No. 15: January-June 2016

Sebastian Mayer


Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance, was founded in April 1949 by the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Italy, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, based on the slim North Atlantic Treaty (NAT). The mutual defence clause of its Article 5 stipulates that ‘an armed attack against one or more of them [the member states] shall be considered an attack against them all’. NATO’s associated military function was to deter the Soviet Union and its followers. As NATO’s first Secretary General Lord Ismay [Hastings Lionel Ismay] famously stated, the key goals were ‘to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.

Yet NATO was by no means confined to a military function. It was also envisioned to encourage European political integration and economic progress. The founding fathers of the NAT had expected that military cooperation would evolve concurrently with political and economic advancement. Article 2 of the NAT stipulates that members ‘will seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.’ In 1951, the Financial and Economic Board was created to deal with pertaining issues, with a significant danger to encroach the turf of the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OEEC) in Paris, where NATO’s headquarters was also set up before moving to Brussels, its present site. Forerunner of the current OECD, the OEEC was tasked with coordinating efforts to restore Europe’s economy under the so called ‘Marshall Plan’. Over time, NATO’s economic role receded in importance, however.

The NAT above all represents a political arrangement: the Alliance was by no means envisioned to provide a densely institutionalized force generation scheme as we now know it. But the Korean War (1950–1953), related fears of a communist Korea and the struggle of the US and its Allies to contain the spread of communist influence strongly fostered the institutional expansion of NATO. Hence, an integrated military command structure with a defence planning scheme was instigated, indicating a large degree of peace-time cooperation. The civilian International Staff (IS) was formed around 1951/2, to be headed by the Secretary General. Also, numerous preparatory committees, agencies and centres where activated. As a consequence, NATO developed from a minimally institutionalized alignment into a full-fledged security organization.

In July 1990, NATO’s London summit declared the Cold War over, stating that ‘Europe had entered a new, promising era’. It profoundly enlarged its membership from 16 to 28 and also developed structured relations with a wide range of non-NATO states – including Sweden, Georgia or Australia – in a sense of ‘cooperative security’. Overall, NATO turned into a more comprehensive regional security institution with added functions. Its mandate expanded in terms of its geographical and functional remit. The Alliance went ‘out of area’, i.e. it took over responsibilities beyond the area stipulated in Art. 6 (‘north of the Tropic of Cancer’). It did so initially only within the Alliance’s periphery (Bosnia, Kosovo…), from the early 2000s onwards even on a virtually global scale in Sudan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The Alliance’s most recent Strategic Concept of November 2010 highlights a broad range of tasks beyond collective defence, particularly what the Alliance dubs ‘crisis management’: ‘NATO has a unique and robust set of political and military capabilities to address the full spectrum of crises – before, during and after conflicts’.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

Both the completion of its enormous Afghanistan operation by December 2014 and the current Ukraine crisis provide a starting point for considering how NATO might evolve over the next five years. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, led by NATO between 2003 and 2014, represented the Alliance’s biggest and most ambitious operation ever which largely dominated its agenda during this period (a small, non-combat mission followed up on 1 January 2015). It is unclear whether and where members are willing to take on operations of a similar scale in the future beyond existing commitments in Kosovo or off the Horn of Africa. And after the Ukraine crisis broke out, NATO’s collective defence function which faded after 1990 is now being reinforced.

Currently there is a vivid debate among NATO members over whether the Alliance’s crisis management (aka out-of-area) role should generally recede into the background in favor of deterrence against a belligerent Russia. Mainly NATO members from Central and Eastern Europe have made a plea for the Alliance to go ‘back to basics’. Concerned over Russia’s aggressive conduct and disrespect to the territorial integrity of Ukraine and international law, they have convened a regional mini-summit in November 2015 in Bucharest/Romania and issued a joint declaration. Calls were made for ‘strengthening our defence’ as well as a ‘renewed emphasis on NATO’s collective defence’. Hence, NATO’s original purpose is likely to re-surface in importance. Several eastern NATO members, such as Poland, have pressured for permanently (or on a rotational basis) deploying forces on their territory to discourage Russia from fomenting trouble. Such a move would violate the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security of 1997, however. Other members, particularly Germany, are cautious over alienating Moscow. They argue for engaging Russia by resuming a structured dialogue and address questions of mutual interest (such as the fight against terrorism), including issues of disagreement. NATO hence faces a number critical questions. The extent to which the pendulum will swing back to NATO’s initial collective defence function remains unclear, to date. However, absent a major breakthrough with Russia it seems that during the next five years, the defence of its own members is becoming NATO’s principal task. In turn, there is little likelihood that the Alliance will take on new large-scale out-of-area operations during this period.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

NATO’s structural long-term perspectives are more difficult to evaluate and, by nature, more elusive. Shortly after the Berlin wall came down, neo-realists were confident that NATO’s days (or years) were numbered, given that the Soviet threat was now absent. As noted, even lacking this danger to unite against for several years, NATO has broadened its functional profile and geographic scope to an amazing extent. Given the resurgence of Russia’s belligerence, albeit different from the Cold War challenge, it seems even less likely that the organization will dissolve. Declinists forecasting NATO’s demise have been proven wrong. The related crisis rhetoric (‘NATO in its worst crisis ever’) with its often vague terminology, superficial comparisons, and exaggerated claims that has been voiced ad nauseaum in the past years has also somewhat subsided. A NATO that soon moves to new premises next to the current site in Brussels with more office space than the EU’s gigantic Berlaymont building or the UN headquarters in New York is unlikely to vanish in the foreseeable future.

But NATO’s ‘balancing act’ (David Yost) between its core tasks of crisis management, collective defence and cooperative security with non-NATO partners, will not get any easier within a long-term perspective. Situations abound where it was problematic, and at times impossible, to get all the allies on board for major decisions. NATO’s consensus principle, which can prevent the organization from taking action if one single member voiced concerns, respects the sovereign equality of all members, irrespective of their size. But against the background of often vast differences in threat perception and strategic choice among the Allies, unanimous decision-making becomes more difficult to achieve. This is all the more so because not only challenges to which NATO responds with its out-of-area operations at the Hindu Kush and elsewhere, but similarly Russia’s belligerence varies widely from the threat the Soviet Union once posed. The latter came from a single direction, was comparatively unambiguous and could be dealt with by a massive, static deterrence. By contrast, the former resembles hybrid warfare which includes irregular fighters and is more fuzzy and difficult to cope with (although it embraces aspects of Cold War subversion campaigns). Even in the long term, NATO’s security environment will thus remain much more ambiguous than the Cold War environment. In tandem with NATO’s enlarged membership with a profoundly greater number of veto players, this greatly exacerbates the difficulty to reach common decisions.

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Sebastian Mayer is Research Fellow at the University of Bremen’s Institute for Intercultural and International Studies (InIIS). His research interests include NATO, the EU’s CSDP, institutional change and the transformation of security politics, more generally. He is also interested in regional security in the EU's Eastern Neighbourhood. His most recent research focuses on Russian and EU security policies towards their “shared neighbourhood”.

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