATO’s original mission and purpose ought to be re-appreciated in their current meaning and relevance.

Among the concepts to be reaffirmed, there stands out the notion that NATO keeps its door open to those European countries that are politically stable, at peace with their neighbors and, more critically, that are willing to subscribe to the political principles and accept the international responsibilities which come with membership. The recent tensions erupted between NATO and Russia, therefore, shall not lead NATO to conclude that further enlargement to the East can become the object of bargain or negotiation, for the objective has never been the ‘encirclement’ of Russia. Rather, it has been the expansion of the area of peace and stability in Europe, a development which Moscow too should welcome and support. The decision to delay the entry of countries such as Ukraine and Georgia in the Alliance should rather be based on practical considerations about their internal conditions and external relations: growing political instability domestically and unsettled  external controversies. As a general rule, therefore, NATO’s further enlargement should be evaluated on its own merit, by determining carefully whether candidates meet the criteria for membership, and whether the Alliance has the means to carry out new obligations.

As for the relationship with the EU, the notion to be re-appreciated is that between Atlantic integration and European unification there has been since the very beginning a close, although complex, relationship. NATO was not created to weaken Europe but, on the contrary, to ensure that its recovery after World War II would take place in a context of cooperation and by overcoming the ‘balance of power’. While it is understandable, and certainly legitimate, that the new united Europe now engages with the US in a competition for primacy and influence in world affairs, it is instead dangerous to suggest that this may happen through the reintroduction of a balance of power – this time no longer along the Rhine but across the Atlantic. The idea underpinning Western liberal internationalism since the times of Woodrow Wilson has been to create a ‘community of power’ among the democratic nations.

Thus, Europe’s power ambition would be best served by the willingness and readiness on the part of the European governments to invest new resources of their own also in the transatlantic project so as to determine directly its content and scope, instead of leaving the initiative and leadership to the US. President Sarkozy’s decision to bring France back into NATO’s military command after De Gaulle’s anti-Atlanticist turn in the 1960s is a positive sign. Indeed, it is only by rediscovering its history and by moving beyond the various controversies that have torn its past that NATO can give shape and content to its future.