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NATO's Strategy - a Pre-Summit Assessment

  • 17 Nov. 2010
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  • Last updated: 10 Oct. 2017 13:26

In the light of the upcoming Lisbon Summit we propose an assessment written by the Director of the NATO Defense College Research Division, Dr Karl-Heinz KAMP.

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- There will be disappointment when NATO publishes its new strategy at the Lisbon Summit later this week. “Way too general and nothing new in it” will be the verdict of op-ed columnists. Shall these few pages really be the blueprint for NATO’s role in the 21st century?

NATO’s new Strategic Concept - much ado about nothing? Not really! The Alliance has evolved this document in a long, open and transparent process, involving diplomats, the military, experts, journalists and the public. This was an intricate and time consuming process and some NATO wonks quipped that this was not the right way to build consensus. Their concern was that the entire process would end up in endless debates.

You know what? That was exactly the purpose! In the recent years, NATO was too focused on its ongoing operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere and had lost sight of its raison d’être. Since an agreement on these basics of the Alliance cannot be directed from the top, NATO needed an intense debate among all members about its future role in a changed security environment. In that sense, the process towards the strategy was at least as important as the document itself. Even if the new strategy is somewhat generic, NATO found clarity in at least ten points although some of the substance can only be found between the lines:

First, NATO is a political-military defense alliance with Article 5 of the Washington treaty - the mutual defense commitment - being the core. This is not new but sometimes had been forgotten. NATO’s Eastern members reminded their allies of these basics of solidarity and mutual assurance.

Second, NATO’s defense mission does not exclude a close and trustful partnership with Russia - however not at the expense of the security of all NATO countries. Cooperation with Russia and reassurance from Russia is not a contradiction. Only if all 28 NATO members feel reassured is a true partnership possible.

Third, NATO’s defends three things: its territory, the people living there and the vital interests of the members. NATO’s defense function is primarily directed to armed attacks or threats like 9/11, where terrorists used civil aircraft as weapons to cause mass casualties.

Fourth, there are a numerous risks like cyber attacks or energy crises which can become vital threats. However, since they hardly have a direct military dimension, NATO might only have a supportive role in dealing with them. In such a case, though, NATO must function as the key forum for transatlantic consultations on who is doing what – as stipulated in Article 4 of the Washington Treaty.

Fifth and also a “no brainer” is the insight that today’s security challenges and crisis management operations require a combination of military and non-military efforts. However, it is easy to request such a “comprehensive approach” in papers and speeches but it is much more difficult to make it work on the ground, where civil and military actors sometimes just don’t want to cooperate. And even if they want to cooperate, figuring out how to integrate their efforts can be problematic.

Sixth, to say that NATO needs partnerships states the obvious. Equally important is that NATO needs close partnerships with politically likeminded countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and others. They are not only contributing to NATO’s mission, they also share NATO’s values. Thus, they need to be included in NATO decision shaping processes as far as possible.

Seventh, notwithstanding its global activities, NATO is not a global institution and definitively not a world policeman or a global-cop. Instead, it is a regional institution which needs to take a global perspective given the realities of the 21st century.

Eighth, if nuclear weapons remain a factor in international relations, nuclear deterrence remains relevant. Contrary to some popular views, the ultimate purpose of nuclear weapons is not to be scrapped. Instead, the function of nuclear weapons - like all other weapons - is to provide security. In cases where they don’t serve this purpose - and with respect to NATO’s nuclear weapons in Europe doubts are justified - they might be withdrawn and dismantled. Before scrapping, however, all NATO members have to agree upon how to provide sufficient deterrence without them.

Ninth, the toolbox of security does not only contain diplomacy, arms control, deterrence and defense, but also protection from incoming ballistic missiles. Missile defense has always been contentious - some saw it as a blessing, some as a curse. The fact is that the interception of missiles is possible and can save lives. Thus Missile Defense is a task for the entire Alliance.

Tenth, NATO was always quick in announcing an adaptation of its structures and decision making processes but it was slow in implementing it. Some of its procedures are still based on the situation of the Cold War. It was just too alluring for NATO members to push for prestigious positions, command posts or a strong representation in committees and agencies regardless of actual requirements. The coming dramatic cuts in all NATO defense budgets will be a catalyst for a change that is long overdue.

So, what’s the conclusion? All problems solved? Of course not! This is hardly possible in an Alliance of 28 members with different histories, geographies, and cultures. At least NATO has dared to admit that there are different interests in NATO which have to be harmonized time and again. Therefore, the new strategy is not the end of a debate but rather the beginning. Topics like arms control, missile defense or nuclear deterrence have to be further elaborated in the coming months and years. This will not always be harmonious but might lead to disputes and heavy arguments. As a result, there will be those who depict a transatlantic divorce or the end of NATO. However, the explanation for coming arguments is much simpler: NATO is more than Afghanistan and remains a pretty agile and lively institution. -

NDC Public Affairs Office

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