For most Europeans the most important strategic event in Europe in 2010 was neither November’s NATO Strategic Concept nor the Franco-British Defence Treaty, important though they were. Rather, it was the Irish debt crisis and the threat of financial and economic contagion across the Eurozone. However, the Strategic Concept sets NATO ambitious challenges to re-orient the Alliance’s main effort from coping with enlargement to preparing for engagement which itself implies a new relationship between the protection of people’s and the projection of force. Some very difficult and clear strategic and political judgements will therefore be critical. As the ink dries on the NATO Strategic Concept one fundamental question of purpose still needs to be answered; globalised NATO or fortress NATO?
Four Strategic Posers
Equally, there are four other questions that must be answered concerning Alliance level of ambition, strategic method, Europe’s role and the way ahead if the balance between protection and projection is to be properly understood and planned for:
Question One: Is strategic ambition shared across the Alliance? To meet the twin challenges of engagement (for that is the very essence of the Strategic Concept) and austerity the Alliance will need to promote real unity of purpose and effort. The Strategic Concept is clear; NATO is in the business of organising large military (and increasingly civil) means for large political-stability ends. However, in meeting those challenges a firm grip of reality will be essential. If NATO has indeed adopted (beyond the merely rhetorical) a globalised strategic concept the Alliance by definition has immediately become weaker given its much larger context of operations and responsibilities (collective defence, crisis management, and co-operative security). Effective strategy is always more important for the more relatively weak (and relatively poor) than relatively strong. Two possible avenues are thus apparent. Either the Strategic Concept leads to a strategic Alliance built on a shared level of global ambition and girded by unity of effort and purpose. Or, the Strategic Concept is another rhetorical flourish masking weakness without strategy, i.e. risk.
Question Two: Is there a common strategic method? The title “Active Engagement” implies a new balance between protection and projection. Capability, capacity and credibility will thus underpin modernised collective defence, effective crisis management and co-operative security. However, all will demand a careful balance of investments as part of a strategically-conceived whole. “Modern defence’ implies a similar set of challenges and order of magnitude. Indeed, even contemporary Article 5 territorial defence will require both combined and joint deployable forces, with such capabilities and their supporting and associated capacities becoming the litmus test for effective Alliance engagement in a globalised world.
Question Three: What role for Europeans? For all the talk of globalised security the world is rather made up of inter-linked security regions. Indeed, the main linkage between those regions is the United States which remains and will remain the critical enabling and stabilising factor the world over, in spite of planned cuts in its 2011 defence budget. Therefore, should non-American NATO forces be organised around America’s global role or should Europeans ease the pressure on the Americans by focussing on a regional role? The implications are profound. If the Alliance is organised to support the US global role then force transformation (and in particular Allied Command Transformation), must be seen as the means to ensure European forces are part of an American-led force concept. If, on the other hand, Europeans focus on the Northern and European strategic theatres that would not only require a new force concept, organised as part of a new European pillar within the Alliance and along with it the fostering of a European strategic culture. By extension, that would also make much closer relations with the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy an essential element in an efficient and effective European defence effort. At present Europe is trapped in a no man’s land between two very different force concepts with no clear idea apparent in the Strategic Concept as to the balance to be struck between the two.
That is not to suggest that a Euro-focus would be an easy option. Indeed, one only has to look at Europe’s neighbourhood to see the challenges; the High North, North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and/or Central Asia. And, of course, the link with US forces would need to be maintained at all costs. Certainly, the continued presence of American Combat Brigade Teams (in whatever form or number) will be vital for strategic reassurance. However, for such a pillar to be fashioned the key Europeans, such as Britain, France, Germany and Italy would need to be in agreement over the purpose and structure of such a pillar. If not there are likely to be two NATO’s; one interventionist, the other purely defensive.
Question Four: What is the way ahead? Implicit in the Strategic Concept is a balance between strategy, affordability and capability that must necessarily be built on effective interoperability between militaries. This is not just to ensure interoperability with US forces, but also to close the growing intra-European gap, and to ensure that when NATO forces deploy with partners be they Australian, Japanese or whomsoever, or indeed key civilians under the Comprehensive Approach, coalition force generation and leadership does not mean reinventing the command and control wheel each every time. Indeed, if there was one strategic ‘product’ which is the unique selling point of the Alliance it is NATO interoperability standards, particularly those pertaining to command and control and all NATO strategic and deployable headquarters should be considering how best to enhance that product in light of the Strategic Concept.
Globalised NATO or Fortress NATO?
Ultimately, the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept will be about money, specifically the relationship between forces and resources. Radical new threats to security, such as cyber-terrorism, energy security and even the consequences of climate change are to some extent germane to the Alliance crisis management mission. However, they also pose a very danger to Alliance cohesion if the relationship between a globalised NATO and fortress NATO is not understood. In such circumstances new security threats could merely become the latest political alibi to retreat into unauditable security challenges either to mask and justify further cuts in defence budgets or avoid sharing burdens and danger. No alliance (or union) can survive such strategic dissonance over time. Ultimately NATO is a military organisation that must think about and prepare for the successful fighting of future wars.
Global NATO or Fortress NATO? Until that question is resolved then the 2010 Strategic Concept could well remain an ambiguous enigma and a potentially dangerous one at that.
This article was first published in February 2011 by Aspenia