1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Looking to the future

April 2, 2009

As NATO prepares to celebrate its 60th birthday, it may want to wish for a return to simpler times as it blows out its candles. A changing world of new threats and challenges means no one will be putting their feet up.

The NATO star on the gates of its HQ in Brussels
NATO leaders meet this week to plot a new courseImage: dpa

At most 60th birthday parties, the celebrant is more often than not looking forward to a more sedate future with fewer stresses and strains. Unfortunately, for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the future is unlikely to feature pipes, slippers and long peaceful walks in the country with a grateful dog.

NATO turns 60 on Friday but instead of looking forward to retirement, the defense and security organization that rose from the rubble of a post-war world must summon all its strength to face a whole new series of threats and challenges.

"NATO has arrived at a crucial juncture," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said this week in his last speech, after five years at the helm, before the two-day summit in Strasbourg, northern France, and neighboring Kehl in Germany.

"NATO is expected to help set Afghanistan on the right course. It is expected to reconcile the continuing desire of several nations to join the alliance with the need for a solid NATO-Russia relationship and it is expected to find a convincing answer to new and unconventional threats. This makes for a pretty full plate," he said.

NATO's 28 members are desperately grappling with the question of what, exactly, their military club is meant to do in this new world of asymmetrical warfare, cyber attacks, energy security and the socially destabilizing effects of climate change and financial collapse.

Old challenges with dangerous new dimensions

A nuclear bomb detonated in the Nevada desert
Nuclear proliferation is a bigger problem than ten years agoImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The challenges that NATO faces are not actually that new but have taken on dimensions that have caused the organization to rethink its strategy," a NATO spokesman told Deutsche Welle. "Issues such as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, cyber protection and energy security were all included in the current strategy concept which was signed in 1999. But since then, terrorism has spread in scale and intensity, proliferation has accelerated to the point where it is a serious threat and climate change has opened up many new problems.

"Cyber-terrorism was first addressed ten years ago but it is only now that we can see the full scope of its effects while energy security is most countries' number one concern this year as we saw recently that nations can be brought to their knees when their energy supplies are cut off," the spokesman added. "So what we will see at this summit is a decision to update the 1999 strategy and an announcement that work will begin on a new strategic concept to meet these developing challenges."

Giles Merrit, the director of Brussels-based think tank Security & Defense Agenda Forum Europe, agrees that this week's summit should include discussions on a new strategy for the future of NATO.

"The consensus is that NATO has to fashion a new strategic plan which sets out what it is actually for," Merrit told Deutsche Welle. "There is an enormous array of ideas within the organization; from those who see its future as laid out in its original brief, to protect NATO territory, to those who see it changing into a global peacekeeping force. But this new plan should also look at what NATO's role should be in the fight against terrorism, and in the wider Middle East situation. All these topics have yet to be discussed in detail as NATO enlargement has eclipsed all debates on what role NATO has in a post Cold War world."

Many believe NATO's meeting and resolution of its new challenges relies heavily on an old foe: Russia. Relations with its former Cold War adversary were frozen last year after the war in the Caucasus and have barely risen above tepid since. The thawing of the chill between NATO and the Kremlin will be an important topic this week.

Russian cooperation integral to NATO's future

The NATO symbol on the Russian flag
NATO needs to face new challenges with Russia's helpImage: AP GraphicsBank/DW

"NATO relations with Russia really depend on Russia," the NATO spokesman said. "All of the allies would like Russia to be involved but most see Russia as part of the problem, not the solution. NATO's ambition is to utilize Russia's massive potential to solve our shared problems but the fact is that Russia is responsible for some of those problems. The relationship is very difficult and complex. But the truth is, if we can agree to work together, Russia can really help NATO meet its new challenges."

Giles Merrit agrees: "NATO's relationship with Russia is crucial in addressing its new threats and challenges," he said. "The fact is that since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO, like the EU, has failed to develop a solid policy for Russia. They deal with it on a case-by-case and issue-by-issue basis. NATO should look at how it sees Russia in terms of economy, energy, trade and security. It will see that Russia has many of the same concerns: Moscow wants stability in the Middle East, especially Iran; it wants Afghanistan to be secure and it wants security in the oil and gas-rich Black Sea and Caspian region.

"NATO should also look at how it handles the new, embryonic Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes Russia, China and several central Asian states," he added. "While it is still in its infancy, this is a security structure which stretches halfway round the world. In the coming years, NATO's relationship with the SCO will be very important."

But it is the battle against the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan - where Islamist fighters backed by al Qaeda only have to survive to win - which is informing much of the alliance's thinking and causing it to take a long, hard look at its strategy.

Strategic rethink central to Afghanistan stability

An Afghan soldier on a hill top as sun sets
Experts say a new political strategy is needed in AfghanistanImage: AP

"Our job in Afghanistan under the UN mandate is clear: to provide the country with the means to secure itself," the NATO spokesman said. "We're not hiding the fact that is not happening at the moment and that the efforts to achieve this are tough. This summit is an important opportunity. We have to reinvigorate our strategy. You will hear a lot about a 'comprehensive strategy' in the next few days - this means focusing on military efforts, increased training, a stronger police force, a more cooperative Pakistan. It is a key topic of this summit, to maximize success. Our mission is to help Afghanistan take care of itself…but the fact is, right now, it can't."

"There is a growing awareness that NATO has not been getting it right in Afghanistan," Merrit said. "This isn't a military conflict. This is a governance problem and is something that NATO is not designed for or equipped to tackle. NATO can keep the military situation fairly under control but this is a political problem for the governments of NATO countries not NATO itself. Afghanistan needs new structures of governance, society and economy and to achieve these, it needs a new approach which is outside NATO's influence."

All in all, the alliance is faced with the uncomfortable truth that the threats of the past have changed beyond recognition - and that it will also have to change to cope. The question remains, however, how much will it have to change?

NATO changes by staying the same

National flags flying outside NATO headquarters in Brussels
NATO may start looking outside its own backyardImage: AP

"The essence of NATO won't change," said the spokesman. "Articles 4 and 5 which concern collective defense will always bind the allies. What will have to be addressed is how new expeditionary challenges and demands - such as the realization that the security issues of all the allies start in the Hindu Kush - balance with the idea of protecting the territory of members as laid out in Article 5."

Giles Merrit believes that NATO has already changed considerably and is well-equipped to deal with the new challenges it faces - with maybe a few tweaks here and there.

"NATO is more relevant now than anyone could have expected 10 years ago," he said. "At the turn of the millennium it was in dire need of reinvention and a new role. It was a dying bureaucracy. Since September 11, 2001 and the reawakening of security, it has become a newly effective military structure which is no longer heading for the scrapheap and one which has torn up the rules which says it should be concerned only about its members' territory."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Susan Houlton