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The Chicago Summit: a relevant NATO in a post-western world ?

By Trine Flockhart
May 16th 2012



NATO attempts to brush over the original intentions behind the Chicago Summit may prove successful, given an extremely able diplomatic bureaucracy and an environment with a short memory span. But despite ‘smart defence’, three crucial issues left off the agenda could spell the end of NATO relevance.

At the end of this week NATO will host its 25th summit in Obama’s hometown Chicago. Heads of state and government from around 60 nations and thousands of international bureaucrats will descend on Chicago to fanfare the progress made since the Alliance met in Lisbon in November 2010. On that occasion NATO adopted a new Strategic Concept designed to make the Alliance ready to face the security challenges of the twenty-first century.

The adoption of the Strategic Concept included a number of innovative initiatives and elegant political formulations and was seen as a major achievement. For example in a surprising and bold initiative, NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen invited Russia to cooperate with NATO on missile defence and other areas of shared interest. Moreover the Alliance decided at Lisbon to undertake a comprehensive review of NATO’s defence and deterrence posture, including a review of the role of nuclear weapons in Alliance strategy, including the really difficult issue concerning the fate of the remaining (approximately) 200 American-owned non-strategic nuclear weapons based in Europe. In addition, the Strategic Concept elevatedCrisis Management and Cooperative Security to core tasks on a par with the traditional main task – Collective Security.

The Chicago Summit seems an excellent opportunity to reflect on what the Alliance has achieved in these two new core tasks – notably as a crisis management actor in Libya and as a cooperative security actor through new strategic relationships with emerging powers, international organizations and with Russia. In addition the expectation has been raised that the Chicago Summit would provide the occasion for the Alliance to produce a comprehensive outline of what the alliance considers the appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defense forces to maintain a credible defense and a credible and relevant policy of deterrence, as well as demonstrating progress on the initiative to cooperate with Russia on missile defense.

Whether the expectations generated at the Lisbon Summit will be met is however today in question. NATO will certainly still be able to take stock of the mission in Afghanistan and a new (albeit rather vague) partnership policy has also been adopted. However, there has not been much progress on any of the other, originally assumed, key issues, such as a revision of NATO’s defence and deterrence posture, cooperation with Russia on missile defence, alongside increased cooperation with other international actors. This is a problem because these are precisely the areas where NATO has the greatest need for change if the Alliance is to remain relevant in the looming conditions of a ‘post-western’ international system.

No doubt NATO will do its best to brush over the original intentions behind the Chicago Summit and will seek to present the agenda as consisting of the most important issues facing the Alliance today. This is likely to be successful because NATO does have an extremely able diplomatic bureaucracy – expert in presenting even mediocre achievements as outstanding successes and with the benefit of operating in an environment with a short memory span.

Moreover, NATO has had plenty of time for planning and for NATO’s international staff to formulate an agenda, which appears to follow the original plan set out in Lisbon. However although the gain may be a smooth Summit (which in a bureaucracy such as NATO counts as a success), the longterm costs of not grappling with the difficult issues now, may be a less relevant future NATO.

A streamlined agenda

The Chicago Summit seems likely to have only three main topics – Afghanistan; defence capabilities, including the proposal for ‘smart defense’; and partnerships. The other issues introduced at Lisbon have now been relegated to secondary headings, which will appear in the communiqué, but which are unlikely to have a high public profile. Moreover, the Summit seems likely to maintain a ‘deafening silence’ about the most fundamental questions raised in connection with the launch of the new Strategic Concept – namely, whether the new NATO will remain relevant in a changed world where America’s attention will pivot towards Asia, while Europeans will increasingly be expected to ‘keep their own house in order’.

According to senior NATO diplomats the absolutely central issue at the Summit will be the transition towards a non-combat role in Afghanistan. The Alliance will use the Summit to reaffirm NATO’s continued support for the Afghan people. NATO will naturally do everything to present the outcome of the Afghanistan mission in a positive way, but behind the rhetorical niceties, there will also be a firm determination to reach some form of agreement on the funding of Afghan security forces after 2014. The ambition is to secure a contribution of 1 billion Euros, which under prevailing economic conditions seems to be a pretty ambitious goal.

The second main theme is capabilities – including Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s initiative for a so-called ‘smart defense’. Although ‘smart defense’ may just be a clever way of saying that NATO must spend less without compromising NATO’s abilities, the initiative could have potentially far-reaching consequences. What is certain is that ‘smart defense’ will be the key word heard in public, whilst other less rhetorically appealing forms of capabilities such as air policing, intelligence, surveillance, drones and reconnaissance will be on the working agenda. In addition NATO will announce that the missile defense that was agreed in Lisbon in 2010 is now operational in the first phase – albeit without the planned cooperation with Russia in place.

Tucked in the summit communiqué there is also likely to be a statement that NATO supports President Obama’s stated aim of a world without nuclear weapons, and that NATO will seek reductions – preferably through negotiations with Russia on non-strategic nuclear weapons located in Europe and western Russia. It seems unlikely however that the Summit will produce the originally intended statement on what the Alliance considers to be ‘an appropriate mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defense forces’.

The third item on the Chicago Summit agenda is partnerships. On this topic NATO has actually agreed a new NATO partnership policy, which includes an aim to develop new strategic relationships and a greater focus on differentiation between different partners according to the needs and shared interests of prospective partners. Moreover, NATO has agreed that those partners who contribute to Alliance operations need to have increased influence and increased access to information. However, it remains unclear what NATO might be able to contribute to partners. The problem is that even though NATO’s new partnership policy is a good start, the precise contours of the policy remain vague and the issue that contributing partners may expect something in return for their contributions is not a question which NATO so far has been willing to address.

Rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic

Unfortunately, the summit agenda seems to be composed solely of topics that are important internally to NATO as a security Organization. It is however equally important to address issues that are important outside the NATO framework, especially topics that are important for NATO’s existing and prospective partners and especially to the leading member, the United States.

Since the launch of the strategic concept in 2010, NATO has been the subject of a growing debate over whether the Alliance can remain relevant in a world where focus is increasingly directed towards Asia and where the European member states have been reluctant to participate in the very missions (Afghanistan and Libya) that endow the alliance with relevance. The question that should be asked in Chicago – and which is frequently discussed in the corridors of NATO – is what is needed for NATO to remain relevant in the world order characterized by a waning interest in European security challenges. The problem here is that the questions that will be on the agenda at the Chicago Summit are the least important in relation to the issue of relevance. Granted, it is important to ‘wrap up’ properly on more than a decade spent in Afghanistan, and who can be against ‘smart defence’? It is also positive that NATO now has a partnership policy, and the Alliance will be able to declare an interim capability on missile defence. The problem is that these are all Alliance focused issues. Yet, if NATO cannot remain a relevant security actor in relation to a number of other actors in a changing international system, the initiatives on the agenda for the Chicago Summit will matter little more than rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.

The big question is whether there is a need for an organization like NATO in a ‘post-western’ world. NATO’s Strategic Concept of 2010 pointed to several security challenges in which NATO could play a role as a relevant security actor in relation to both maintaining member states’ security and in relation to ensuring accessibility to resources, keeping open and secure trade and communication routes (including cyber security), and contributing to regional stability. In addition, the mission in Libya showed that NATO is the only security Organization that can be sent out at short notice when the unexpected crisis occurs.  This is of tremendous importance because in a post-western world, NATO’s relevance is not only dependent on the ability of the Alliance (with substantial US support) to defend its members. A relevant NATO in a post-western world, is a NATO which new and emerging powers want to partner; which the existing power centre (USA) still wants to nurture; and which those without power still deem appropriate to turn to when the crisis happens. Sadly the agenda for the Chicago Summit does not seem to strengthen NATO along these three dimensions.

Chicago – a missed opportunity?

The last 18 months have demonstrated that although most Alliance members are aware that NATO  must change, a few member states continue to hamper NATO’s ability to undertake the necessary transformation. Unfortunately the streamlined Chicago agenda seems likely NOT to include three crucial issues areas, suggesting that NATO will miss this opportunity to ensure its own relevance.

Firstly, it is unfortunate that NATO has not been able to agree on a revision of the nuclear strategy that was formulated during the Cold War and which rests on the assumption that US ‘nuclear protection’ is best ensured through the stationing of US non-strategic nuclear weapons on European territory. NATO has already disposed of approx. 90 percent of these weapons, but there are still around 200 aging free-fall bombs of the type B61 left in Europe. Since the delivery systems (Tornado and F-16 aircraft) are coming up for replacement, the question of what to do with the European-based nuclear capability cannot be put off for long.

Secondly, it is also unfortunate that NATO and Russia have not been able to agree on a programme for cooperation on missile defence. The establishment of new strategic relationships with a wide variety of different actors, who may or may not share the values of the Alliance will be an increasingly important precondition for relevance in an international system where power will be more evenly distributed and where shared interests will not necessarily follow shared values. There is still potential for a changed relationship with Russia, but NATO must agree as an Alliance on whether Russia is cast as a potential adversary or as a potential partner. At the moment NATO (and Russian) rhetoric oscillates from one to the other.

Finally, despite clear signals from the United States that European allies can only remain relevant to the United States if they are willing and able to contribute to NATO missions, several NATO members seem not to have taken the hint. NATO is no longer just about the US protecting Europe – Europeans must also support the United States. Nevertheless, the European allies flocked to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible and NATO could only muster 8 members (out of 28) in the mission in Libya. Moreover, although the United States has reassured the Europeans that Europe remains America’s main ally, one cannot ignore the fact that the focus on Europe has diminished and that prominent American analysts are talking about a significantly reduced US role in Europe. A NATO acting on the basis of ‘coalitions of the willing’ cannot remain cohesive for long.

It may therefore prove to be the case that despite a successful Summit in Chicago at the end of the week – NATO will not be a particularly relevant security organization at the end of the decade.

Originally published by Open Democracy

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