Where now for NATO?

29 October 2008

Where now for NATO?

NATO has taken enormous pretensions upon itself. It believes itself capable of acting as the world's regional peacekeeping force, of making up for a failing United Nations. That is, at any rate, the official standpoint. In reality the alliance has become an extension of America's policy of intervention.

by Karel Koster and Harry van Bommel

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been transformed. The alliance, established for collective defence, has waged wars: in 1999 against Serbia over Kosovo, and in 2001 in Afghanistan against the Taliban. The latter occurred primarily as part of a predominantly American operation for which support was wrested from allies by an appeal to Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. Modest international involvement later changed to a more complete involvement through extensive participation in the stabilisation mission ISAF, a mission so important to NATO that the outcome of the war even became linked to the alliance's very existence.

In the seventeen years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, NATO's efforts have been entirely redirected. Dutch soldiers no longer guard the German lowlands and the attack-routes to Rotterdam. They are fighting against rebels in the foothills of the Hindu Kush on the other side of the world, in Afghanistan. The wish expressed in 1993 by US Senator Dick Lugar, that NATO should act outside of the alliance's territory, seems to have been fulfilled.i

Recent History

How have things gone this far? The war in Kosovo in 1999, conducted without a mandate from the UN Security Council, was an important, defining moment. But this war against Serbia was the final act of a trend which went much further back, one which saw the alliance acting outside of its old field of operations. Kosovo was the end of a period of ever greater NATO assertiveness in the Balkan Wars. The role of NATO's member states changed during this time, from one of participation in the UN peacekeeping mission to participation in a NATO intervention force with a UN mandate, through which the manner in which political relations would be conducted within the alliance would be determined.

The NATO summit of 1999 formalised these developments: from then onwards, the entire world became NATO's field of operations.ii The leading ally, the US, drew its own conclusions. In view of the brakes put on its own readiness for battle, brought about by what the New York Times called 'war by committee', it was decided that in the future wars would become a matter for 'coalitions of the willing'. As an institution NATO should not be allowed to thwart American plans, although the member states could indeed play a necessary supportive and legitimising role.

The attack on Iraq in 2003 was the first example of such an operation. The Security Council was circumvented and willing NATO allies were invited to take part. The Netherlands stuck formally to political support, although there are indications that military means were also used to the advantage of the American attack. NATO's infrastructure was used in addition for the transport of American troops and material, destined for the invasion of Iraq, through the territory of Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands.

The US operation in Afghanistan, supported by a resolution from the Security Council, went a step further. NATO member states first of all took part in the invasion and then took ever more tasks upon themselves in the context of the asymmetric guerrilla war against the Taliban which followed. During the last five years NATO has also participated in war in the form of the ISAF mission. This and comparable operations have far-reaching consequences for NATO's armies.


The old NATO had a nuclear doctrine, as well as large-scale armies, suitable for the conduct of a conventional Cold War. These armies were somewhat limited in their capacity to conduct wars of intervention in faraway countries. Since 1999, however, there has been an express ambition to act throughout the world. This is the principal reason for the increasingly repeated pleas from NATO spokespeople for the development of the member states' armies into expeditionary forces capable of acting right across the spectrum of violence. Conscript armies must be replaced by professional armies, much more suitable for waging wars of intervention. This does not mean that the old doctrines have been entirely left behind. In keeping with the recent proposals from General Naumann and his co-authors for a ‘grand strategy’ for NATOiii , every sort of war must actually be within the organisation's capabilities to fight. In order to fulfil these new ambitions, NATO must, according to this group of former commanding officers, act throughout the world. In this, it must be prepared if necessary to be the first to attack, with nuclear as well as conventional weapons. In this way international law, in keeping with the growing practice of the government of President Bush, was further abandoned. From now on legitimacy for wars of aggression would be sought on grounds which NATO itself would determine, boiling down, in the end, to a unilateral decision as to what is lawful and what is not.

At this point, however, you hit a problem. The end of the Cold War meant for most countries the end of conscription, but this also gave birth to the idea that the threat of war was something belonging to the past. Many people expected a peace dividend. This had in fact already been paid out to the people of the NATO countries. Apart from occasional terrorist attacks, no-one in NATO territory is faced with the consequences of war.

There is in most NATO countries no support for maintaining conscription when no threat to one's own countries territory exists, Germany and Turkey being the only exceptions. Even the deployment of professional soldiers is linked to borders. Political leaders and the broader society will not accept too great a risk to their own troops. The role of the media in determining the public's view of faraway events and thus their influence on political decision-making is important. This persuaded the Dutch government to invite journalists to accompany the armed forces to the field of conflict on condition that the Ministry of Defence could vet their publications before they appeared. NATO's new ambitions have as their result that a great amount of emphasis lies on the deployment of professional armies and the resort to military-technical solutions. What is important is the army's mobility, the gathering of intelligence, and above all the utilization of fire power, applied at a great distance and with as much precision as possible. These solutions cost a great deal of money and for this reason the Secretary-General of NATO calls almost routinely on the member states to spend a bigger slice of their Gross National Product on the apparatus of war.


The preconditions attached to these ambitions are strongly influenced by the internal politics of the member states and mean that in practice wars are for the most part conducted at a distance. In a conventional war the goal is to destroy or neutralise enemy forces. But in the world that has followed the end of the Cold War it is not conventional wars which prevail, but guerrilla wars.

The new, globalising world consists not only of nation states, but also of regional movements formed by armed insurgents who do not recognise the authority of their own governments or of NATO. The cause of this disintegration of states is of immense importance and is partly to be found in the international economic order which works primarily in the interests of the rich, industrialised world. The cause of the 'failure of states' lies above all in these economic relations, in the relation between rich and poor in the world.

The discussion around security is influenced strongly by the attacks of 9/11 and the 'war on terrorism' but in the search for security it has been predominantly the military approach which has been favoured. The question of how guerrilla war should be fought is central, and this discussion dominates also within NATO. US Secretary of State for Defence Robert Gates reproaches European partners for the fact that their soldiers are not being sufficiently well-trained in the conduct of a conflict such as that in Afghanistan, that European military personnel need extra training.

In a guerrilla war the strategy and the operational doctrine for conventional warfare unsuitable. The central issue is the interaction between one's own soldiers, the insurgents and the public at large. Can a clear distinction be made between one's own troops, insurgents and the civilian population? The concealment of insurgents amongst the civilian population – and sometimes these are the same individuals – has far-reaching consequences for NATO's military doctrine. If traditional tactics such as maximum fire-power from a distance are applied, then casualties among the civilian population are inevitable. The Israeli military strategist Martin van Creveld notes that in a guerrilla war, where a section of the population is on the side of the insurgents, there are two solutions. The first is to switch to mass terror yourself, for example by extensive bombardment of the civilian population in order to spread fear and dread, and exact cooperation. The alternative is to deploy large numbers of soldiers in order to promote intensive interaction with the population. This involves running numerous risks and means that relatively greater numbers of deaths and woundings amongst one's own troops must be accepted. Much discussion in the Netherlands concerns this issue, whether or not to deploy fire-power with air power and artillery and the number of soldiers needed on the ground. In addition, the relation of one's own army to the people and everything which is of importance to them come into play. This concerns matters such as the local economy. In the case of Afghanistan discussion concerns the cultivation of the poppy and how to combat this, the security of people and the local culture and customs, religion and tribal ties. Talk is of winning hearts and minds. The most warlike countries recognise the importance of this. The US army even employs cultural anthropologists as advisers to work alongside fighting units. .

In the Netherlands the 3D concept is much discussed: diplomacy, development and defence. What's meant by 'diplomacy' is the striving to win the support of the people by reaching their hearts and minds. The definition of these concepts is regarded exclusively from the military perspective of counterinsurgency: how can we act 'diplomatically' to win the people's support? Such actions are viewed as part of the operations of the army against the guerrillas. In this way the core of diplomacy, the negotiations between two warring parties with different political goals in order to arrive at a compromise acceptable to both, is undermined.

In a comparable fashion the winning of hearts and minds is seen as part of the military campaign. This interpretation is given expression in the incorporation of aid policy, including the work of aid NGOs, in the counterinsurgency strategy. In Afghanistan, independent NGOs understand this subordination. They fear, and rightly, that cooperation with the military, who are considered self-evident adherents to the counterinsurgency doctrine, is fatal for their relations with the population. This is seen by the NGOs as an extension of the military strategy. In practice it seems obvious to the military that their NGO contacts should be used as sources of information on the guerrillas. From the military standpoint this is completely logical, but from the standpoint of humanitarian organisations it is deadly dangerous. Médécins Sans Frontières left Afghanistan five years ago after the loss of personnel. The 3D and hearts and minds concepts are the application of the principles of counterinsurgent warfare, while being described for home consumption as 'reconstruction'. This concerns the recall of the collective memories of the Dutch army, of its last large-scale counterinsurgency campaign, in the late 1940s, against the independence fighters in the Dutch East Indies.

The domestic counterpart of the military strategy of counterinsurgency is the debate over the reconstruction or, in reality, the construction of Afghan society. The concept of the reconstruction mission was crucial in securing Labour Party (PvdA) support in parliament.

But one theme is lacking in this debate, and that is the question of our own aims, the political goals of the war and those of the enemy.

Crucial question

Every military strategy is in the end determined by political goals. Neither within NATO nor in the Netherlands has any serious debate on these goals been conducted. Instead, all we hear is the constantly repeated formula, 'stabilisation', or 'the war against terrorism.'iv What is crucial is the question of why we maintain NATO. Is it an instrument for the achievement of our foreign policy goals?

What are these goals and who within NATO defines political aims? These are, after all, important for military deployment. Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer wants to defend the oil supply.v That is a very different task from those which would occur to most people when considering the deployment of the armed forces. In everyday practice a 'coalition of the willing' initiates the deployment of NATO armies. Political decision-making is dragged along by military practice, instead of the other way round. In the name of battle-readiness, the Security Council is also circumvented when it comes to deciding to wage war.

A similar path was followed in the recognition of Kosovo's independence, by which the European Union made itself a partner in the undermining of the Security Council. At best, legitimacy through and from the United Nations is accepted, but not that action is dependent on Security Council resolutions and thus on a potential veto from one of the permanent members. NATO is defined as a peacekeeping force.vi This has extremely worrying political consequences. Apart from undermining the international rule of law, such an act could conjure a counter-force of countries which disagree with NATO, such as China, Russia and the non-allied states.

If NATO is trying to define the rules, this means in practice that the most important members of NATO, primarily the US, will be performing this service. The goals desired by NATO turn out, then, to coincide with those of the United States, with support from the 'willing', within which group both the Netherlands and the United Kingdom can be counted. Recent statements from President Sarkozyvii indicate that plans for an EU Defence and Security Policy have been tuned to fit the NATO structure. An important marker for this is the forthcoming return of France to the NATO command structure. If it is left to the Atlanticists, this will be the overture for the creation of a transatlantic power bloc, one capable of intervening throughout the world. NATO as world-wide police force.

The aforementioned former commanding officers around General Nauman are preparing the way for this. Their grand strategy was established at the NATO summit in Bucharest, because it was there that a start was made on the discussion over the future of NATO. The generals describe a grand strategy as "the art of using all elements of power (of either a nation or an alliance of nations) to accomplish
a politically agreed aim".viii Preventative action can consist equally of a series of diplomatic steps or sanctions or of a military attack. On the principle of deterrence they write:

What is needed is a policy of deterrence by proactive denial, in which pre-emption is a form of reaction when a threat is imminent, and prevention is the attempt to regain the initiative in order to end the conflict.ix

And elsewhere: "(This) is a protective and proactive strategy – not a reactive one." In this strategy, nuclear weapons form the cornerstone: "nuclear weapons remain indispensable, and nuclear escalation continues to remain an element of any modern strategy."x

All of this must be achieved by means of the streamlining of NATO's decision-making structure, into which, also, the EU must be integrated. The generals want to take and maintain the initiative in every situation in which western interests are affected. They are for intervention anywhere and everywhere in the world, by an Atlantic alliance that takes only its own goals and interests into account. If such strategic advice were to be adopted as NATO's strategic concept, it would be a carte blanche for permanent war. International law would give way, de facto, to the rule of the strongest.

Atlantic dimension

If you want to talk about improved global security arrangements, you can't avoid the question of redefining NATO and reconsidering the Atlantic dimension. If NATO is no longer the only player in the game, then it needs to recognise the need for a compromise with other players in the rest of the world and to contribute to shaping such a compromise. This requires that the United States – and especially the new President - must realise that his country's interests would in the end be better protected in a broadly-supported global security architecture than through the continuation of a unilateral muscle-flexing policy such as that which took shape under George W. Bush and which has already cost the lives of so many people, including thousands of American soldiers.

It is self-evident that this means that the Security Council must play a central role in any such architecture. The composition of the Security Council must, however, be thoroughly changed, so that it better reflects the multipolar world. If less power is going to be paired with greater security, support for such a development could also be found in the United States. The departure of Bush could hopefully be the beginning of such a development.

Not only large but also small countries should be considering the place that they might occupy in a global security structure. This includes the Netherlands. The all too slavelike tailing after the Americans has landed us in great difficulties, as much because of our support for the illegal invasion of Iraq as with our hopeless military mission in Afghanistan.

We would be well advised to look at how other countries see their place and role and whether we can learn anything from this. In this we are not only thinking of close NATO allies such as Norway, Belgium, Spain or Germany, but of newly leading regional powers like Brazil, South Africa and India. As non-allied countries these play, after all, an essential role in curbing the aspirations to power of the traditional great powers.

Parties which have at one time been opponents of the 'old' NATO can play an important role in working out whether in a new global security structure there is a place for a 'new' NATO in which almost all the old Warsaw Pact members participate. We must not allow the new NATO to become an extension of an aggressive American policy, but rather embed it in a global political-military organisation which actually does serve the interests of a secure and just world order. Under the auspices of such a global security structure, the Dutch military could also be deployed if necessary in operations to prevent war and maintain peace. The military component could then become part of a comprehensive approach, which is, as things stand, the subject only of lip-service. Afghanistan demonstrates where the present misguided approach leads and how necessary it is to see complex problems of this kind in a much broader context and tackle them accordingly. To date the present Dutch government has kept the discussion behind closed doors, frightened that a Pandora's box would be opened should public and parliament join in a conversation about NATO's future.


Fear is a poor advisor. Let us therefore follow the call of De Hoop Scheffer and open a debate on NATO's strategy. Time is pressing. If we want to prevent a situation in which we will soon be presented with a fait accompli, we must get on with such a discussion now, however complicated it may be. This discussion cannot and must not be separated from practice. Afghanistan can be considered a touchstone for NATO's future policy.

For this reason a discussion on the future of NATO is also a discussion of the approach adopted in that country. If goals which are not made explicit played a role in the intervention in Afghanistan, a public debate must be held around this. Nothing is so dangerous as waging a war which can only be conducted on the basis of the maintenance of an artificial unity.

In history, such wars have had negative consequences for the countries conducting them. An honest debate must therefore also be held in the Netherlands on the aims of this war. In 1968 the American writer Norman Mailer asked his government, "why are we in Vietnam?" This same question, in this case about Afghanistan, must now be put to the Dutch government.

Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament and spokesman on defence issues for the SP. Karel Koster works for the SP's research bureau.

This article was first published in Openbaar Bestuur, ("Public Administration"), September 2008


i Senator Richard Lugar, "NATO: Out of Area or Out of Business", Remarks Delivered to the Open Forum of the US State Department, August 2, 1993, Washington, D.C.

ii “Greater numbers of force elements will be available at appropriate levels of readiness to sustain prolonged operations, whether within or beyond Alliance territory, including through rotation of deployed forces.” Par 53 .e; Press Release NAC-S(99)65 24 Apr. 1999 The Alliance's Strategic Concept

iii "Toward a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World: Renewing Transatlantic Partnership”; General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former NATO commander; Admiral Jacques Lanxade, former chief of the Defence Staff of France; General Klaus Naumann, former chief of the Defence Staff of Germany; Field Marshall Peter Inge, former chief of the Defence Staff of Britain; and General Henk van den Breemen, former chief of the Defence Staff of the Netherlands, January 2008

iv According to Premier Jan Peter Balkenende Dutch soldiers are deployed 'in order to combat international terrorism and for the reconstruction of Afghanistan”.( Press Release, General Affairs Ministry, 11-09-2007)

v 'De Hoop Scheffer, "Navo moet olieleidingen bewaken"' ("NATO must protect oil pipelines") Novum/AP 29/06/2007

vi “NATO Peacekeepers Struggle to Quell Violence in Kosovo”; Deutsche Welle 17.03.2008

vii “Sarkozy sets French terms for return to NATO command” Reuters 24 Sept 2007

viii "Toward a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World: Renewing Transatlantic Partnership”, p.91

ix ibid., p.96

x ibid, p.96 & p.97

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