In the first of two informal Ministerials this Autumn(where no official decisions are taken) NATO Defence Ministers gathered in London, September 18, against a backdrop of crisis in Afghanistan and worsening relations with Russia.
The first significant event, Thursday evening, was a speech by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). A couple of points made by the Secretary General stand out. On the aftermath of the conflict in Georgia, he said that: "I don’t have to explain at length why Russia’s justification for recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia could set a dangerous precedent – with truly global consequences. " This is true, and Russia's recognition of two breakaway states based on their own interpretation of local wishes will have serious implications for global security. Indeed, with the status of Chechnya far from finally settled in the eyes of many Chechens, it could have future implications for Russia. However, De Hoop Scheffer conveniently ignores the point that Russia based its actions on a precedent set by NATO. The recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states follows that of Kosovo, which NATO members were keen to see as an independent state, relying on the declaration of independence by Kosovars and ignoring the concerns of Serbia (of which Kosovo was part, and also of Russia). What is sauce for the NATO goose, is also sauce for the Russia gander. Since international law is in large part customary, it may be that dismembering states based on their citizens perceived desires is becoming much easier legally.
A second very important point made by the Secretary General concerned the future of NATO itself: ".. in this new security context, some have called for a reappraisal of the balance between an expeditionary NATO and our core task of collective defence. Such a discussion is certainly justified. But, again, I do not foresee a 180 degree change in our approach. Article 5 already exists, we don’t have to reinvent it. Neither does upholding Article 5 require us to return to a Cold War military posture in Europe."
De Hoop Scheffer and his policy team have been foremost amongst those arguing that NATO must transform itself into a 'global security provider' to be relevant in the 21st Century. Many object, most especially those new members of NATO in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe who see the Alliance as primarily a bulwark against Russia. They have taken heart from the events of August to strengthen their standpoint. As NATO members and officials begin discussing the terms of reference for the redefinition of NATO's Strategic Concept, a process that is likely to be formally launched at the Strasbourg-Kehl Summit next Spring, this will be the crux of the debate - what is NATO's raison d'etre?
He also noted the visit of the North Atlantic Council to Georgia this week, and the support that NATO is ready to offer to the Saakashvili government. But there is no sign that those nations that refused to accept Georgian membership in Bucharest are ready to accept it now. Nor any sign that they are ready to actually fight Russia over Georgia, which makes NATO support for the country more than a little hollow. It does, however, mean that Georgia must resolve its issues with Russia with western backing and without force. This is to be welcomed.
Other parts of the speech highlight continuing controversies between the US and European states of NATO over the mission in Afghanistan. In particular, as he noted the increasing US military effort in Afghanistan, De Hoop Scheffer also noted that: "While I of course welcome an even greater US effort, I believe that it is important that we continue to make this not just a US responsibility but a collective transatlantic responsibility. When the telephone rings early next year, I hope that the other Allies will also be ready, not just with additional forces, but also with extra contributions to training Afghanistan’s National Army and Police, strengthening its institutions and developing its economy." The debate about burden-sharing amongst Allies in the Afghanistan mission has been long drawn out, and European nations have been unreceptive to US demands for greater engagement to date. Will they be more receptive to President Obama, or President McCain?
Another area of controversy is the US attacks into Pakistan, and the Secretary General alluded to this problem: "Success in Afghanistan also means stepping up our political engagement with her neighbours, notably Pakistan. And this is my third point. As long as Pakistan’s border region remains a sanctuary for insurgents, Afghanistan will never become truly secure." he will travel to Pakistan soon, and NATO and Pakistan must come to an arrangement concerning border security and the presence of the Taliban in Pakistan if any success is to be achieved in Afghanistan. The problem is that, at present, NATO's actions and those of the US where it acts alone, are stimulating support for the Taliban in Pakistan and destabilising the new government. De Hoop Scheffer has his work cut out for him.
The Secretary General's speech is available at the NATO website, and we will continue to report the Ministerial as it progresses.