NATO: In Search of Raison d’Etre

NATO held its meeting in Chicago on May 20–21, 2012. Three core objectives defined the agenda. The centerpiece was the announcement of the next phase of transition in Afghanistan turning over control of Afghanistan’s security to its own troops by the middle of 2013 and winding up the operation by the end of 2014. Second, the definition of defense capability requirements. Finally the summit examined prospects for cooperation with non-NATO partners. The participants also addressed other issues, such as solidifying agreements made at the Lisbon Summit on NATO transformation, cyber security, the future of NATO missile defense, the Arab Spring and lessons from NATO operations in Libya. This time the agenda did not include such issues as the enlargement, even though Macedonia Georgia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina are topping the list of aspirant states, or any meaningful discussion of Syria. The relations with Russia were briefly mentioned in the Declaration saying nothing new. The main achievement was the adoption of long-term capability strategy for the so-called Smart Defense initiative which focuses on greater prioritization, specialization and cooperation among the NATO members to improve military capabilities.

The Smart Defense concept

Actually the issue has been around for a long time given additional salience as a result of involvement in Afghanistan. Many members deployed without adequate intelligence, logistics, lift or transport. Then there was the Libyan intervention. NATO displayed clear capability gaps in such areas as aerial refueling, ISR, precision strike, intelligence analysis, electronic warfare and tactical air control. The Smart Defense aims to encourage allies to cooperate in developing, acquiring, and maintaining military capabilities in a more economically efficient manner in the new times of economic austerity and defense cuts. The summit approved a package of measures to make the nations focus on more prioritization, specialization and multinational cooperation in their acquisition of modern equipment. The concept is a new culture of cooperation which also stipulates alignment of NATO and national priorities as well as specialization where needed and multinational cooperation as the preferred option. The matter is that national control over all aspects of capability development, national industry, national facilities may have to be sacrificed in order to gain the capabilities needed in the times of economic woes. Naturally giving away national control and increasing dependence on others is doomed to fuel discords. Somehow this possibility was not addressed at the summit. The Smart Defense sounds great but it will likely amount to very little in terms of substance. It’s hardly a panacea for NATO’s capability shortfalls. As Libya and other NATO campaigns have demonstrated time and again, Europe relies too much on the U.S. in air-to-air refueling, intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance. Being overly dependent on the U.S. security umbrella the Europeans actually concede – it’s the USA who calls the shots.

There is another important issue of relevance that was not addressed in Chicago too – spending on EU defense initiatives also exacerbates the dire financial situation by diverting scarce resources away from NATO. The Declaration adopted by the summit on May 20 states: “NATO and the EU share common values and strategic interests”. True the EU capabilities can be made available to NATO but it’s not guaranteed. Six veto-wielding EU members are not members of NATO. Some, such as Cyprus, are politically hostile toward NATO. The USA says the EU can never be a serious defense actor because it has six neutral member states: Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Cyprus, Malta, and Austria. The EU also excludes two NATO members, Norway and Turkey, from its decision-making process. Furthermore, NATO and the EU cannot formally cooperate because Cyprus regularly blocks NATO–EU cooperation for self-serving reasons.

The Smart Defense initiative risks allowing Europeans to believe that they can do more with less. It may not be the case. Countless conferences, meetings and seminars devoted to the subject have produced very little beyond a list of aspirations. The language describing the Smart Defense was read well at the Chicago summit declaration, but the initiative still has long way to go to convert words into deeds, if any.

NATO Behind the curtain

A year and a half ago NATO adopted a new Strategic Concept at the Lisbon summit. It was well written but there was no mission set. A few months after, when the operation in Libya was in full swing, outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the Alliance was to become irrelevant soon if financing and combat readiness were not improved. It’s money matters that set the real agenda of Chicago summit. And efficiency here can be achieved only if there is unity of views defining the threats. Formally there is no divergence, but practice says otherwise. Even Afghanistan, the operation that everybody agreed on, has become a heavy exasperating burden destitute of any goal or meaning that the Europeans are dreaming to shake off. No way politicians in Europe could explain the reason for deploying troops there to their voters. Libya was a point of divergence too. France and Great Britain had their own reasons to be actively involved while others preferred to shy away limiting their contribution by a few planes at best or rendering logistical support. Germany openly kept away from the mess. Everyone inside NATO pursues its own goal. The USA would prefer to make NATO acquire capability to carry out global missions as a global leader going beyond the Middle East to encompass the Asia-Pacific. Europe sees no reason to go that far, It finds “soft security” more acute: the missions like fighting sea pirates, climate change or combating terrorism. Central and Eastern Europe is happy enough with the article 5 of the Washington treaty. The differences go on exacerbating. The US official documents say clearly – the focus is Asia-Pacific, China in particular. The freedom of shipping in the South-China Sea is an acute issue for the sea faring nation and a matter of prestige and clout among regional partners. But what about Germany that is in the process of establishing long-term wide-scale economic partnership with China? The Middle East is an area of competition. Take the events in Syria and the Turkey’s reaction when France elated as a result of the operation in Libya made clear it will not shy away from the role of a leading Western driving force making the Arab Spring expand further. The Smart Defense for Eastern Europe means running a risk of becoming dependent on the West that it doesn’t trust. The fear is well known – the West is not inclined to worsen its relations with Russia and to defend the Eastern European states at any cost in any case whatever it is. The Smart Defense could have been a great unifying success thirty-forty years ago when the Cold War was in full swing. Those days no money was spared unlike today. From the very start NATO was conceived as a tool to be used in a bipolar world and it served the purpose. But it’s a tall order to make it match the contemporary realities. Europe is at a crossroads. Is it further integration it’s going to stick to so that the situations like the one we have in Greece today wouldn’t be repeated? Or is it going back restructuring the whole project and moving to denationalization? In this case the EU will contradict the Smart Defense because it envisages more national authority delegated to others. The possibility is here something quite new would have to be cooked up for the next 2014 summit.


This year marks the 15th anniversary of the NATO – Russia Founding Act and the 10th anniversary of the NATO–Russia Council. The relations are frosty. Russian President didn’t come to attend the event. NATO leaders declared that the Alliance has achieved an interim ballistic missile defense capability – the main irritant in the relations. The full operational capability is expected around the end of the current decade or early next decade. The May 20 declaration calls on Russia to reverse its recognition of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia as independent states, something to be flatly rejected as an unacceptable demand. Russia seeks to defend its own national priorities. It holds the view that the relationship with NATO should be built on a foundation of shared and common interests based on realism. Obviously Russia and NATO have plenty of scope for cooperation, including countering piracy, preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cooperation in the Arctic, combating terrorism and extremism to name a few. The transit routes to Afghanistan going through Russia have acquired even more importance as the USA and Pakistan failed to smooth over the differences at the summit and President Zardari didn’t meet President Obama as a result. However, NATO should not ignore other areas like missile defense. If Russia, though unwillingly, made to respond adequately to the threat coming from the West, no Smart Defense would enhance the security of the Alliance. In an article in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, President Vladimir Putin stated: “Under these circumstances, Russia cannot rely on diplomatic and economic methods alone to resolve conflicts. Our country faces the task of sufficiently developing its military potential as part of a deterrence strategy. This is an indispensable condition for Russia to feel secure and for our partners to listen to our country’s arguments”. The best way to understand the other side is to step into its shoes. What would NATO say if Russia surrounded the Alliance by weapons to nullify its capability to respond in case of an attack saying the characteristics were not up to par to pose a threat. Any weapon system has plenty of space for evolution. Or suppose the tables are turned and the resurrected Warsaw Pact aggressively invites new members, including NATO founding nations? Just name one single argument for the NATO’s extension after the Cold War was over. Or let’s remember all those calisthenics about Russia-NATO councils aimed at keeping Russia away from any participation in decision making process in the spheres the both sides agreed to cooperate on equal terms.

Does NATO have a raison d’être?

The Smart Defense is in no way a clue to overcoming the real difficulties. NATO needs new transport aircraft, UAVs and intelligence systems. Instead the Smart Defense gives priority to logistics, training and mine warfare. Each NATO state aspires to support its defense industry that runs contradictory to the Smart Defense specialization concept. Finally no one wants to fully depend on partners at a pinch.

A Russia-NATO summit is not part of the event as had been previously planned. Actually the relations with Russia is an issue on the agenda. If the goal is security, can one imagine achieving this goal without Russia? No way. The Smart Defense and other issues pale in significance in comparison with this one. It means NATO has failed to address the matters of real and burning acuteness shifting to the ones of lesser significance. The fact is irrefutable – Russia is the country that can significantly contribute into the solution of NATO problems or gravely exacerbate them.

The bottom of the problem is that NATO was structured for that bipolar world which no longer exists. The coveted key to membership has always been article five of the founding treaty, which requires all members to come to the aid of any member under attack. Now it appears to be far less relevant with Europe no longer an area of primary concern. There is considerable unease about the USA as the unofficial senior member having a unilateralist government, dangerously claiming the right to exercise pre-emptive strikes and circumventing the UN. As in the case of Iraq, many NATO members could not bring themselves to support the intervention. No longer the uniformity of views within and between NATO member nations, that characterized the era of East-West confrontation, exists.

There is simultaneously a desire within the European Union, reflected in a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), to have their own armed forces seconded to a wholly European command and similarly subject only to European political control, and there are good and sustainable arguments for this. There is little doubt that the training and professionalism of military personnel of several of the NATO members is of a quality that compares well with anything the US has to offer (particularly when it can be seen how heavily the US needs to rely on reservists operating extended tours of duty, as in Iraq) and compares favorably in world terms generally. But leaving alone the multiple language problem, clearly many of the smaller members have at this time a wide disparity of military training, doctrine, equipment and within the quality of their troops. It will take time to achieve the levels of the leaders. With all of the NATO countries, the US has a genuine concern about the fact that for reasons of their smaller military budgets, NATO forces are progressively falling behind the standards of sophistication in military equipment deployed by the US, with hazards for future joint operations as a consequence

Yet despite those objections, the US has always held the top command of NATO which in some circumstances has the first call on the troops of all the European members, so there may be US military planners who will simply add the Alliance’s potential to the one of the US in global scenario planning.

In 2006 Pierre Lellouche, the French president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly said: ‘Frankness compels me to say that considerable vagueness appears to reign over the concepts and even the raison d’etre of our organisation”. US Defense Secretary Robert Gates is right to be worried about the alliance’s future. Founded in 1949 as a mutual defense pact, it has only once in more than 60 years of history invoked its Article 5 after 9/11. Instead, one of the few things NATO has pursued aggressively is attempting to justify its own existence in ever more imaginative ways. Lacking the clear central purpose that once united it in the aftermath of the Second World War it has struggled to find agreement among its members on the roles it has defined for itself. Indeed, what operations NATO has conducted in recent years have either been controversial, such as the bombing of Belgrade in 1999 (hardly impressive) or have provided little more than political cover for US-led military campaigns. In Afghanistan the allied mission stumbled upon huge disparities in the allies’ willingness to share the burden of the fighting. Libya was actually a failure. The reality is that NATO feels like an anachronism, risk-averse, bloated and militarily inefficient, whose purpose increasingly has been usurped by so-called “coalitions of the willing”.

NATO provides the United States with a pretense of global coalition and legality. Approximately half of the world’s military spending is U.S., while adding the other NATO nations brings the total to three-quarters. The head of the Pentagon Leon Panetta recently testified in Congress that a war could be made legal by working through either the United Nations or NATO. While no written law supports that claim, it is a claim that has served its intended purpose. NATO also serves as a false legal shield, protecting the U.S. military from Congressional oversight.

NATO’s interests are hardly democratically determined or humanitarian in purpose. NATO does not bomb all nations guilty of humanitarian abuses. Nor do the bombings alleviate human suffering, they add to it. And there are a lot of repressive brutal regimes on the world map that run no risk of becoming NATO’s targets being “our scoundrels”

The Chicago summit has proven once again – NATO is an organization that has lost its purpose and is unable to find a raison d’etre in the contemporary world.

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation 

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  2. I think the view on NATO as an organization looking for raison d’etre is very much justified. The author is right as well as our former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. NATO could offer nothing after 9/11, it did little in Afghanistan, it actually failed (Andrei Akulov puts it right) in Lybia. I’m afraid after Cold War expansion was a mistake. It led to getting together the countries with diffrent levels of development and diffrent interests while the decision making process is based on unanimity. Something inevitably doomed to failure, I think. Thank you for a very interesting article!+

  3. No doubt Smart Defence has its limitations. It’s just another factor to show it’s the USA who weas the breeches.

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