Natos long drift towards irrelevance

By Philip Stephens

When institutions struggle to explain themselves it seems a reasonable bet they have outlived their purpose. Nato styles itself the world’s most successful defensive alliance. It has spent a year rethinking its mission statement. A rhetorical recasting of its ambitions is not enough to assure its future.

For its first 40 years, Nato had no need of such thumb-sucking exercises. The Soviet tanks sitting the other side of the German plains spoke for themselves. Sure, there were big debates about deterrence and détente, and heated arguments about short-range nuclear weapons. But everyone signed up to the proposition that Nato was the vital guarantor of security.

During the past two decades the alliance has been a tougher sell. When the Berlin Wall came down, some thought it should pack up its tent and walk into the history books. Instead, the alliance extended its security to the former communist states. It expanded to 28 members and went to war to protect peace in the Balkans. The task is not yet complete, but the “Europe whole and free” of cold war aspiration has moved a lot closer.

The terrorist attacks on the US on September 11 2001 seemed for one hubristic moment to invite a yet more expansive role. The alliance was promoted as a global policeman – the cutting edge of the inexorable march of western democracy. This was before President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and the realisation that a military alliance designed to see off the Soviets is ill-equipped to nation-build in Afghanistan.

There have been other big changes since 1999 – the last time Nato decided to write down what it was for. Russia is richer and more assertive. The speed with which China, India and others have joined the ranks of the big powers has changed the world’s geopolitical geometry. Nato has found itself a Euro-Atlantic institution in what promises to be a Pacific century.

Then, of course, there is Afghanistan. It is not so long since alliance policymakers were declaring that the war against the Taliban marked an existential test for Nato. Never mind that some European governments declined to offer combat troops. Victory was the only option. That was then. The challenge now is to manage withdrawal without admitting defeat.

The new strategic concept – Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Nato’s secretary-general, is to present a draft next week – attempts to catch up with the changes. After the usual diplomatic haggling, Nato leaders are due to endorse a final version at their Lisbon summit in November.

Mr Rasmussen’s draft is said to be a crisper document than its predecessor. He has cut down the list of priorities to a manageable handful and been alert to the fact that words have meaning only if they are a reliable guide to action.

It seems fairly obvious that Nato should modernise its strategic posture. We live in an age of fewer wars, but greater insecurity. The advance of western values no longer seems assured. Many of the rising nations value raw power above collaboration.

This scarcely seems the moment for like-minded democracies to choose to go it alone. Threats to the west’s territory have been replaced by myriad challenges to its way of life. A cyber attack on Estonia was one early warning sign. Piracy in the Indian Ocean and interruptions to energy supplies have been others. The al-Qaeda leadership may be pinned down, but violent Islamism has not gone away.

Equally, it would be foolish to assume that Russia no longer poses any threat. The Nato-Russia Council rightly treats Moscow as a partner, but the experience of recent years – Russian troops still occupy Georgian territory – suggests that it should be a partnership buttressed by resolve.

Some in “Old Europe” – and Germany is not alone among them – have grown complacent about the so-called Article 5 commitment to treat an attack on one Nato member as an attack on all. Seen from the New Europe of former communist states, the Russian bear does not seem quite so cuddly.

Such circles can be squared. Nato can simultaneously bolster the defence of its eastern frontiers and negotiate with Moscow to reduce conventional arms and collaborate in building missile defence. Ill-feeling about Afghanistan will linger for some time but, as long as European members do not bolt for the exit, it is possible to see a way through.

The real danger for the alliance comes from within – from European reluctance to pay for its own defence (even Britain is about to abandon the Nato pledge to hold military spending above 2 per cent of national income) and from growing US indifference towards what Washington sees as feckless allies.

At the start of the strategic concept exercise, a group of experts headed by Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, was commissioned to write a report into the alliance’s future. One sentence jumps out: “Threats to the interests of the alliance come from the outside, but the organisation’s vigour could as easily be sapped from within.”

The alliance is the keystone of the transatlantic relationship, the institutional expression of Euro-Atlantic solidarity. As the US looks to the Pacific and Europe hides under the bedcovers, however, there is precious little evidence of shared resolve. Nato is not about to collapse. But in the absence of political will, any number of new mission statements will not halt a steady drift to irrelevance.

Post-Crisis World Institute