NATO: ‘Victory Has Defeated You’

The varnish is cracking. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Atlantic Alliance has searched of a rallying cause. The suggestions have varied through the years, from calls to turn it into a League of Democracies, to making it the UN’s military arm. The reality today however is that this organization is weakened: in 1999’s Kosovo campaign, the Alliance found it hard to bring all members on board with the anti-Yugoslav intervention, namely such states as Greece who had for years been partners with Belgrade. In 2001 the mobilization into Afghanistan was unanimous but the contributions by European members minimal. The Bush administration’s desire to see some form of NATO presence in its campaign in Iraq was early aborted in 2003 and in 2011 agreement on intervention against Libya was fragile and most allies didn’t even bother to make a contribution; little consensus could be expected today too if Syria was brought before the Atlantic Council, a land war there probably causing more disaggregation problems for the Alliance, than solving any.

Grandiose statements issued in past NATO summits boast of great achievements but judging from Lisbon and Chicago, little has changed and that which did was not for the best. Transformation and Smart Power translate these days the sad reality that NATO’s financial and logistical means are dwindling – severe budget cuts in the UK being paradigmatic. Russia’s role as a partner of the Alliance – many even hoped for future membership – is all but gone with Missile Defense suspended and Vladimir Putin not even bothering to show up in Chicago. Judging from the past Lisbon Summit, Turkey’s role is also worrisome as negotiations with Ankara had to be conducted as almost on a NATO-Turkey Council basis rather than as full member, due to strong disagreements – Cyprus most of all. Why then such gloomy prospects?

Game Theory

Difficulties in coordination can easily be explained by game theory as the Organization has for the past decades expanded the number of its members and lost its most common of goals. From 1989 to 2009 thirteen – if one counts East Germany – new states joined NATO’s ranks almost doubling the number of members. The more voices the more watered down any agreement will become given the increasingly divergent interests being pursued. Simultaneously the threat posed by the USSR disappeared and only a handful of eastern members now plan against possible aggressive moves by Moscow – roughly that which Donald Rumsfeld described as the ‘new Europe’.

NATO is today less united and less focused.

Values Vs Interests

NATO was created as a means to an end: the end was to contain Soviet power in Europe, the means was a strategic encirclement of the USSR through the establishing of a cordon sanitaire enveloping eastern Europe and thus preventing the socialist bloc’s desire to propagate – peacefully or otherwise – Marxism beyond its borders. The containment of Marxism allowed for the political independence of western Europe as well as a sustainable balance of power in the world; this was an interest of the north-Americans and western-Europeans, not a value. Precisely because it was not a value was why illiberal regimes were allowed and even wooed by NATO. Portugal Greece or Turkey provided for strategic advantage and completed the quarantine of communist Europe.  

All this changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall as NATO became then rhetorically entrapped by its Cold War narrative of democracy and human rights and soon found itself awash with membership requests from central and eastern European regimes emerging from the wave of velvet revolutions, many inspired by the Helsinki Accords. Nowadays NATO styles itself as a “promoter of human rights” and claims to thrive “(…) as a source of hope because it is based on common values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”, values which are “(…) universal and perpetual, and we are determined to defend them through unity, solidarity, strength and resolve”. However, the problem deriving from this mission is that it frequently clashes with the interests that initially brought the NATO members together. In Afghanistan the mission quickly changed from dislodging the Taliban to creating a stable and functioning democracy with rule of law. The initial objective may very well have been corrupted by the latter by now and what to say of NATO’s strategic partnership with Pakistan if its primary mission is to promote democracy and fights in Afghanistan to do so?

Global Vs Regional  

NATO was originally an organization with a mandate for the north Atlantic area exclusively as specified by the Treaty’s art. 6. All the colonial conflicts that were fought by NATO’s European members were not part of NATO’s scope (French Indochina, Portuguese India and Africa, Dutch Indonesia, etc). Likewise in 1982 the Falklands were defended by the British alone without any hope for allied support. However, since the 90s the emphasis has been on expanding the reach of NATO. The Indian Ocean is very much NATO jurisdiction today as the organization’s anti-piracy mission off Somalia proves and operation Enduring Freedom attested earlier. NATO has also intervened in Africa providing air transport in Darfur for example. In a way it makes sense since NATO’s goals are also global: promoting democracy and fighting terrorism cannot be accomplished solely at home. These are however dangerous objectives to have for an organization which finds it more and more difficult to agree on joint action and whose financial resources are decreasing.

Politics Vs Strategy

According to Christopher Coker from LSE, NATO was during the 90s, a “half-way house for EU membership”. Like CEFTA the OECD or the OSCE, NATO seemed to be just another stage in the normalization of the socialist bloc and the ultimate goal was membership in the European Union with all the advantageous economic benefits henceforth derived. No one stopped to think though whether NATO had something to gain from the accession of such states as the Baltic republics: these, far from constituting an asset to the organization revealed themselves to be liabilities with their security now dependent on NATO air patrols and the Alliance suffering in its relations with Russia every time a contentious issue emerges between Moscow and one of the republics. One might also add that were Russia to invade one of the three, NATO could never respond in time to prevent an occupation.

This dilemma was at the forefront of the Bucharest summit when Ukraine and Georgia were denied membership – presciently so too as but a few months later Georgia and Russia would be at war and no one in NATO was prepared to come to Georgia’s aid. Universal goals do not go well with limited means. Because commentators talk strategy and strategists talk logistics, NATO leaders would do well to adapt their narrative and strategy to their logistical capabilities.

Short Term Vs Long Term

This is not to say that NATO should simply focus on immediate needs but rather that its search for a unifying goal has led it astray through paths of political correctness and diffuse agendas. Political correctness and normative narratives are ephemeral, objective interests such as energy security or territorial integrity are not and it is in securing these that the Alliance should be focusing on.

Empirical Trauma

Instead such concepts as Transformation have taken hold of the organization with a Command structure being specifically assigned to dealing with this matter. Transformation is the push for an increasingly technologically sophisticated, logistically interoperable and multi-mission mandate force which allows the Alliance to do more with less. On paper no one can disagree with these aims but in reality they too are problematic.

Transformation must be said, results from two traumas of western strategic planning during the Cold War: the first is Vietnam where the US learned the political danger of mobilizing conscripts to expeditionary campaigns and the second is the German front where western forces were outnumbered and under pressure for decades relying solely on conventional technological advantage and in general on nuclear deterrence. The first trauma caused a paradigm change from conscript armies to professional ones, the second one brought about an emphasis on quality instead of quantity in the armed forces which was only reinforced by the Gulf War in ’91, and one which eventually paved the way for the strategic concept of ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’.

It was only after the Roman army was transformed into a professional one that the path was open to Imperial rule. The prerogative of which wars to fight was transferred from the citizens to whoever could afford the professional army, authority thus becoming more centralized in the oligarchy.

In the West too central authority has been steadily growing for the past decades but more to the point, the armed forces have been turned into a professional army and have since been gradually converted into more and more expeditionary roles. The average European state nowadays has military commitments in four different dimensions: the national, the European (CSDP), the Atlantic (NATO) and the Global (UN) one. Even if NATO takes precedence over the others, something has clearly got to give at some point. One wonders what will happen the day when transformation has been taken to its logical conclusion states become become de facto interdependent in terms of military action – consensus would be impractical and decisive action a rarity, given no one actor’s ability to intervene independently. Redundancy was there for a reason…

On the other hand, one of the consequences of quality over quantity as well as professionalization has been the growing political apathy of the citizenry along with the gratuity of NATO’s power projection. The average citizen does not care enough to form an opinion on military interventions and the armed forces mean so little that most voters recurrently advocate defense cuts to pay for unsustainable social spending. Concurrently NATO’s role as a defensive organ has been abandoned and with the exception of Afghanistan, NATO’s campaigns in Bosnia Kosovo or Libya seem to exemplify more the agenda of certain intellectual elites of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ persuasion rather than a necessity clearly understood by the people.

One additional consequence of the high-tech paradigm and such concepts as ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ has also been a greater dependence on local irregular forces and on black ops. Counter insurgency is a direct cousin of RMA. The necessity to control territory coupled with political unwillingness to pay the political cost of military mobilization was what drove the strategist David Galula to design contre-insurrection as a military doctrine for the French army in Algeria. General Petraeus was forced to make use of it once more when in Iraq the invading force was denied the necessary manpower to ensure security in the territory. This determination to both enjoy the benefits of intervention while simultaneously not incurring the cost at home – be it in casualties or treasury – was one of the reasons why the US found its public debt spiraling out of control. Consequently the fear of casualty driven unpopularity put greater reliance on local irregulars which brought the cost in war atrocities to unnecessary heights; the need to use special forces and unconventional tactics also causing additional legal problems for advocates of international law.

Conversely, the application of traditional warfare models in Chechnya or Sri Lanka contrasts with NATO’s model in terms of public endorsement and unintended consequences. Statesmen who risk their careers on a conflict may also reap the political benefits of it and the need for public support discourages foreign adventurism and wars of opportunity or as Haass would put it: ‘wars of choice’.

NATO has become complacent about intervention, but war on the cheap is not the choice of responsible statesmen and it should not be built into doctrine especially when the results of Bosnia, Kosovo or Libya are – unlike Chechnya or Sri Lanka – far from decisive.

An Atlantic Open Method of Coordination

NATO needs first and foremost to find a way out of political deadlock and then it needs to rethink its approach on intervention. The best way to avoid future impasses would be to borrow a page from one of the world’s most complex institutional systems. The EU frequently makes use of the Open Method of Coordination which basically means that ad hoc coalitions of states can move ahead with one policy if there is no general consensus – basically what happened already with the campaign in Libya. There is no sense in expelling member-states now but at least one might allow each government to assess which are its individual security priorities.

The Alliance needs to admit that there is no unifying cause other than technical and logistical cooperation and stop binding itself politically to objectives which will only bring it accusations of hypocrisy. Local interest should trumpet global values and the defence budgets have to be protected from partisan domestic politics.

Finally NATO needs to understand there is no such thing as ease of intervention and that military action must only be taken if vital interests are at stake.

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