hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Monday, 8 September 2014

NATO Wales: No Action (more) Talk Only?


Alphen, Netherlands. 8 September.  Last week former NATO Supreme Commander Jim Stavridis and I co-authored a blog which called for the creation of a NATO Future Force driven by a contextually-relevant NATO Strategic Concept and underpinned by Alliance strategic unity of effort and purpose.  To be honest I was not expecting too much from the NATO Wales Summit and only time will tell whether finely crafted and drafted ‘language’ actually means anything.  Indeed, after a depressing encounter last week with senior Dutch politicians I suspected that the Summit would be more of the same ol’, same ol’ – short-term politics dressed up was long-term strategy. 

This weekend I have been carefully reading the Summit Declaration and associated press releases (yes, I really am that sad).  My conclusion is this; whilst historians will not look back on the Summit as a pivotal moment in NATO’s now long and bumpy journey they will see it as an important moment and possibly even the start of a truly twenty-first century Alliance.  There was of course a lot of politics – the Summit was after all full of politicians.  However, for some leaders at least there was finally an acceptance of what NATO is today, how it can best be used and some consideration as to its future. 

NATO today is a coalition generator and commander for offencive security operations by assorted members and partners alike and an absolute defence guarantee for its members.  Nothing more, nothing less.  To an extent, Wales succeeded in reinforcing both missions.  Indeed, the Readiness Action Plan, in many ways the centrepiece of the Summit, echoed (again to an extent) the call Jim and I had made last week for a new agile strategy that in effect merges collective defence, crisis management and co-operative security into a coherent security and defence concept.  The addition of cyber-defence to collective defence was certainly also a step down the road to the overhaul and modernisation of Alliance collective defence that has long been needed.  

However, it is where ambition and investment meet that NATO’s rubber really hits the road.  With the new ‘Spearhead’ force ‘complementing’ the existing NATO Response Force and the seven High Readiness Forces one has to ask just how many such forces the Alliance can create from ever-shrinking militaries.  Indeed, the Declaration simply does not add up - literally.  New forces cost money and on the critical issue of defence spending the Summit Declaration simply demonstrates the extent to which the Eurozone crisis has and is undermining NATO.  It was depressing to read of, “the aim to move towards the 2% guideline within a decade with a view to meeting their [nations] NATO Capability Targets and filling NATO’s Capability shortfalls” [my emboldening]. 

In other words many NATO members have no intention of spending more on defence and that for them NATO will continue to either recognise only as much threat as they can afford or expect others to do their defending for them.  Pure nonsense!  One thing is clear about the world in 2024; the continued military weakness of Western democracies will only make it more dangerous than it need be.  Clearly, for some countries, not least the Netherlands where I live, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have not been enough of a defence wake-up call.  What will it take?

The Summit also points towards a two-speed NATO that will rarely if ever operate at 28.  The news that a ‘core coalition’ of NATO allies (plus Australia) will join the US in combatting Islamic State reinforces the Alliance as an organiser of US-led coalitions for those states that can and will.  First, the states involved are in and of themselves interesting - America, Australia, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Turkey.  These are NATO’s big and bigger powers, plus the home of the current Secretary-General Denmark.  This is clearly NATO’s core group with whom the Americans will do business and Germany’s presence is important and to be commended.  However, where is the Netherlands, Spain et al?  Second, the involvement of Australia in the coalition also suggests the US sees future NATO as one element in a world-wide security web of democracies focused on the United States but divided into the protectors and the protected.

There was of course the usual need for the Summit to clear up unfinished business – the maintenance of an Open Door policy to new members, the need to remain engaged in Afghanistan, the usual blah-blah about NATO-EU relations and the even more usual nonsense about defence-industrial co-operation.  However, there is something of an ‘overtaken by events’, formulaic quality to these paragraphs which clearly suggests little political appetite to actively pursue such ‘commitments’.

The bloody big elephant in that Celtic room was of course Russia.  The Summit Declaration used strong language, “We condemn in the strongest terms Russia’s escalating and illegal military intervention in Ukraine and demand that Russia stop and withdraw its forces from inside Ukraine and along the Ukrainian border”.  Nothing there to make President Putin blink ‘ceasefire’ or no ‘ceasefire’ and I suspect Moscow simply sees this as NATO posturing after the fact of its actions in Ukraine.

The other elephant in the room was not so big and could be shrinking fast – Britain.  For what progress there was in Wales the much-challenged British Prime Minister David Cameron can take some credit.  Indeed, with strong American support the Summit was something of a success for British diplomacy and London is to be congratulated for that.  However, with Scotland about to vote on independence it could be the very last such ‘British’ success.  If Cameron loses Scotland it will certainly be his last ‘success’ as he will not survive secession.  Yes, the confirmation at the Summit that the second of Britain’s new super-carriers HMS Prince of Wales will join the British fleet as planned was good timing, decent politics and effective leadership.  The same can be said for Britain’s offer to lead the new Very High Readiness Force.  However, if the UK is to continue to lead by example (a very big if) London must maintain defence spending at above 2% GDP.  Of course Little Britain could do that at a stroke with the loss of Scotland simply by spending the same amount.  However, the loss of Scotland would be a national humiliation and dangerously weaken one of NATO’s core states at a critical strategic moment.

As with all such declarations the devil is in the language and the detail and the Declaration still reeks of denial and strategic pretence.   Indeed, as I read through the text I could not help but be reminded of my Oxford thesis on British Policy and the Coming of War 1933-1941.  Back then I had the very real privilege of reading all the British Cabinet minutes covering that vital nine year period.  Two themes emerged from my study.  Firstly, prior to World War Two both the Baldwin and Chamberlain cabinets were deeply split over what to do about the rise of Hitler.  On one side of a very intense argument were the ‘rearmers’ who drove through the huge 1934 rearmament programmes.  These created radar, the Spitfire, the Hurricane, Bomber Command and the new Royal Navy which fought and eventually helped defeat the Nazis.  On the other side of the argument were the appeasers and those simply in denial about Hitler.  Second, there was a desperate attempt by the Cabinet to give the appearance of unity of effort and purpose where frankly none existed.

It is clear that NATO today suffers from similar divisions and has a very long way to go before the Alliance is in that now hackneyed phrase ‘fit for purpose’ for all the challenges that the world will undoubtedly throw at it.  Indeed, at points the Summit Declaration has a strange ‘magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat’ quality to it given the gap between strategy and politics that is all too apparent.

That said I will go as far as to say that as far as it went the Wales Summit saw some Alliance leaders begin to think big and look beyond their immediate domestic challenges.  Maybe, just maybe, a new reality is slowly dawning.  For that reason NATO’s twenty-first century may just have started in Wales and for that reason alone the Summit is to be commended.

NATO: No Action (more) Talk Only?  Only time will tell if it is not already too late!


Julian Lindley-French

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