Alphen, Netherlands. 19 May. “The aim is clear”, said NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen in a speech I attended Friday in Bratislava. “Russia is trying to establish a new sphere of influence. In defiance of international law and fundamental agreements that Russia itself has signed. This has profound, long-term implications for our security. And it requires serious, long-term solutions”. Are the NATO Allies up to the radical changes in strategy, posture, capabilities and mind-set implicit in Rasmussen’s call?
Calling a spade a spade is Yorkshire for simply stating fact. Joseph Devlin, in his 1910 book “How to Speak and Write Correctly” poked fun at the politically pompous and their use of circuitous language writing “…you may not want to call a spade a spade. You may prefer to call it a spatulous device for abraiding the surface of the soil. Better, however, to stick to the old, familiar simple name that your grandfather called it”. On Friday Rasmussen did something very rare for a leader these days; he called a “spade a spade”. There were no eloquent but empty ‘ifs’, no dissembling, emergency exit ‘buts’; just a plain statement of fact that Europeans and North Americans together must grip if the world is again to be made secure for freedom and democracy.
Unfortunately, the West is looking at the Ukraine crisis from the wrong end of the strategic telescope. Russia’s action is not simply a one-off function of an opportunist, expansionist, acquisitive regime, although it is clearly all of the above. It is also a symptom of the long and dangerous retreat from strategic first principles by the European democracies. Sadly, this retreat into a wannabe world is not simply confined to Europe’s smaller powers. It is the central theme in my latest book Little Britain: Twenty-First Century Strategy for a Middling European Power (2014: www.amazon.com).
Re-establishing the place of credible and affordable military power at the heart of legitimate and stabilising influence is the nub of the challenge the Secretary-General has rightly identified. However, the realisation of such “solutions” will not be easy and require the kind of strategic vision and political courage noticeably absent amongst Europe’s current political elite.
Shortly after Rasmussen spoke I had the honour to share a panel with my good friend US Marine Corps General (Retd.) John Allen. General Allen is a very balanced man; a fighting, thinking, humane soldier. He warned of the growing global gap in military power between the mature democracies and the emerging acquisitive oligarchies such as China and Russia. It is a warning worth heeding. Beijing and Moscow have replaced democratic legitimacy with what might best be termed growth legitimacy by which the elite hold power in return for improved living standards. Void of democratic checks and balances such regimes are inherently hyper-competitive with military power the central pillar of state influence.
Against the backdrop of this shifting grand strategic scheme of things there are five solutions the NATO Allies must urgently and collectively consider at the September 2014 Wales Summit: re-engaged strategy, a new type of defence, a new type of military, new partnerships, and above all a new strategic and political mind-set. Each and all of these changes are vital if NATO and its members are once again to credibly engage dangerous change. Time is running out.
NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept provides more than enough strategic guidance but lacks sufficient political investment. Implicit in the Concept is the need for the Alliance to generate influence across the mission spectrum. That means a NATO able to offer continuing support to a fragile Afghanistan beyond the ISAF mission and at the same time act as a credible conventional deterrent and if needs be war-fighter to prevent the kind of adventurism in which Russia is currently engaged.
NATO’s Article 5 collective defence architecture remains the bedrock of Alliance credibility. However, collective defence is in urgent need of modernisation based on three elements: missile defence, cyber-defence and deeply-joint, networked advanced expeditionary forces.
However, it is the twenty-first century balance between protection and projection which is the key to NATO’s continued strategic utility. It is vital that NATO pioneers a new type of deep, joint force able to operate across air, sea, land, cyber, space and knowledge. It is a force that must also be able to play its full part in cross-government civilian and military efforts building on the lessons from the ISAF campaign. To realise such a vision NATO’s command structures need to be further reformed, with transformation and experimentation brought to the fore.
Freedom and security in this age means the rejection of spheres of influence and a commitment to the right of sovereign states to make sovereign choices. First, NATO must move quickly to formalise the strategic partnerships it has fostered in recent operations with democracies the world-over to reinforce the emerging world-wide web of democracies. Second, NATO must offer a Membership Action Plan to Georgia at the Wales Summit.
Above all, NATO’s European allies need to undergo a profound mind-set change if they and the Alliance are to deal with the harsh realities of the hyper-competitive twenty-first century and the harsh strategic judgements it will impose. NATO European Allies must finally reinvest the agreed 2% per annum of their national wealth (GDP) in their armed forces and drive forward with military reforms, as well as pooling, sharing and some defence integration.
For too long European leaders have refused to call a spade a spade and instead retreated into weakness-masking metaphors and strategic spin. If NATO is to be rendered fit for twenty-first century grand purpose a level of strategic unity of effort and purpose will be needed that has been utterly lacking of late. Only then will the Alliance’s political mechanisms in such urgent need of reform and streamlining render the Alliance a credible actor in crises.
Thank you, Mr Secretary-General for calling a spade a spade. It was about time. NATO is a political alliance and standing up for freedom and security its core mission. That means action and now. Do we collectively have the ambition and are we up to the challenge? Can we really call a strategic spade a spade?