Redefining NATO's Role for the 21st Century

Mar 27, 2012Daniel Pitcairn

world-hand-200As part of the 10 Ideas: A Defense Strategy for the Global Generation series, a proposal to create a coherent grand strategy for NATO as the only international coalition with the power and legitimacy to act as a global enforcer.

In 1949, a military alliance was forged between the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic region with the clear purpose of deterring Soviet expansion and aggression in Europe. As Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, put it, NATO was founded to "keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down." However, despite the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed over two decades ago, and with it the threat of conventional warfare in Europe, this transatlantic security relationship continues to exist. The question then arises: what role, if any, should NATO play in a world absent the conditions that provided it with its founding purpose and justification?

Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has slowly adopted a more global perspective.  As the threat to the physical security of NATO members diminished, the organization shifted its focus to broader and more geographically diverse threats. While enlarging its role within Europe through expansion to Eastern Europe and intervention in the Balkans, NATO also began building institutionalized partnerships with states in the former Soviet Union (Partnership for Peace), the Middle East (Istanbul Cooperation Initiative), and North Africa (Mediterranean Dialogue).  In the 2000s, NATO expanded its partnerships, particularly within the Middle East, and embarked on an extensive military operation in Afghanistan.

Increasingly, the importance and relevance of NATO for the alliance members lies in the fact that it provides the U.S. with legitimacy for its foreign interventions and that it allows European nations to project hard power abroad. Thus, even prior to NATO's historic decision to militarily intervene in Libya on behalf of the Libyan people and at the behest of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the transatlantic alliance was clearly shifting its focus. NATO's new Strategic Concept, published after the Lisbon Summit of 2010, acknowledges and embraces this shift, stating that when the alliance identifies threats beyond NATO borders, the organization will "engage where possible and when necessary to prevent crisis, manage crises, stabilize post-conflict situations and support reconstruction."

Although this statement marks a significant departure from NATO's foundational mission, it does not constitute a coherent grand strategy for the future. NATO's out-of-area interventions and missions have largely been ad hoc operations that have stimulated tensions within the alliance about its appropriate role and caused confusion about the place of NATO interventions within the broader community of international security institutions. NATO's Operation Unified Protector in Libya is both another example of such ad hoc operations and a potential stepping stone to developing a coherent grand strategy. While the organization received a clear mandate from the UNSC and international public opinion to protect the Libyan people from Colonel Gaddafi, NATO faced internal challenges and discord over whether NATO was the appropriate tool. Notably, Germany dissented and only slightly more than half of the Alliance members (14) contributed directly to the conduct of the operation. This reality demonstrates the need for a clear and coherent strategy for NATO involvement in out-of-area conflicts.

At the same time, NATO's decision to intervene in Libya and its success in doing so points to such a future grand strategy. This new strategic role is based on two premises. The first is that the international community lacks a clear and sufficient enforcement mechanism for the growing consensus behind the "Responsibility to Protect" norm, the notion that a state that seriously fails to protect its people or actively seeks to injure them forfeits its sovereignty and is therefore liable to intervention by the international community. While the UNSC was originally understood as the global enforcer of peace and security, the UNSC is not currently capable of fielding conventional military operations. Distrust between the veto-wielding members of the council (U.S., UK, and France on one side and Russia and China on the other) will preclude this possibility for the foreseeable future. The result is that even when the UNSC can generate the necessary votes to sanction military intervention, the council must rely on individual member states to take on the burdens of action.

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This brings the discussion to the second premise, that NATO has unique legitimacy and capacity to respond to international crises such as the one in Libya. NATO confers a tremendous amount of political legitimacy to military interventions, particularly when operated in consultation with its institutionalized partnerships. Furthermore, as the U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO points out, in contrast to weakly structured, ad hoc coalitions that "rely disproportionately on a single nation to bear the brunt of security burdens," NATO provides the "common command structure and capabilities necessary to plan and execute complex operations." The NATO allies also maintain the world's most technologically advanced militaries and together make up almost 65 percent of global defense spending. NATO's actual and potential military capabilities are simply unparalleled. Thus, NATO is uniquely qualified to react to and militarily intervene in international crises like the one in Libya in 2011. With the rising global demand for a clear and reliable mechanism for enforcing the "Responsibility to Protect" and the unique capacity and political legitimacy associated with NATO, NATO should embrace the role of global enforcer for the international community, using occasional targeted military interventions to fulfill international mandates.

This potential new role for NATO on the global stage would provide a coherent purpose and strategy for the organization in the 21st century. This role should, however, be limited to conflicts that seriously threaten international security or appear egregious from a humanitarian perspective. Moreover, because the NATO charter acknowledges "the primary responsibility of the [UN] Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security," NATO must only intervene when sanctioned by the council (Article 7). UNSC Resolution 1973 calling for the use of all means necessary to protect the citizens of Libya demonstrates that such sanctions are not impossible to come by in the Security Council. Moreover, a clear and established role for NATO as global enforcer might encourage an otherwise more unwilling Council to act more assertively when serious international crises arise. For this to be the case, however, NATO must enhance communication channels with the UNSC and in particular seek to improve its relationship with Russia, perhaps by further opening dialogue via the Partnership for Peace and slowing the rush to incorporate Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO.

What makes this significant pivot toward global threats to the international community possible is the development of Europe's own multilateral defense network absent U.S. support. The European Union's Common Security and Defense Policy has matured immensely over the last decade. It has deployed 27 significant military and civilian missions since 2003 and has successfully operationalized its Battle Group Concept, whereby two battle groups are continuously ready for immediate deployment in Europe at any time. Despite fears associated with decreasing European defense spending, the CSDP is on the rise and the capacity of the EU to defend Europe is an increasingly realistic proposition.

The fears of certain NATO allies that NATO is losing its defensive, transatlantic perspective can be assuaged by this development within the EU. Thus, NATO can lessen its focus on ensuring the physical security of Europe and concentrate on its capacity to project hard power abroad on behalf of the international community. The implication here is that a tight-knit relationship between NATO and the CSDP must be forged to delineate responsibilities and ensure close cooperation. This substitution of the CSDP for NATO in terms of Europe's own security would not happen overnight, but hashing out agreements over their respective future roles within and without Europe would allow NATO to begin its process of re-definition for the 21st century.

There is a clear need for NATO to meaningfully redefine itself for the 21st Century. Acknowledging its new global perspective is not sufficient. A new grand strategy is essential for NATO to remain relevant and to solidify its role in the post-Cold War world. The narrative and strategic recommendation proposed here is a compelling possibility for the alliance, but it is only one opinion. In order to gauge the opinions of many more interested college students on this topic and thereby ascertain how the next generation of American leaders views NATO and the transatlantic security relationship, the Yale chapter of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, via its Security and Foreign Policy Center, is generating a poll to distribute to colleges nationwide. NATO is at an important crossroads in its history and it is crucial that the opinions of the next generation of American leaders related to this alliance are heard. At the upcoming Chicago Summit, NATO must undertake to reevaluate its international role. In this process, the views of those soon to take the mantle of leadership must be considered.

Daniel Pitcairn is a member of the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a student at Yale University where he studies international security and American foreign policy as a Global Affairs major.

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