NATO's Existential Question

01/13/2011 10:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rabah Ghezali Associate Professor of Economics at Sciences-Po Paris

Two decades ago, many commentators predicted the demise of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Without the Soviet threat, they argued, it had outlived its purpose. However, NATO fulfilled other political functions, such as strengthening democracy amongst member states and peaceful relationships between allies. Although its main purpose was the collective defence of members, NATO was always a multifunctional security institution.

The conventional wisdom at the end of the Cold War was that NATO needed to find an appropriate common threat to replace the former Soviet Union. But instead of focusing on a single potential danger, NATO has gradually changed its purpose from collective defence and deterrence to a broader set of security tasks. After September 11, 2001, the new range of threats to members lacked the clarity of earlier symmetrical diplomacy with recognised governments. This rupture raised questions about NATO's evolution.

What factors have driven its transformation? For some observers, recent changes are simply ad hoc responses to external events (such as humanitarian crises) and the changing international distribution of power. Beyond this, however, it is important to remember that NATO's member states determine its strategic agenda. Members perceive changes in the security environment quite differently for a host of reasons, including the ebb and flow of domestic politics. As a result, conflicting visions of the organisation's geographic and functional dimensions have been disputed and no long term strategic consensus has emerged.

It seems inevitable that NATO will lack direction for as long as its lost common purpose remains unaddressed. Its dilemma is bound up with structural changes in transatlantic relations and the world order, not least the difficult emergence of the European Union as a strategic player with its own policies and priorities. Just as NATO has become active in crisis response operations, the EU has claimed this policy space with its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP).

Tension with CSDP goes some way towards explaining the lack of consensus regarding NATO's strategic goal. A half-baked European Security policy has made a half-reformed NATO an inefficient international player. Moreover, relations between the two organisations have often been hampered by contradictory US and European policies -- contradictions that reflect internal divisions and uncertainty about foreign policy. Washington demands a more actively engaged Europe that is willing and able to bear a greater share of the burden of upholding international security. But the US has been reluctant to accept a stronger and more independent military and political role for Europe. Its unrealistic expectation is that European allies take more responsibility without corresponding powers in decision-making. Conversely, Europeans demand a stronger role in decision-making, but are unwilling to expand their capabilities. The result is that Europe's unclothed Emperors frequently deploy an interventionist and global rhetoric as tuned-in to their historical sentimentalism as it is at odds with their capabilities and appetite for intervention. Anti-interventionist public opinion and drastic defence budget cuts across Europe suggest that this problem will only become more deeply entrenched for a generation.

At the recent Lisbon Summit, NATO presented its third Strategic Concept since the end of the Cold War, defining its strategic priorities for the next decade. In particular, the planned development of a missile defence shield has important consequences. As this anti-missile system involves enhanced cooperation with Russia, NATO's enlargement with membership for Ukraine and Georgia now seems highly unlikely. Moreover, Moscow's agreement to a defensive system that could impede its deterrent capabilities strongly implies that China's military power has become its main security concern.

The Strategic Concept also emphasizes security, consultation, deterrence and defence, crisis management, and partnership. Amongst these, crisis management has become the most crucial but also an area hampered by intra-alliance disagreements. A classic contention is over breadth versus depth: while the US favours NATO becoming a global security institution with links to other countries and multilateral organizations, most European countries want NATO to be confined to the Euro-Atlantic area.

From these disagreements, there are three viable visions that reflect a different understanding of NATO's geographic and functional dimensions. First, NATO could be given responsibility for matters regarding global conflict prevention, thereby effectively becoming a crisis response institution. This is consistent with a desire to expand NATO membership, partnership, and operational reach while developing a comprehensive security approach. Secondly, NATO could, by contrast, become a purely defensive alliance and have a narrow and well-defined mandate. Thirdly, as a compromise, it could become a transatlantic crisis response institution. If globalizing NATO risks overstretch, it could instead continue to act outside the transatlantic area only on a case-by-case basis, either when the situation requires its involvement or when the UN calls for its support.

Ultimately, the solution to NATO's identity crisis depends on whether its member states will agree on its values, define its core responsibilities and identity as well as the threats that it should confront. Above all, the NATO-CSDP divide must be bridged in order to prevent duplication, unfruitful competition, and operational confusion. In the long term, NATO's dilemma seems insoluble without the close political cooperation between Brussels and Washington that would allow a merging of the two institutions.