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Big world, big future, big NATO

Julian Lindley-French articulates seven strategic messages for the Euro-Atlantic community

Julian Lindley-French is a senior scholar at the Centre for Applied Policy, University of Munich.

18.01.2006 · C·A·P

NATO’s world is changing fast and not for the better. The pace of change is such that much of the security and defence debate, particularly in Europe, resembles the theatre of the absurd, focused on what can be done, rather than what needs to be done. The world needs a strong Europe; transatlantic relations need a strong Europe; and NATO needs a strong Europe. But as the world gets bigger, Europe gets smaller. In short, European defence is becoming disengaged from world security. There are, of course, reasons for this. For the first time in 500 years Europe is neither the centre of conflict, nor of power. As a result, there is a real danger that a little Europe will lead to a little NATO, thereby condemning the West and its system of institutionalised and stable power to decline.

The centre of gravity of power on this planet is moving inexorably eastward. As it does, the nature of power itself is changing. The Asia-Pacific region brings much that is dynamic and positive to this world, but as yet the rapid change therein is neither stable nor embedded in stable institutions. Until this is achieved, it is the strategic responsibility of Europeans and North Americans, and the institutions they have built, to lead the way towards strategic stability. However, it is tough for leaders and planners to generate the necessary vision. Not only is the political will to think big lacking, but the operational tempo ruthlessly emphasises the here and now, leaving little time and few resources to consider the next and beyond. Despite this, it is the nature and scope of change that the Alliance needs to address now, not only its many symptoms.

Two words dominate the emerging security environment – big picture. It is a picture that is becoming ever more vivid by the day, which raises several big questions about the collective future of the Alliance that must be addressed today, not in five or ten years’ time. In this big picture, challenges and threats, such as strategic terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq are but parts, albeit important ones. Indeed, the lessons that addressing such issues will be vital to success in NATO’s future strategic mission – strategic stabilisation.

This article presents the Euro-Atlantic community with seven strategic messages and challenges Europeans and North Americans to think big now about their collective role in the world of the 21st century.

Only NATO can re-establish the West at the centre of global security

At no time in recorded history has the kind of rapid, social, economic and military shift that is taking place today not generated profound insecurity. The shift in power is neither controlled, nor institutionalised. Consequently, tension will almost inevitably arise between states, not just between states and non-state actors. Balance-of-power politics is returning, bringing with it a range of security policy implications for Europeans and North Americans that have been absent since the end of the Cold War. The broad array of risks and threats that the new environment is generating call for both a new transatlantic strategic dialogue and a new intra-European strategic dialogue. In short, Europeans must begin aggregating power, not disaggregating leadership, if they are to create a stable Europe, in a better world, to quote loosely the European Union’s Security Strategy. They must do so in the context of the political West that remains a vital security identity in the 21st-century world.

Unfashionable though it may be in some quarters, the Alliance needs to be at the centre of that dialogue. Europe matters and, given the complexity of the security issues confronting the West, so does the emerging role of the European Union as a security actor. It is sad to report, therefore, that so much recent Europeanization has come at the expense of a willingness of Europeans to understand the security implications of globalisation and confront them in a realistic and effective manner. The focus of Europeans on low politics has affected almost every instrument and institution the West has to offer the world. In the wake of the constitutional debacle, the European Union appears unable to confront the high politics of world security. Meanwhile, Afghanistan and Iraq are demonstrating the limits rather than the extent of US power in this world. Both Europeans and North Americans, therefore, need an institution able and willing to confront high politics. For the foreseeable future, that institution has to be NATO because it provides the only mechanism for closing the gap between instability and capability.

Confronting the high politics of world security will not be easy, particularly for Europeans and Canadians. There is unlikely to be much money available for security and defence. Indeed, as Asia booms, Europe is in danger of becoming a strategic backwater, all too vulnerable to the tidal wave of change. Much has been made of the Alliance’s transformation over the past 15 years, but even this process has failed to keep pace with the change in the world beyond. NATO was once an alliance focused on the Euro-Atlantic area. In the 21st century NATO must become an alliance founded on the Euro-Atlantic area, designed to project systemic stability beyond its borders. For the sake of all its members there is no choice because security effectiveness in such a world is impossible without both legitimacy and capability. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has turned away from its grand strategic purpose and played the role of regional political stabiliser, focusing on micro-managing Europe’s security environment. NATO’s destiny, however, is to play the macro-stabilisation role for which the Alliance was created. NATO must always be a mirror of the environment it serves and transform itself again, if it is to address the needs of the big security environment.

In this hyper-electronic age, security and defence are merging to create global interdependence and mutual vulnerability. Indeed, the critical functioning of states or communities of states is now dependent on so many electronically interdependent systems and critical infrastructures that disruption could well be akin to destruction in future. Article-5, collective defence will continue to matter. However, like the Alliance itself, the treaty that created it must be interpreted as the basis for a dynamic defence in a dynamic age in which borders will be virtual as much as physical. To be effective in this world, the Alliance must recall why it was formed – to ensure the political and physical integrity of its members through political solidarity underpinned by credible capability to engender political stability.

The transatlantic relationship must be re-constituted into a new relationship for a new world

In an ideal world, change in Asia would see the emergence of new great powers that become peers and partners without being competitors. However, much of Asia is beset by economic imbalances and other pressures, such as nationalism, which makes the region resistant to the kind of institutions the West has built, notwithstanding the existence of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and various Shanghai security groupings. Until power in the Asia-Pacific region is embedded in functioning institutions of the type that the European Union and NATO represent, a power paragon of stability is required. Such a foundation can only be provided by Europeans (and Canadians) capable of partnership with a United States open to the political power of partnership. In other words, a new transatlantic contract is required focused on a new NATO, which will become the cornerstone of global stability.

Given the pace and nature of change in Asia, given the extreme belief systems that seem in many ways a direct corollary of globalisation and the spread of massively destructive technologies, many of which are now over half a century old, the only way to protect the international system the West has built, is to re-energise the transatlantic relationship. Never good at small-picture security, the transatlantic relationship is good at big-picture security. The Alliance must therefore be given the mission to look forward, and not be constrained by petty rivalries about hierarchy and prestige within the West.

In time, China may well become a vital Alliance partner in promoting strategic stability. Shared concerns over the North Korean nuclear programme and the scourge of piracy on the high seas point in such a direction. However, three traits of Chinese military modernisation must be of concern to Western planners. First, China is investing in offensive electronic warfare capabilities and electronic counter-measures. Second, China is building a navy with supporting air and ground forces designed to deny the US Navy entry to the Sea of Japan for some two to three weeks. Third, China’s defence spending is probably two to three times greater than declared. In the absence of full security and defence transparency, the transatlantic partners need to consider the security implications of such emerging military power. In short, China’s defence policy is aimed ever more pointedly at the defence capability of the United States. It is also destabilising an already volatile region. There can be no systemic security without Asian security and there will be no Asian security without a strong role for the West therein.

The Strategic Concept needs to find its place in the "big" world

Given the nature and pace of change in the word, the context of the Strategic Concept is changing at an alarming rate and, in an ideal world, it might be nice to update it. That said, the existing Strategic Concept already has all that is needed to provide guidance to leaders and planners alike as they prepare the Alliance to cope with the emerging big-picture security environment. The issue is how it is interpreted and the problem, as usual, is political not military strategic. Consequently, there is little connection between the Strategic Concept and the strategic vision required to cope with change and manage it thereafter. A huge amount has happened since 1999 when the Strategic Concept was agreed with the centre of gravity of most of the security interests of members now well beyond Europe. At the very least, the Alliance will need to change the Euro-centric focus of the Strategic Concept and re-posit it at a global level.

Without a comprehensive and relevant Strategic Concept, defence and force planning becomes unbalanced. There is a danger that limited armed forces will be planned for that reflect only a partial appreciation of the environment in which they must operate and the missions they will need to undertake. By providing an effective interface between grand strategy and military strategy, a Strategic Concept should enable armed forces to retain that all-important ability to re-constitute themselves in the face of escalating change in the security environment. Political realism, therefore, needs to be re-inserted into Alliance planning. Sustained and credible operations at the strategic level require planning to be based on strong analysis and force fundamentals. But as long as Europeans (and Canadians) are only prepared to recognise as much threat as they can afford, such realism will be hard to find.

At present, the Alliance is all too often being asked to use limited militaries to close the gap between the securing of interests – what is vital to the immediate well-being of the Euro-Atlantic community – and the projection of values – the political evolution of others after the West’s own image. At the very least, re-visiting the Strategic Concept could and should offer a better understanding of the relationship between political desired end-states in complex, far-away places and the use of militaries to that end. Given the 15-year lag between vision, planning and capacity, and given the pace of systemic change, the planning process should start now.

NATO should also undertake a Strategic Security Horizons project so that force transformation is matched by a transformation of strategic planning. Indeed, for Europeans the only way to empower the Strategic Concept, for that is what will be required, will be regenerative transformation of armed forces through better organisation and spending. In short, not only should strategy and concept be constantly reviewed in light of change, but the linkage between strategy and capability needs to be re-established. Such practice is at the heart of alliance. Indeed, without such a review any alliance, however hallowed, is doomed to subside into irrelevance.

Transformation must have staying power as well as fighting power

Alongside the review of strategy, the transformation of NATO’s armed forces is perhaps the Alliance’s most pressing mission. Indeed, the two processes are intrinsically linked. The political credibility of the transatlantic relationship as the foundation of the international system, and the particular role of Europeans therein, must necessarily be based upon military capability that preserves the military superiority of the democracies. Such an observation might not be politically correct, but it is certainly strategically correct. Unfortunately, NATO’s ability to generate security effect in a big world is being undermined by a force-planning dilemma. The need for highly deployable, highly-capable armed forces is entirely correct. However, there is also a need for a critical mass of forces that can operate across the conflict spectrum and over both time and distance.

Ten years after NATO deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Alliance is moving from regional to strategic stabilisation – first through partnership, second through membership and, if necessary, through forced entry and temporary coercion. However, to date no-one has solved the resource dilemma created by such stabilisation – how to balance the capability to enter a non-permissive environment with the capacity needed to make such an environment sustainably permissive.

NATO needs both high-end forces and forces able to stabilise and reconstruct. Like it or not, some countries are better able to forcibly enter, and others are more suited to stabilise and re-construct. Such a basic reality has been lost in a self-defeating and pointless debate over division of labour. There is, however, a division of labour between those countries that can apply robust force and those that cannot. Those countries that choose not to, be it through low levels of defence spending or a conscious political choice, must recognise that Alliance membership in NATO’s post-enlargement age obliges them to take on a stabilisation role. At the same time, stabilisation and reconstruction capabilities must be accorded a higher value within the Alliance’s political structure. The benchmark for political influence has become too focused on network-centric warfighting capabilities. Every task has its value in the achievement of complex political end-states in which there are no exit strategies, merely long-term draw-down strategies.

Transformation should, therefore, recognise the value of a division of labour between members. The focusing of transformation on what members tend already to do well, and strengthening that ability, even as the Alliance plans for the big world ahead, would ensure that everyone contributes now towards the political desired end-states to which forces should only ever be deployed. Moreover, a strengthening of strengths would make national defence establishments more comfortable with transformative planning that for many members is both intimidating and imposing. Indeed, when faced with transformation “speak” many Allies become like rabbits hypnotised by the lights of an ongoing truck. The resultant paralysis all too often prevents effective modernisation as transformation collapses under the weight of excuses about pensions, aging populations and shrinking tax bases.

The distinctions between peacekeeping, peacemaking and warfighting are becoming rapidly meaningless in the context of a “three-block” war, that is war involving humanitarian activities, stabilisation and high-intensity warfighting. At the minimum, all NATO forces must be brought up to a level at which they can cope with operational reality, rather than trying to hide their respective weaknesses by imposing national caveats. Consequently, transformation must be more tailored for each state based on what is politically and economically possible on the condition that when deployed such forces undertake the full range of tasks assigned to them.

Allied Command Transformation rightly stresses that transformation is a process, not an event and that it is as much a question of mind as equipment. If so, there should be several transformations founded on the need to make virtue out of necessity. It is paradoxical, therefore, that while transformation was meant to bolster task-sharing, which remains at the heart of the Alliance’s operational ethos, its focus on developing high-end effect is promoting specialisation and fragmentation, which is only one part of the strategic stabilisation mission. In other words, transformation must take place across the spectrum of effect and not just the intensity of effect.

Partnership today means an active global partnership

The great enlargement mission of the 1990s is over. NATO has by and large fulfilled its promise to make Europe whole and free. In the big new world, in addition to its Article-5 responsibilities, NATO must now become the global security enabler. There are, of course, other states wishing to join and some in time should be welcomed. However, the concept and value of partnership must change. Indeed, in some ways the political importance of partners should become as significant as that of members. Partnership today no longer means preparing others for membership, nor simply offering third countries a political relationship with the Alliance. An active global partnership policy must necessarily place NATO at the centre of a worldwide web of like-minded states that acts as an anchor of stability on the international system, expanding Alliance influence and integrating those willing and able to join NATO on strategic stabilisation missions. An active partnership means cultivating ties with democracies the world over, including Australia, Brazil, India, Japan and South Africa, and introducing them to NATO standards and doctrine so that operations can be undertaken together without having to re-invent the operational wheel every time.

In the first instance, building on the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, friends and neighbours need to be assisted to establish best practice in areas such as security governance and security sector reform. To that end, NATO standards should extend to partnership and security, not just membership and the military. It is in the Middle East and Central Asia where the new NATO will be forged or fail, and it is the nature and effectiveness of partnership that will be the test.

The European Union and NATO are natural security partners

It may not be comfortable for North Americans, nor indeed, some Europeans but the European Union will emerge as an essential partner of the Alliance in the governance of strategic security. Indeed, over the medium- to long-term much of the centre of gravity of both the civil and military effort of Europeans will be focused on the European Union. It is therefore a profound shame that little Europeanization has of late hampered the development of relations between the European Union and NATO. Since legitimacy is as important as capability in generating effectiveness, the European Union needs NATO and NATO needs the European Union. The European Union can never be strong without a strong NATO and NATO can never be strong without a strong European Union. The security engagement of a pluralistic security community in a complex security environment requiring complex responses needs an array of actors and institutions. Diversity is strength. However, communication and coordination are equally important.

The West today has two security leadership hubs – NATO and the European Union. Depending on the desired political end-state, the location or nature of the crisis to be managed, one or the other will be in the lead. The European Union will continue to emerge as a security actor, not least because it is essential that Europeans take responsibility for their own security. Not least because the capacity to project power will be undermined without a countervailing ability to protect the home base. Indeed, much of the work to improve the security resilience of Europeans will necessarily take place within the European Union because – unlike NATO – it stretches across the competence of the state. In the big world, therefore, the implicit competition between NATO and the European Union is not only strategically pointless, it is dangerous. There is a desperate need for both institutions, just as there is room enough for both, if only those generating this competition would begin to realise the damage they are doing to their own security and that of the world beyond.

The road to effective cooperation? First, no more pointless grand EU-NATO declarations. A pragmatic relationship between the two organisations needs to be forged on the basis of practical cooperation in the field. EU-NATO Crisis Action Teams would be such a first step. Second, there is only one set of Europeans, and only one set of capabilities. Therefore, a closer working relationship is needed between the Prague Capabilities Commitments and the European Capabilities Action Plan. Some role for the European Defence Agency in the 2006 NATO Summit would be a good start. Third, the relationship between the NATO Response Force (NRF) and the EU Battle Groups needs to be better established, built around a force-planning concept that can cope with the three-block war and in which escalation dominance is the planning paradigm. NATO needs to be more flexible about the relationship between the NRF and the Battle Groups and the European Union more transparent about its own planning and crisis management.

Fighting and winning the global war on terror requires grand strategy

Strategic counter-terrorism is mutating from a series of man-hunts into a new strategic doctrine for engagement in a world which will lead the West inexorably back towards big world security. Europeans and North Americans must realise that the series of “one-off” engagements that have defined extra-European engagements over the past 15 years are, in fact, a theme. History is re-starting and it is doing so through the strategic metaphor of the global war on terror. Afghanistan and Iraq sit on the threshold between counter-terrorism, strategic stability and strategic coercion and consequently stretch the civil and military means of all Allies. What is emerging from the counter-offensive is a new 30-years war in which extreme belief systems, old but massively destructive technologies, instable and intolerant societies, strategic crime and the globalisation of commodities and communications combine to create a multi-dimensional threat transcending geography, function and capability. The response of the West and its partners will require a new grand strategy with a big NATO at its core.

There is a continuum between strategic counter-terrorism and the new big world of states because power politics in its many forms is making a comeback. Counter-terrorism must not, therefore, become the be all and end all of Alliance planning nor an excuse to focus on tactical terrorism, thereby avoiding the need to think big about the future environment. The re-constitution of Alliance strategic thinking, with NATO and the European Union as the centre of gravity of response, will require the development of armed forces with strategic civil-military capabilities able to manage a broad threat set to achieve desired political end-states.

To achieve this, Europeans and North Americans are going to have to think about a much bigger world than that for which the Alliance has prepared of late. Europeans are going to have to rehabilitate coercion, if their non-coercive means and tools are to work. And the Alliance is going to have to do more with the resources that are available. If the axis of plenty is blocked, only the axis of better organisation, even defence integration, will offer the possibility of a cost-effective, critical mass of effect in the face of a critical mass of insecurity, instability and strategic shift.

A big world will place a premium on credible and effective mechanisms for multiplying security effect, and that means institutions such as NATO and the European Union working in harmony for the greater good. Above all, it places a premium on a big NATO. If the West thinks big now about the big future it must face then the Euro-Atlantic community stands the best possible chance of saving the international system the West itself created. However, a failure of strategic vision now will condemn that system of institutionalised balance, legitimacy and stability and make for an immeasurably more dangerous world.

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