NATO: the default security provider of Europe

Παρασκευή, 08 Οκτωβρίου 2010 10:29
At their meeting in Lisbon next month, NATO leaders are expected to adopt a text setting forth the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept. Coming twenty years after the end of the Cold War, this exercise is bound to rekindle in the West the wider public debate over NATO’s relevancy in the new international environment.
With one line of reasoning citing the absence of a major threat against the Euro-Atlantic area after the collapse of the Soviet empire as proof that NATO has outlived its usefulness; and, on the other hand, with a significant number of thoughtful people refusing to envisage the demise of arguably the most successful alliance in history – and one which, if left to expire, could prove very difficult to resuscitate in time of need.
Unsurprisingly, the report on the new Strategic Concept, that the group of experts led by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright submitted last May to NATO’s Secretary General – a document intended to lay the groundwork for Mr. Rasmussen’s personal report to the Lisbon Summit – reflects the latter school of thought. Following in the footsteps of a number of revisions of the Alliance’s strategic thinking carried out over the last two decades, it justifies the continued existence of NATO by briefly evoking – and reaffirming – its “core commitment” to collective defense, but, at the same time, by placing the main emphasis on its role in countering the so called “new threats”: the instability in post-Soviet Eastern and Balkan Europe; and – in view of the relative success of the Alliance’s stabilizing efforts on the European continent – primarily the hostile, “unconventional” activities of states, as well as of non-state actors, beyond Europe.
This upbeat approach to NATO’s mission in the 21st century is probably well-advised, if the Alliance is to retain – or regain – the support of an often skeptical or simply indifferent public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. But, in a way, it glosses over the fundamental reasons for NATO’s durability and efficacy, while overstating its global reach.
Lord Ismay once famously quipped that NATO’s purpose was "to keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” Of the three objectives set by the Alliance’s first Secretary General, the third has clearly lost its relevance. Far from justifying the concerns of yesteryear, today’s Germany is militarily weak; and peace-minded almost to the point of being alarmingly pacifist.
Russia, however, is a different matter. Despite its reduced geopolitical circumstances, it remains a nuclear super-power, with a conventional potential far surpassing that of any other European country; with vast natural resources; with a demographic mass almost double the population of the most populous EU member; and politically unpredictable. And given this troubling uncertainty, for the rest expressly recognized by the report – it urges the Allies, while pursuing cooperation with Moscow, to guard “against the possibility that Russia could decide to move in a more adversarial direction” – it is clearly imperative to continue “to keep the Americans in”.
The point being that, reduced to its bare bones, NATO is simply the embodiment of America’s commitment to European security; and that, in the absence of a credible EU defensive capability, this institutionalized security guarantee is still of vital importance to the nations of Europe. Perhaps understandably, the report shies away from fully stating these facts. Just as, it should be noted in passing, it fails to mention the decisive contribution of the US presence to the NATO decision making process; although, in truth , were it not for the uncontested American leadership, the rule of unanimity would have led to a paralysis redolent of the European Union – in which dissension among member states results, too often, in inaction.
The ability of the US to lead has, however, its limits. NATO operations outside Europe remain highly controversial and therefore problematical – despite the optimistic tack taken by the report. The Afghan case, cited by the group of experts as a harbinger of things to come, is the only large-scale mission the Alliance has ever undertaken beyond European soil; and, however it turns out – it will be the other main agenda item in Lisbon – if one judges from the public statements, and above all from the actual contributions of the European allies, it will probably be the last for a long time to come. To use a well-worn expression, NATO will not become the world policeman. In carrying out its inescapable mission as holder of the balance of power across the globe, Washington will have to rely on a number of regional strategic partners – international organizations, as well as individual states – among which the Atlantic Alliance will be but one; albeit hopefully a particularly valued one.
Coping with developments abroad that have a direct bearing on European security – such as the Iranian nuclear program – by implementing appropriate defensive measures – such as a system of missile defence – falls well within NATO’s generally agreed remit. (Although, in the case specifically mentioned, the real danger is less that the Ayatollahs would risk attacking an Alliance member with nuclear weapons, than that, under the protection of their nuclear deterrent, they would feel free to pursue more aggressive regional policies, detrimental to Western interests.) In the light, however, of the general state of affairs in Europe – and notwithstanding the report’s hopeful speculation around NATO’s future wider role – it is unrealistic to expect that, any time soon, European governments will be willing, or, even more pertinently, able, to contribute significant amounts of hard power to Afghan- or Iraqi-type undertakings. A conclusion corroborated, among others, by the following comment of UPI’s Martin Walker on the military posture of the United Kingdom – by all accounts the most outward-looking and defence-minded European country: “Britain’s new coalition government is agonizing over plans to slash defence spending by a quarter, dismaying its American ally and turning a once leading military power into just another semi-pacifist European state.”
NATO will, no doubt, continue to play a geographically limited, but vital role, serving essentially as the default provider of security to a militarily weak Europe, in an age whose hallmarks are the rise of potentially hostile powers beyond the Western world and geopolitical flux.

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