Sunday, 20 May 2012

Are NATO's Global Partnerships the Way to Relevance?

George W Bush didn't really believe in NATO. After 9/11, when the Alliance announced it had invoked its Article V common defence clause for the first time, he (and the rest of America) essentially took no notice. What he believed in was coalitions of the willing. So, instead of letting NATO go to war with the US in Afghanistan, an informal coalition of allies did. The result was the sidelining of the Alliance, and a United States that felt it didn't have to listen to anyone before using military force. The same was later true of Iraq, although it is very doubtful that NATO would have agreed to that particular venture, and the US learned the limits of supposedly unfettered power in a very hard way. Bush's attitude fit the unipolar moment, at least for the right, and was symptomatic of how large Empires behave.

By the time President Obama was elected that moment had subsided and NATO ISAF was running security forces in Afghanistan (although notably not US counter terrorism operations). NATO Europe hoped it would be seen as more relevant. But ISAF was never NATO alone, many more countries were always involved. And European nations were both generally unwilling and also unable to project enough power alongside the US to be the only global allies.

Now the US is selling a vision of NATO where it will operate globally, with different partners for different missions. On May 17, James J. Townsend Jr., deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, told Pentagon Channel and American Forces Press Service reporters about the partnerships plan:
The summit also offers a chance to celebrate NATO partnerships outside the alliance, which greatly extend the organization’s reach, he said. 
“NATO has established partnerships globally that not a lot of people know about,” Townsend said. “Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea have been very helpful to the alliance, particularly in Afghanistan, and in other places.”
The DoD reports Secretary Rasmussen as saying:
Tomorrow, on the second day of the summit, Rasmussen said, “we will meet 13 of our most active partners around the globe, from Europe to Asia and the Middle East, because today’s security challenges are global and they need global solutions.” 
NATO will continue to cooperate with partners from around the world, building on successes “so that we can provide more security for NATO, for our partners, and for the world,” he added.
Fred Kempe of the Atlantic Council of the US certainly believes that the creation of a web of partnerships around the global hub of NATO is the way forward. He has written recently that:

The expected discussions of NATO leaders this weekend about how best to wind down their decade-long Afghan military operation and about how to maintain sufficient defense capabilities, despite growing budget cuts, risk leaving the impression of an alliance in retrenchment or decline. That’s hardly an inspiring or helpful message for a U.S. president heading home to Chicago at the beginning of his re-election campaign. 
By contrast, NATO’s efforts to broaden and deepen cooperation with capable partner nations can be rolled out as a pro-active, forward-looking initiative that has NATO going on offense for a new era. So that no one misses his notion of NATO at the core of a global security network, President Obama and his allies will stage an unprecedented summit meeting with 13 partner nations – from South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia in Asia-Pacific to Jordan, Morocco, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in the Middle East and North Africa. Also present will be five European states that aren’t members of the alliance but routinely contribute to alliance activities – Austria, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland. 
What they’ll be trying to do is give teeth to an agenda for NATO that I first saw discussed in detail by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in a major Foreign Affairs article in October 2009. He argued against those who wished to expand NATO into a global alliance of democracies. He said that would dilute the crucial importance of the U.S.-European connection, which still accounts for half of the world’s economy, and that none of the world’s rising powers would be likely to accept membership in a global NATO. An ideologically defined democratic alliance would needlessly draw institutional lines between the U.S. and, for example, China. 
“NATO, however, has the experience, the institutions, and the means to eventually become the hub of a globe-spanning web of various regional cooperative-security undertakings among states with the growing power to act,” he wrote. “In pursuing that strategic mission, NATO would not only be preserving transatlantic political unity; it would also be responding to the twenty-first century’s novel and increasingly urgent security agenda.” 
It would also rescue the alliance from geostrategic irrelevance.

There is no doubt that NATO's international command structures have been flexible enough to incorporate troops from many other nations in the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan and in Libya. But the real question is political. Do NATO nations want to carry on doing this kind of mission. Very few wanted to participate in Libya, and even support for an Alliance role was very grudging. Afghanistan has come close at times to breaking Alliance unity for good. the caveats that some nations have placed on troop use have been deeply resented by those that played a fuller part. Some, such as Canada and the Netherlands, have terminated their participation there in frustration.

And the truth is that the more NATO strays from the defence of Europe, the less its member states have in common politically. Their goals are simply not the same. And that shows in what states are willing to do. the unity of the Cold War, when the mission was clear, and everyone understood it in simple terms, has long gone. Even the defence of Europe looks very different in Tallinn than it does in London or Lisbon or Ankara.

NATO is a finely honed military tool looking for a rationale to stay in existence. And this partnerships arrangement shows how difficult that search is proving.

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