Is NATO ready for change?

13 October 2009

Is NATO ready for change?

by Harry van Bommel and Karel Koster

During the NATO summit at the beginning of April the heads of government of the member states accepted the Declaration on Alliance Security [1]. In doing so they recognised the need for a fundamental discussion on the alliance’s future course.

Early in July this discussion was officially launched. A month earlier the Dutch government asked the official Adviesraad Internationale Vraagstukken (AIV – Advisory Council on International Problems) to draw up an advisory note on the revision of NATO’s Strategic Concept. The necessary debate has thus in the meantime been conducted by experts gathered in seminars and symposia, but it is imperative that it be broadened. For the sake of the legitimacy of NATO’s actions, after all, public support is necessary. An alliance that wages war across the world without such support will soon find itself constrained by political limitations. Besides, the debate should not restrict itself to subordinate matters such as the size of the member states’ financial contributions or a fairer division of costs. It is clear that NATO’s mission, the Strategic Concept and therefore also the alliance’s political principles should take be central to any discussion. As far as that is concerned, the declaration adopted in Strasbourg carries far too strong a whiff of the continuation of existing practice. Dwindling enthusiasm for participation in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan and the mission’s dubious expectations for the future indicate that this discussion cannot be put off any longer .

Out of area

The ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) operation in Afghanistan, carried out by NATO and its allies under a UN mandate, is seen by former Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as a matter concerning European security [2]. Defining the political goals of this war in this way threatens to become a classic self-fulfilling prophesy. A war to improve European security must after all be continued until this goal is achieved.

There is however, a possible alternative: the realisation of a negotiated peace and the withdrawal of NATO armed forces from Afghanistan. Unfortunately the alliance finds itself entangled in a war without end, one in which no victory is possible. The continuing effort to find a military solution – the creation of a ‘safe’ environment as a precondition for reconstruction – makes the necessary transition to negotiations towards a peaceful withdrawal difficult. All hopes are invested in an Afghan army and police force which must take the place of the NATO armed forces, but this development is subject to no deadline. A possible withdrawal can be postponed indefinitely on the grounds that the Afghan army is not capable of guaranteeing security.

Such a scenario, in which NATO forces can operate far beyond NATO territory, can be continually repeated in the future should the alliance decide that its member states’ vital interests are at stake and that it is prepared to bypass the need for international approval via a UN mandate, as happened in Kosovo in 1999. In the case of the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003 by the US and a number of NATO member states, indirect support was given by making the NATO infrastructure available for the transfer of American troops on their way to the Gulf. The Netherlands gave political support to the invasion and did this on the basis of an incorrect analysis of the threat presented by Iraq.

More recently an agreement to work more closely together was signed in September 2008 by the Secretary General of the UN and his NATO counterpart. This to the great dismay of Russia, which sent a powerfully-worded protest because the agreement was not presented to her. The suspicion is understandable when one considers that such agreements could undermine the decision-making procedures of the Security Council in matters of war and peace [3].

NATO enlargement

A particularly disturbing aspect of NATO policy relates to the organisation’s enlargement. Following the confrontation between Russia and Georgia in August 2008, France saw its argument against membership for both Georgia and Ukraine confirmed [4]. In December 2008, during the North Atlantic Council, participation of these two countries in the Membership Action Plan (MAP) was suspended [5]. Despite this, the path to membership remains open. In addition, multilateral military exercises take place regularly in both countries and all kinds of military aid, including the provision of training and equipment, are offered them. Activities which form part of the preparation for membership are carried out under other flags than that of the MAP – for example via the NATO-Ukraine Commission [6]. This is happening despite the rejection of NATO membership by a majority of the population of the Ukraine.

Also well-known is the ‘charter’ concluded by the United States, a series of agreements in which rules are laid down for military cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova [7]. Despite the risks, these countries are prepared for future membership. The Russian position was made clear at the beginning of 2008 when President Putin announced that Russia would direct some of its missiles towards Ukraine, should that country become a member of NATO [8].

Given the predictable conflicts with Russia, any further enlargement of NATO would be extremely unwise. There exists, after all, a very large chance that a local conflict such as that in Georgia in August 2008 could propel the entire Alliance into war with Russia. That would become possible if a call was issued for mutual support on the basis of Article 5 of the NATO treaty.

The ‘globalising NATO’ variant of enlargement, through which the already existing intensive cooperation with such countries as Australia, Japan and South Korea would be built up into a form of membership, would also be extremely ill-advised. That goes all the more for any kind of military cooperation with Israel in the context of the Mediterranean as long as that country is unable to forge a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

Nuclear doctrine and missile shield

Nuclear disarmament stands, since President Obama’s speech in Prague on 5th April, high on the agenda. This is also of relevance to NATO, whose military doctrine since the high-point of the Cold War rests in part on nuclear weapons. This doctrine stands in stark conflict with the promise, underwritten by all of the member states when they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to strive seriously towards nuclear disarmament. It creates in addition a dangerous exclusivity for the NATO member states in relation to the rest of the world. The NPT grants the right to peaceful use of nuclear power, but not to have nuclear weapons. This obligation is bypassed by means of NATO’s nuclear umbrella, which guarantees that American nuclear weapons can be deployed in times of war by allied aircraft. The Dutch Royal Air Force retains responsibilities for nuclear weapons stationed at its base in Volkel. NATO’s Declaration on Alliance Security contains a wonderful contradiction, moreover: on the one hand is support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and on the other hand, at the same time, is affirmed the role of nuclear strike forces [9]. In anticipation of the Americans’ decision-making in regard to nuclear weapons in Europe, the Netherlands in June issued a declaration in the Nuclear Planning Group against unilateral measures, and thus by implication against the removal of American nuclear bombs [10].

Any serious debate on NATO's nuclear policy must cover at least three points. Firstly, recognition of the presence of American nuclear weapons on European (including Dutch) soil, which NATO has never officially confirmed. Secondly, the removal of these nuclear bombs, as has been called for by the German Foreign Minister. Thirdly, the nuclear doctrine itself must be put on the agenda, given that this forms part of NATO's military strategy. Inseparable from this nuclear doctrine is the European section of the US missile shield. This programme has not been suspended by the new American government, but has extensive implications for the Alliance's military doctrine. This was also recognised by the decision by the NATO Council in which the establishment of the missile shield installations was approved[11]. The combination of nuclear strike-force and missile shield creates a new situation, one seen by Russia as extremely menacing.

Energy Policy

Energy shortages expected to occur in the near future form part of many NATO war scenarios. This was underlined once more by the annual crises in gas delivery of gas from Russia to Europe. There is a danger that a 'solution' to these energy crises may be sought in an armed approach to securing the delivery of oil and gas. In the final instance there are, however, no military solutions to this crucial problem. NATO's relations with Russia and other energy suppliers must be based on trade agreements, not on forcing the advantageous supply of raw materials by means of violence. Growing attention within NATO to the securing of energy transport routes carries the risk that military solutions to this kind of problem will come to be seen as self-evidently necessary.

The danger of the militarisation of trade policy and of diplomacy extends also to the relationship between NATO and the EU. This is a logical consequence of the double membership of many European countries. Where for a long time the EU was seen as a trade policy power bloc, which to a large extent represented a foreswearing of the use of military means, it has itself moved in the direction of militarisation. As part of this move, agreements have been made between the two organisations over how each can exert its influence. The influence of the more neutrally-oriented EU member states, such as Sweden and Ireland, threatens as a result of recent developments in European politics no longer to be felt. This is expressed in the security policy contained within the Lisbon Treaty and the making available of European battle groups for military intervention. The trans-Atlantic coordination between the EU and the US represents a surreptitious militarisation of traditional EU diplomacy.

Interaction between NATO, the EU and the US

NATO's command struture is undermining European interests and could provoke undesirable developments. This is a result of the inbuilt American influence guaranteed by the parallel command structure. The military commander in chief is always an American, one who also commands US forces in Europe and neighbouring regions. In Afghanistan two operations are being conducted, one by the US-led war mission 'Operation Enduring Freedom', and a reconstruction mission conducted by ISAF, NATO's International Security Assistance Force. They are theoretically separate, but in practice the participants see both as part of a coordinated counter-guerrilla war in which the US influence is overwhelming. The recent increase in numbers of American troops and the changes to the ISAF command structure are reinforcing this development.

The alliance could also be undermined by bilateral agreements. An example of this was the decision-making over the European section of the US missile shield, for which separate agreements were made between the US, Poland and the Czech Republic. Despite the obvious and far-reaching consequences for European security, the EU was kept out in the cold and NATO approved the agreements retrospectively. It speaks for itself that all European member states should have participated in the decision-making from the word go.

Traditionally there are two currents in European security policy: the Atlanticists, principally represented by the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the eastern European member states; and on the other side the Continental strategy of France and to a lesser extent Germany, which see a clear need for the construction of an independent European force. France's recent moves in the direction of NATO symbolise the upholding of trans-Atlantic bonds, on the understanding that the political role of the United States is weakened. This thus represents also a step towards a more extensive form of military cooperation, one which is not desirable. The EU and NATO must after all not become two aspects of the same policy, within which 'security' is equated to military domination by a trans-Atlantic bloc.

Further militarisation of European external policy through close cooperation with NATO is to be resisted. Such a development would undermine the foundations of the United Nations.

Shared security

The need for a new security architecture goes beyond the importance of the re-evaluation of NATO's policies. In this matter the mandate to intervene internationally takes centre stage. The unmistakable militarisation of foreign policy under the influence of the United States must be resisted, partly through the abolition of 'coalitions of the willing' which by definition undermine the alliance. Pressure to participate in military operations devised by NATO's biggest member states must be fought and, in place of such, the role of the UN Security Council in the taking of decisions involving war and peace must be maintained.

In this context it would be sensible to open a dialogue with Russia over a new security structure for Europe. Not necessarily in the sense which the Russians would favour, but perhaps indeed in that direction. Russia has repeatedly put forward proposals which should form part of the substance of the debate over the Strategic Concept. Through its negative response at the beginning of this year, the alliance did itself no favours. [12].

The fashionable stress on military solutions, even if these are camouflaged in the clothes of 'reconstruction missions' or 'an all-inclusive approach', threatens a central axiom of international politics: that negotiations must take pride of place, although within, of course, clear boundaries. The United Nations Charter can once again serve as a guide for the drawing up of agreements on security. Renewed confirmation, by every country in the world, of the agreement that a monopoly of violence lies not with individual member states nor with military alliance but exclusively with the United Nations could provide the initiative for the overcoming of old enmities, making new instances of cooperation possible. In the end, the only real security is shared security.

Harry van Bommel is spokesman on European affairs for the SP group in the Dutch national parliament. Karel Koster is attached to the SP research bureau and specialises in foreign policy and security issues.

1. 'Declaration on Alliance Security' 04 Apr. 2009 Press Release: (2009) 043

2. Speech by NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. 29 Feb. 2008

3. 'Russia stunned by UN-NATO cooperation deal' RIA Novosti 09/10/2008

4. 'French Minister Opposes Georgia, Ukraine in NATO', Agence France-Presse, 22 Oct 2008

5. 03 Dec 2008 Press Release: (2008) 153 'Final communiqué Meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of Foreign Ministers held at NATO Headquarters, Brussels' para 18

6. Press Release (2008)155 3 Dec 2008 'Chairman’s statement, Meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at the level of Foreign Ministers held at NATO Headquarters, Brussels'; 'NATO-Ukraine Annual Target Plan' 2009 03032009

7. 'United States-Georgia Charter on Strategic Partnership' Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Washington, DC January 9, 2009; David Gollust (State Department) 'US, Georgia, Sign Partnership Charter', Voice of America 9 Jan 2009

8. 'Nato expansion: Russia Could “Point Warheads” at Ukraine', Spiegel On-line 13 Feb 2008

9. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 'Declaration on Alliance Security Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Strasbourg/ Kehl on 4 April 2009'

10. 'Verslag van de formele bijeenkomst van NAVO defensie ministers in Brussel op 11 en 12 juni 2009; brief aan Kamer 03072009 (Report on the formal meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels on 11th and 12th June, 2009; letter to the lower house of the Dutch national parliament 03072009)

11. Press Release (2008)153 3 Dec 2008 Final communiqué 'Meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the level of Foreign Ministers held at NATO Headquarters, Brussels' Para 32. (Note that in the delay between the original Dutch article's publication and the completion of this translation, President Obama cancelled the missile shield, though it will be replaced by systems the nature of which is not yet clear.)

12. 'Nato wary of Russian treaty plan', BBC News, 31 Jan 2009

This article was first published in Dutch in the Atlantisch Perspectief 2009 nr.5/8

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