hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

NATO: Why the Wales Summit Must be Strategic and Ambitious

Alphen, Netherlands. 8 July.  Machiavelli wrote, “All courses of action are risky.  So prudence is not in avoiding danger (it is impossible) but calculating risk and acting decisively.  Make mistakes of ambition, not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do things, not the strength to suffer”.  NATO leaders will meet in September in Wales in what is the most important Alliance gathering since the 1991 London Summit in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War. 

In 1991 they met to consider the implications of peace in Europe.  In 2014 they will meet to consider the profound and dangerous implications of the rapid shift in the global balance of power away from NATO’s member nations.  This summit will very quickly reveal whether there is sufficient unity of purpose amongst Alliance leaders to generate ambition and if they are big enough to distinguish between long-term strategy and short-term politics.  

The stakes are very high.  London in 1991 set the future orientation of the Alliance right up to 911.  In spite of the grand language of a Europe “whole and free” which set the course for NATO and EU enlargement there was an implicit question in London that has come to define the Alliance over the ensuing years, how little can be spent on defence?  Through the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, the Kosovo war, 911, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere Europeans have been unwavering in their collective belief that whatever happens they will spend less on defence.  It is political dogma that was strengthened by the 2008 financial crash and the Eurozone crisis that has driven Europe’s retreat from strategic realism.  It has also fostered the appeasement of reality and a “we only recognise as much threat as we can afford” culture amongst leaders.

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the creation of the Islamic State on NATO’s strategic doorstep and the steady march of the Islamist anti-state, Iran and its nuclear ambitions, the rapid rise of strategic China, proliferation of destructive technologies across the world and a range of other potential threats it is clear that such self-deluding dogma must be challenged.  Indeed, with NATO leaving Afghanistan the twenty-first century is finally beginning for the Alliance in Wales.  Therefore, the Wales Summit should be the place where NATO properly and finally begins to prepare for the global Cold Peace that is being inexorably fashioned beyond Alliance borders in the battle between a West that is no longer a place but an idea and the new forces of intolerance and expansionism.

The first casualty of the Cold Peace is the assumption that the Americans will always be able to defend Europe irrespective of Europe’s own defence.   Indeed, a if not the central issue at Wales should be the fashioning of a new twenty-first century transatlantic security contract founded on two principles of political realism.  First, NATO Europe can no longer play at Alliance.  The vital need for the United States to maintain credible influence and deterrence in Asia, Europe and the Middle East means that Europe’s defence can only be assured in the first instance by Europeans able and capable of acting autonomously in and around Europe.  Second, a total security concept will be needed.  All security and defence tools from intelligence to armed force, civil and military must be fashioned to prevent conflicts upstream but also to engage in conflict if needs be when, where and how it happens. 

That means forces and resources shaped to face the world as it is not as leaders would like to be.  Therefore, if London was the defence premium summit Wales must be the defence re-engagement summit built on the principle that “security and defence matters”. 

My latest report for Wilton Park, a conference and research centre close to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office entitled “NATO’s Post 2014 Strategic Narrative” was published last week (   The report argues that NATO is entering a new and unpredictable era as the Alliance shifts from campaigns and operations to strategic contingencies.  The word ‘strategic’ is the key as it means big and that implies ambition, forces, resources and a fundamental change of mind-set on the part of political leaders.

There is no doubt that prior to Russia’s annexation of Crimea the Wales Summit would have been little more than a glorified photo op.  Leaders would have somewhat disingenuously declared “mission accomplished” in Afghanistan.  Some thought would have been given to the preservation of military interoperability between Alliance forces and some declaration made about NATO’s Open Door and future membership and partnerships.

Now the Wales Summit must begin NATO’s search for the answer to five twenty-first century strategic questions which finally operationalise the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept and the three core tasks of collective defence, crisis management and co-operative security. How can NATO provide credible collective defence to its members?  What type of reassurance can NATO provide to both members and partners?   What support can NATO realistically offer to states on its margins?  What relationship should now be sought with an assertive Russia?  What more can NATO allies do to support the US in its global mission and at the same time ensure and assure security and defence in and around Europe?

In other words Wales must answer THE pivotal question; what is NATO for now?  Answers on a postcard please.

Julian Lindley-French

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