Riga, Latvia. 12 September. The Riga Conference is one of those annual ‘must not miss events’ on the strategic merry-go-round. Today I have the honour to chair two defence ministers, a NATO leader and my old friend Ariel Cohen on the gripping subject of the NATO Wales Summit 2014: Revitalising the Transatlantic Bond.
The thrust of my leadership will be to explore the growing gap between defence rhetoric and strategic reality in Europe. Specifically, I will test my panellists with a simple question; can the people of Riga sleep soundly safe in the knowledge that NATO is REALLY defending them? With Russia behaving like an old bad-tempered and grumpy uncle who has been on the alcohol for too long my Riga Test is pertinent to say the very least. Indeed, two years ago I posed the same question but as ever got no clear answer.
Central to the Riga Test 2014 is the apparent contradictions in the ‘only bit that really matters’ core of the NATO Wales Summit Declaration – the bit that matches political intent with military capability. The Declaration kicks off with the usual summit guff. “Based on solidarity, Alliance cohesion, and the indivisibility of our security, NATO remains the transatlantic framework for strong collective defence and the essential forum for security consultations and decisions among Allies”. It goes on (and doesn’t it just), “The North Atlantic Alliance binds North America and Europe in the defence of our common security, prosperity and values. It guarantees the security of its members through collective defence”. And yet, the key paragraph on defence spending suggest that NATO Allies will only ‘aim’ to spend the NATO minimum of 2% GDP on defence “within a decade. I am still trying to get my head around this clear retreat from reality.
In 2012 here in Riga I wrote, “The thing about power is that it is as unforgiving to those that have it as it is to those who do not…It is clear that President Putin’s world view is pretty ‘unreconstructed’ (to use the appalling non-speak of modern European academia). His world is one in which hard power is used to project soft power into spheres of great power influence and devil take the small-most”. If anything back in 2012 I was being overly-restrained given events in Ukraine.
The piece went on, “Riga is the crucible in which a new Alliance will either be forged or die. Riga’s credible defence demands a new strategic bargain between Washington and Berlin and given events elsewhere the possible re-structuring of NATO into the EUrosphere and the defence Anglosphere. The alternative is a United States pulled progressively away from the defence of Europe by events elsewhere, a NATO that fades as a result and poor, little Latvia once again trapped between the Russian (planned) and German (not-so-planned) spheres of influence. History suggests that will not turn out well”.
There is an old joke about NATO. NATO Heaven is a place where the police are British (or what may be left of we British), the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian, the beer is German and it is all organised by the Americans. NATO hell is a place where the cooks are Scottish, the lovers are German, the police are French, the beer is American (heaven forbid!) and (sorry Italians) it is all organised by the Italians.
There is a third ‘place’ called NATO Purgatory. It is a place where leaders talk endlessly about ‘solidarity’, ‘cohesion’, ‘collective defence’, ‘security’ and ‘indivisibility’ but in fact do nothing whatsoever about any of them. A place where a few remaining deckchairs are endlessly re-organised into “Readiness Action Plans” and given fancy titles, such as “spearhead” or “very high readiness” even as the NATO Titanic sinks ever lower into the rising tide of regional and global insecurity.
If Riga is to be properly defended NATO will need a credible twenty-first century Forward Defence concept. That means Alliance leaders who radically re-conceive of NATO and build a truly twenty-first century NATO Future Force at its core. A NATO Future Force that can both deter and if needs be fight built on the investment vitally needed today if strategy, capability and affordability are to be balanced and a networked force crafted that enshrines close interoperability and deep jointness.
There was some good work done in Wales ‘in the circumstances’. But that, as ever, is NATO’s eternal problem; Alliance leaders never actually address the right circumstances. Certainly, my vision for a NATO Future Force was not adopted and NOTHING in the Wales Declaration suggests one is about to be created for all the fancy speak.
So, does NATO pass the Riga Test 2014? The good people of Riga have as yet no need to stay awake each night in fearful insomnia. However, they cannot possibly be sleeping as well and as soundly as they did, even as recently as 2012.
As for getting a clear answer; I look forward to it!