Editor’s Policy Analysis: NATO -  From Lisbon to Chicago to Irrelevance?
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Editor's Desk

Mitchell A. Belfer

Editor’s Policy Analysis: NATO - From Lisbon to Chicago to Irrelevance?


In contrast to the nearly instinctive question of whether NATO is situated at a ‘cross-roads,’ it is clear from the latest round of summitry that the sixty-three year old alliance is at a definite impasse. Military and political debacles (in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Libya, etc.) are publically sold as successes, smart-defence policies are confined to paper alone, and discord (between members) over the prudence of ‘out-ofarea’ operations, nuclear and conventional capabilities and deterrence, burden-sharing and enlargement is reaching fever-pitch, particularly as the alliance grapples with the unique circumstances produced by the ever-unfolding Arab Spring.

In response to such challenges, NATO held yet another Summit to show solidarity and unity. This, the Chicago Summit, was meant to build on the Lisbon’s (2010) new ‘Strategic Concept,’ stressing NATO’s three-pronged security tasks: collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. These are neither novel nor innovative; NATO’s foundation is rooted in collective defence (Article 5), crisis management evolved into the alliance’s raison d’être during the nearly decade long conflict in the Western Balkans, while cooperative security began as ‘olive branch engagement’ to the states of the former USSR and was enframed in the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme after 1991.

Despite that NATO was already practising the new ‘Strategic Concept’ long before its formal articulation; there are some notable differences between the original intention of those tasks and the unfolding behaviour of NATO, made visible in Chicago.

While the alliance’s 28 members’ Heads of State and Government gathered for group pictures, shook hands and pledged fidelity to the cause of Euro-Atlantic security, the atmosphere surrounding the Chicago Summit was tense due to the growing gap between what NATO is and its aspirations, what it imagines its capabilities to be and what they truly are and questions of ultimate responsibility for both the successes and failures of NATO operations, particularly the premature evacuation from Afghanistan and Operation Unified Protector (OUP) in Libya.

This brief policy analysis is meant to contribute to critically understanding NATO through the lens of its operational and political mismanagement and the growing credibility gap produced by these. In no way does this analysis advocate the dissolution of NATO. Instead, the rationale behind the assessment conducted here is rooted in finding ways for NATO to move beyond its current paralysis to the benefit of all NATO members and, by extension, the wider Euro-Atlantic region. This is done by highlighting what NATO was meant to do, what it actually does and what it should be doing. Additionally, this analysis bears light on the failures of NATO, which often occur against the backdrop of self-declared successes. For instance, Kosovo (KFOR), Afghanistan (IASF), Iraq (NTM-I), Somalia (OOS) and Libya (OUP) have been enframed as NATO triumphs. While certainly, in some cases, NATO’s actions have assisted in producing cease-fires and a degree of short-term stabilisation, none can honestly be regarded as successful since, in no case, has conflict resolution and an enduring peace been produced. Instead, success is being measured in NATO’s achievement of short-term goals related to its own ambitions rather than the resolution of the situations it weighs into, analyses of which are further addressed below.

NATO 1.0 (1949–1989): What It Was Meant To Do

While it not the intention of this analysis to detail the expansive history of NATO, it is important to remember that the very establishment of the alliance was rooted in collective defence, an idea enshrined in Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter, which highlights that an attack on one member is tantamount to an attack on all members. This collective defence gravitated around a shielding posture and did not include the pooling of resources or sovereignty and neither did it seek to defend a certain value system even though its founding documentation identifies that members must be democratic.

So, in short, NATO was an alliance based on deterrence as a means of preventing further Soviet encroachments to Western Europe. Such a posture was made credible based on US commitments and deployments throughout members of the alliance, which exchanged basing rights for robust US military personnel, including both conventional and non-conventional (re: WMD) forces. The only objective the alliance maintained was the prevention of Soviet belligerency against NATO members, a task that NATO was able to achieve, visible in the lack of armed conflict between the USSR and NATO during the Cold War. This deterrence posture was also hemmed into a loosely defined North Atlantic area (with Turkey and Greece’s accession serving as the first, of many, exceptions).

For the first forty years of its existence, most observers were anticipating that Europe would be the battle-ground for NATO operations and thus the alliance reinforced its collective defence identity through annual summitry which acted as a means of public acknowledgement of the priority lent to the alliance. Yet nearly each summit was, partly, defined by the crisis it sought to overcome. Whether referring to the UK or France’s independent nuclear weapons posture, the US attempts to turn the Bonn Republic into a nuclear armed state, the Greco-Turkish war over Cyprus and Greece’s withdraw from the alliance, NATO has seen its share of internal crises. However, these were overcome not only because of the pressures to do so, but rather because belonging to the alliance meant – nearly – cost-free security since the US was ready and willing to cover the costs of securing Europe in exchange for the West European members to allow for a forward defence platform in Europe.

In short, NATO was meant to deter an identified (and shared) adversary by threatening joint conventional and WMD retaliation for any assault on allied states. That was, more or less, the extent of it; members were free to pursue policies of choice knowing that NATO would be ready to invoke Article 5 if its national territory were aggressively assaulted by a non-NATO state.

For all the Cold War preparations which aimed to punish a territorial infraction against a European member of NATO, to date the only invocation of collective defence mechanisms occurred after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks when Europe sought to use the alliance to come to the assistance of the US. However, under the more unilateral instincts of the first Bush administration the US only, initially, requested minor and measured NATO support for operations against al Qaeda in Afghanistan. NATO, it seemed at the time, challenged US freedom of action and the US promptly reinforced the Northern Alliance (then fighting a losing war of attrition against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan), accepted the bilateral assistance of the UK and entered the Afghan fray, avoiding NATO’s arduous decision-making processes. By 2003 however, the US (UK in tow) were ready to allow NATO to ‘clean-up’ and gave substance to NATO’s 2001 mandate which determined that that 11 September attacks were equivalent to an attack on all members. This gave way to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which has been the main military force engaged in operations in the country since 2003.

Additionally, the 2001 attacks gave rise to a degree of panic as to illicit trade links, particularly over the Mediterranean Sea and using NATO’s pledge to assist the US defend itself, the alliance determined that the laws of the sea should be superseded to allow for enhanced NATO monitoring of the Mediterranean to prevent the illicit trade in weapons (including, potentially, WMD), drugs and people. Thus, in 2001 NATO launched Operation Active Endeavour (OAE), based in Naples. OAE was soon joined by a UN initiative, called the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which provided legitimacy for high seas interdiction anywhere in the world.

So, the conventional and WMD deterrence strand of NATO’s security approach is legitimate and in-sync with the security demands made by NATO members since it does not involve ‘out-of-area’ missions or offensive posturing. Why then has there been such a shift in both the thinking and operational management of NATO? Why has NATO transformed from a narrow security perspective to such a broad list of priorities ranging from counterterrorism to peace-making, peacekeeping to counter-piracy, continued nuclear deterrence to democracy promotion?

The answer to these questions is based on a strange brew of three over-lapping issues:

  1. Threat Perception: NATO members no longer share a unified perception of the ‘adversary.’ Consequently, NATO tasks are determined through intra-NATO bargaining which results in the diffusion of priorities.
  2. Alternative Alliance Structures: NATO does not operate in a vacuum; it responds to the wider international environment. Therefore with the rise of new alliances and structures NATO’s priorities are further diffused. Additionally, all NATO members also belong to other alliances, such as the EU, coalitions, or bilateral alliances and these further sap the cohesion of NATO.
  3. Economic Austerity: Many of the new tasks identified by NATO are based around the idea of smart security sharing assets and reducing international commitments and tend to be less robust than operations and tasks conducted during the Cold War. Hence, the economic austerity currently facing the majority of NATO members have recalibrated NATO tasks.

In short, NATO 1.0 cannot be utilised to deal with current international security challenges. Certainly, NATO cannot afford to be idle in the face of major alterations to international security architecture. It must, and has, moved beyond strict Cold War logic – and deployments – to occupy an important security providing role far beyond the Euro-Atlantic region. However, what NATO is currently engaged in, and how it works to achieve those tasks, requires a strategic rethink not repeat. And so, without a clear adversary, NATO has begun to diverge away from traditional security and has – under Lisbon’s new ‘Strategic Concept’ – to focus on crisis management and cooperative security.

NATO 2.0 (1990–2012): What It Actually Does

Since NATO was not designed, and unfortunately is still unprepared, to move beyond an Article 5-centric concept, it is unsurprising that the alliance has approached Lisbon’s crisis management and cooperative security tasks haphazardly. Indeed, the alliance has taken on responsibilities beyond its scope and capabilities and is producing the polar opposite results it has intended: whereas the alliance embarks on operations it deems will boost its own credibility and, by extension, its power projection and deterrence capabilities the consequence of its unpreparedness, its half-hearted burden-sharing and its seemingly endless consultation-process have undermined the very security it has sought to produce.

Firstly, when it comes to crisis management consider what the term implies; not the resolution of an ensuing conflict, but rather its management. Yet management is elusive at best; interpreted, as it were, as nothing more than a complex set of ceasefire agreements monitored by NATO, EU or UN (very occasionally African Union) forces. But a ceasefire is not peace and NATO has laboured only to cease hostilities without generating the conditions for post-conflict resolution. This implies that NATO has become a tool for ‘freezing conflicts’ which continue to fester.

Secondly, cooperative security – AKA third-party alignment – between NATO and non-NATO states does little for NATO’s overall strategic orientation.. In Chicago, for instance, Pakistan (in effect) successfully blackmailed NATO at the price of some $5000 (USD) per each supply lorry utilising the Ground Lines of Communications (GLoC) which link Pakistan to NATO’s beleaguered army in Afghanistan; heavy spending for an age of austerity. Yet NATO considers such engagements with Pakistan as a success because it no longer needs to rely on Russia or the central Asian republics for secure supply lines. However Russia is a far more secure partner than Pakistan and if NATO was strategically proactive it would have concluded adequate provisions with the former instead of giving in to the blackmail of Pakistan.

Third and finally, the above two tasks of NATO occur ‘out-of-area,’ thereby rendering the ‘North Atlantic’ region beyond the scope of NATO operations and of scant consequence for the alliances continued existence.

NATO 3.0 (BETA): What It Should Be Doing

Given the above, it is legitimate to ask what should be doing.

Instead of seeking to reinforce an international role for the alliance, NATO needs to reforming its member-centricity. This entails abandoning its enlargement policy and focusing on determining its ‘final frontiers’ to unapologetically resolve which countries rightfully belong in NATO and those which, in the foreseeable future, do not.

Take the contentious issue of potential Ukrainian membership as an example. The Joint Communiqué that sprang from Chicago reiterates the potential for Ukraine’s NATO membership as part of the alliance’s ‘open door policy.’

This is in stark contrast to reality since Ukraine continues to have Russian military personnel stationed on its territory – on 21 April 2010 this was extended until 2042 – in the leased port of Sevastopol and NATO is forbidden from bringing new members in if those states have non-allied military forces on their territory. So, the question thus arises, why does NATO not unambiguously pronounce Ukrainian membership impossible? Why does it insist on dangling membership in front of a country technically ineligible for membership for an additional 30 years? This is particularly perplexing when continued NATO pronouncements to the effect that Ukraine should enter the alliance are certain to keep relations with Russia frosty, at best. It is not that NATO should, necessarily, consult Russia over its membership choices. However, why is NATO going out-of-its way to antagonise Russia, not to mention a sizable portion of Ukraine’s population, for a goal which, in the foreseeable future, is impossible? The answer to this is not necessarily malicious intent. It stems from the lack of vision, leadership and on more practical levels political manipulation where potential membership is used as a tool. So, NATO must now:

  1. finalise its geographic area of membership and operations so that it may begin the essential task of;
  2. consolidating its assets and develop a more comprehensive set of objectives, strategies and tactics to deal with;
  3. the security challenges that are likely to emerge in the future.

Mitchell A. Belfer
Editor in Chief

2020 - Volume 14 Issue 2