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NATO reloaded

May 15, 2010

For the first time since 1999, NATO is devising a new strategic concept. The group of experts tasked with drafting the paper must tackle not only a changed security environment, but also different threat perceptions.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO's Secretary General
NATO's Secretary General commissioned the strategy review by the expert panelImage: AP

It is merely 11 years, but in terms of the geopolitical developments that have occurred since NATO last adapted its strategic concept, it was a different era.

While the Cold War had come to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall a decade earlier, it was still largely unclear what global trends and events would shape the next era. The attacks of September 11 in 2001 brutally ended this interval, launching an era where Islamic terrorism, asymetric threats, counterinsurgency warfare and failing states quickly became the new currency in the international debate on global security.

NATO has repeatedly discussed what the changed geopolitcal landscape means for the venerable institution. But it hasn't - until now - framed and formalized the allliance's response to these challenges in a revised doctrine. To do just that, to develop a new strategic concept, was the task given to former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and a group of international experts.

And it isn't just the world that has changed since NATO's last concept introduced in 1999. NATO has changed itself, explains Latvia's foreign minister Aivis Ronis, who was part of the expert group until he resigned in early May after accepting the post as his country's top diplomat.

New members

"Since many Central and Eastern European states, including the Baltic countries, have joined NATO in 2004 and of course have not participated in drafting the strategic concept of 1999, for the first time in these open seminars and conferences Central and Eastern Europeans could contribute to the common vision of NATO and the transatlantic community regarding security, threats and challenges and global changes," says Ronis.

"This is an historic experience for the Central and Eastern European countries and especially for the Baltic states."

Due to their recent history with and proximity to Russia, many of these newer countries have a different view of NATO's main priorities than some of the alliance's older and larger members.

New members from Central Eastern Europe joined the alliance in 2004
NATO's new members bring new perspectives to the allianceImage: Nato

"The strategy will have to cope with fears which exist in Eastern Europe primarily with regard to Russia, i.e. Article 5 (collective defense - ed.)," says Fred Tanner, Director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy, who served as a rapporteur on one of the seminars held by the group of experts.

"On the other hand of course you have other countries like France or the UK who have more of an interest to use NATO together with the US outside of NATO."

The experts agree that, as Latvia's foreign minister puts it, there needs to be a synergy of territorial defense and the promotion of stability security outside of NATO's traditional realm of influence.

New and old threats

But, Karl Kaiser, Director of the Program on Transatlantic Relations at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, argues that collective defense as laid out in Article 5 of the NATO treaty can't be the alliance's raison d'etre.

"Article 5 should not dissappear," says Kaiser who testified before the group of experts last year.

"Of course if a country gets attacked, the others have to come to its assistance, but that is not the main reason for the alliance today. The main reason is elsewhere. So we have to reconcile the two, we have to have both, but we shouldn't put Article 5 at the top anymore and do, as some of these countries want, exercizes looking at the potential of Russian aggression."

The underlying dilemma for NATO and the group of experts is the lack of a common threat perception within the new, larger alliance. And this threat assessment gap doesn't just exist between newer and older members, it is also evident between European members and the US.

While the US wants NATO to focus much more on counter-terrorism efforts outside NATO territory, many European members are deeply skeptical about such a global military role as exemplified by the debate over the Afghanistan mission.

Madeleine Albright shakes hands with Sergey Lavrov, at the Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow in February 2010
The group of experts visited Moscow to engage Russia as wellImage: AP

Flexibility needed

For NATO and the group of experts, this means the new concept must try and square the circle.

"The strategy will have to be flexible," says Tanner. It will have to take into account different threat perceptions and various contingencies, both inside NATO's traditional transatlantic realm of influence and beyond.

To do just that, to ensure that NATO can act in classical military fashion against an outside aggressor and at the same time can engage in counter-terrorism activities and state-building measures in Asia or Africa could be easier on paper than in practice. Especially in times of tight budgets and with NATO members like Greece on the brink of financial collapse.

Despite these steep challenges, NATO is indispensable, argue the experts. "NATO is needed for the security of our people, defending our democracy and promoting peace and stability in this very unpredictable, very uncertain and very complex world," says Ronis.

"NATO's big advantage today is that it has the ability to act in a robust environment," argues Tanner. "It can use force if necessary. And it is actually the only organization which has this capability with a certain projection of power."

To harness that unique power, a convincing new strategy laid out by the panel of experts would be a good start, says Kaiser:

"It shouldn't be too long, it shouldn't be some bland lowest common denominator, but be sharp in defining the threats to modern society and what modern societies have to do in order to deal with these new threats."

NATO operations and missions infographic

Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge