European Affairs

NATO Takes on New Tasks     Print Email
Michael Rühle

Can NATO cope with the new threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction? Can the European allies finally turn the corner and start building new military capabilities? And can the huge bureaucracy of the Alliance - soon to grow from 19 to 26 members - rapidly respond to emerging new threats? These were the questions asked in the run-up to the NATO summit meeting held in Prague in November 2002.

As the first NATO summit since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Prague meeting had to demonstrate that the Alliance was still in business. After a period of doubt caused by NATO's little more than marginal role in the war against terrorism, and some serious soul-searching on both sides of the Atlantic, the summit provided a key opportunity to set the Transatlantic record straight.

In the end, it largely succeeded in that task - thanks in part to careful advance planning. An important decision was to abandon the initial idea of making the admission of new members the sole focus of the meeting.

All the allies agreed that NATO enlargement would be a historic step, consolidating Europe as a single security space from the Baltic to the Black Sea. There were widespread fears, however, that the United States might lose interest in the Alliance if the Prague meeting did no more than issue membership invitations.

If NATO did not commit itself to big political, military and organizational changes, and attempt to resuscitate the Transatlantic relationship, the concern was that any new members would be attending the Alliance's funeral rather than celebrating its continuing vigor. As a result, the proposed "enlargement summit" became a "transformation summit."

It was not difficult to see how the Alliance should be transformed, for NATO's predicament after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was painfully obvious. First, in order to demonstrate that it was still the focus of Transatlantic security cooperation, NATO would have to find a new balance between its traditional, Eurocentric role and the need to address new global threats, such as terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Second, in order to prevent the United States from shunning the Alliance in future, the other Allies would have to acquire more meaningful military capabilities. Finally, NATO's decision-making processes would have to be streamlined to cope with the post-9/11 security environment. With several new members likely to join the Alliance in the coming years, organizational changes were even more urgent.

The first fundamental change required in Prague was public acceptance by the Alliance that its future role must include countering terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. The shift was dictated as much by NATO's narrow survival instincts as by the changing strategic environment. If the Alliance were perceived as either unable or unwilling to play such a role, it risked becoming detached from the U.S. security agenda.

That would not only jeopardize NATO's survival as a vibrant institution, it would also deprive the Transatlantic community of a major "transmission belt" for ironing out differences on other issues. Above all, it would marginalize an alliance that is still the world's most effective facilitator of military coalitions.

The decisions taken in Prague effectively removed this danger. By claiming a distinct role in combating terrorism, and by giving much more prominence to the need to counter weapons of mass destruction, NATO recalibrated its agenda to cover both the new strategic environment and the two dominant U.S. security concerns.

Even before the Prague summit, a NATO role in combating terrorism was being defined by two unprecedented events. The first was the invocation of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty on September 12, 2001. By agreeing that a terrorist attack by a non-state actor could trigger NATO's collective self-defense obligation, the Alliance had, in effect, mandated itself to make combating terrorism an enduring NATO mission.

This broadening of the concept of collective self-defense was accompanied by a second unprecedented development: the deployment of forces from many NATO nations in Afghanistan. This marked the de facto end of NATO's perennial debate on whether to conduct "out-of-area" operations, beyond the Alliance's traditional boundaries in Europe, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. In the words of Benǫt d'Aboville, the French Ambassador to NATO, that debate collapsed with the Twin Towers.

As a result, the allied leaders in Prague were able to sketch out NATO's anti-terrorist role by adopting a new military concept that set out various options, including proactive initiatives. They agreed to develop specific military capabilities to implement the new mission and to work more closely with neighboring, non-member nations participating in the Alliance's Partnership for Peace.

In short, Prague defined NATO as a focal point of any multinational response to terrorism. This was admittedly a rather ambitious step. It was made more credible, however, by an agreement to provide Germany and the Netherlands with NATO planning and support once they take over command of international forces in Afghanistan.

A discussion is now emerging on whether NATO itself should take over the lead role when the forces are next rotated - suggesting that a powerful new dynamic may be under way.

The leaders adopted a very similar approach toward the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. Before 9/11, NATO's efforts to counter this threat appeared to be something of an afterthought. Most allies were reluctant to give prominence to the issue; if they did so, it was essentially to accommodate the United States.

An entirely different picture emerged in Prague. The various summit initiatives on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons defense signaled a much stronger Transatlantic consensus on the need to cope with the challenge.

In presentational terms, initiatives such as improvements in the Alliance's ability to detect nuclear, biological and chemical weapons may not look spectacular. Yet their immediate significance is political; they make clear that there is a common Transatlantic approach to dealing with weapons of mass destruction.

This Transatlantic unity was underscored by an agreement to start a new feasibility study on how to protect Alliance territory, forces and population centers against the full range of missile threats. A further sign of unity was the adoption of a declaration pledging full support for UN Security Council Resolution 1441, reinstating weapons inspections in Iraq.

If NATO is to tackle its new missions effectively, it must be equipped with adequate military capabilities. Before Prague, the priority was to improve the "European pillar" of the Alliance by giving Europe more military clout to look after its own backyard. Implicitly, the thinking was that the United States might not participate in the management of future European crises.

The 9/11 attacks and the Afghanistan campaign demonstrated, however, that "Europeanization" alone is not enough to ensure Transatlantic security, and that the ability to cooperate militarily with the United States must remain a European priority.

Prague made it very clear that this rationale has been understood. In order to enhance NATO's ability to project power, the Alliance set in train a reform of its command structure; commands will be organized more according to the functions they must fulfill, and less on the basis of geography.

In another significant decision, the leaders adopted a U.S. proposal to create a NATO Response Force. This was not only meant to signal NATO's willingness to take more rapid military action; it was also intended to spur Europeans to accelerate the transformation of their own forces. It demonstrated that the United States is still prepared to regard the Alliance as an important military tool, beyond the good feelings generated by inviting more countries to become members.

The key achievement in this respect, however, may well have been the Prague Capabilities Commitment. Individual allies made specific political commitments to improve their capabilities in areas essential to modern military operations, such as strategic air- and sea-lift and air-to-ground surveillance.

Once fully implemented, these commitments will quadruple the number of outsize aircraft in Europe; establish a pool of air-to-air refueling aircraft until additional new tankers are available; ensure that most of NATO's deployable high readiness forces have chemical, radiological, biological and nuclear defense equipment; and significantly increase non-U.S. stocks of air-delivered precision-guided munitions.

These commitments mark a turning point in persuading the non-U.S. allies to transform their defense capabilities to match the new requirements. If nations stick to these commitments, both NATO and the European Union will have taken a major step forward.

Failure to do so, on the other hand, would deal a major blow to the Transatlantic relationship by confirming lingering U.S. doubts about the seriousness of the European allies. It would also represent a serious drawback for Europe itself, by casting a dark shadow over plans to forge a common European Security and Defense Policy.

In another important change, the Alliance intends to reform the way it organizes itself. NATO's working methods must reflect the new strategic environment. Although the Alliance will soon have 26 members, its working methods have remained largely unchanged since the time when it had only twelve.

Even if American charges that the 1999 Kosovo campaign was "war by committee" are an urban myth, the need for change is still clear. As NATO enlarges both its membership and its mandate, its working methods cannot be left unaffected. In a nutshell, NATO needs to be less bureaucratic, and more flexible.

Almost unnoticed by the broader public, the Prague summit took a major step in this direction. The leaders agreed to reduce the number of committees (currently 467) by 30 percent. More decisions will be delegated to sub-committees, leaving the North Atlantic Council more time to discuss strategic issues.

The procedures for ministerial meetings have been streamlined as well, sacrificing formality in order to permit more substantive exchanges. Over time, these changes should lead to a different and more effective working culture.

More changes may well be introduced later. In conducting future operations one possibility might be that, once the full North Atlantic Council had taken the necessary political and strategic decisions, matters such as targeting would be decided only by those nations actually taking part.

That might be seen by some as an assault on the Alliance's cherished rule of consensus. But it need not be. A shift to majority voting in NATO remains out of the question.

It should be possible, however, for groups of countries to set up flexible coalitions, which others could decline to join without hindering the mission. Such modifications of the Alliance's traditional working culture appear not only feasible, but indispensable.

Those who believe that the largely go-it-alone U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was an aberration, and that Washington will "come back" to NATO in the next crisis, may be heading for another collision with reality.

In a similar vein, the allies will also have to accept the idea of NATO occasionally acting as a "toolbox" from which coalitions of the willing are provided with specific capabilities. Even if the notion runs counter to NATO's self-perception as a cohesive, all-for-one and one-for-all alliance, resisting it may turn out to be futile.

Given the new strategic environment, and the different capabilities of individual nations, coalitions of the willing may well become the norm rather than the exception. Instead of fighting the concept, allied governments should now perhaps be considering how a "toolbox" approach could be reconciled with the continuing need for political cohesion.

NATO's long-stated willingness to support the European Union in crisis management suggests that this may indeed be possible. After all, when the European Union starts drawing on NATO assets, it will effectively be a coalition of the willing borrowing from the NATO "toolbox."

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the Alliance was hampered by three interrelated problems. First, NATO had not yet fully defined its role in tackling the new threats. Second, the United States felt that the Europeans simply did not possess enough useful capabilities to warrant its going through NATO. Third, some in Washington thought NATO was much too tedious and cumbersome an organization to be allowed authority over American policy.

Little more than a year after 9/11, Prague demonstrated that NATO has faced up to these problems. Of course, one summit meeting could not resolve all the outstanding Transatlantic security issues.

Americans and Europeans will almost certainly continue to differ regarding the origins of terrorism, with the United States viewing terrorism essentially as an ideology, and the Europeans seeing it as a result of root social causes.

The two sides will not completely agree on the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. The Europeans share neither the U.S. urgency to act against "axis of evil" proliferators nor the U.S. tendency to write off deterrence as unworkable. And the asymmetry in military capabilities will remain, even if the Europeans fulfill their Prague Capabilities Commitment by the book.

Prague did, however, send a clear signal that working together remains the preferred option for both sides of the Atlantic. That was the best message one could have hoped for. It was a great victory for Atlanticism.

 Michael Rühle is head of the Policy Planning and Speechwriting Section, NATO Political Affairs Division. The author would like to thank James Appathurai and Rad van den Akker for numerous helpful comments. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number IV, Issue number I in the Winter of 2003.