“Heaven wheels above you, displaying to you her eternal glories, and still your eyes are on the ground”.
Alphen, Netherlands. 24 March. Budapest stands likes a sentinel either side of the majestic River Danube as it flows through time on its stately course to the Black Sea. There are two key issues NATO must deal with at present: how to make President Trump if not like NATO, at least recognise its utility; and how to properly prepare NATO for the future shocks coming our way. For the past two days I have been in the Hotel Marriott in beautiful Budapest listening to NATO’s ‘best and brightest’ destroy NATO’s future. It was probably just as well I was barred from speaking on a panel in the main meeting because as a NATO citizen I would have given the assembled, dissembling ‘Permanent Representatives’ (NATO ambassadors) to the North Atlantic Council (NAC) a firm piece of my Yorkshire mind. NATO’s political elite is failing both the Alliance and me the citizen.
President Trump first. Much was made at the conference about the need for effective strategic communications – the use of information to generate influence and effect. Clearly, NATO does not understand its own jargon. In May President Trump will visit Brussels to open the new NATO HQ. Apparently, the President will be invited to cut the ribbon at an empty, over-priced ($1.3bn), long overdue building, for which the American taxpayer has stumped up too much. I can see the Trump Tweets already: “At over-due, empty new NATO HQ listening to empty words from pompous Europeans. Burden-sharing? We Americans paid how much? That’s a lotta guns we trashed for this Euro-butter. #getmeoutahere”.
The Allies must convince President Trump that NATO really is a good thing for America. Here’s my idea. The President is due to make a state visit to Britain in October. Last month Trump made a speech from the hangar of the new 104,000 ton aircraft carrier the USS Gerald R. Ford. Now, before I make my suggestion, I know some pedant somewhere will say the new British ship has not been commissioned yet, and that she is doing sea trials, and there is this fault and that fault. Sod that! The bloody thing floats and looks great! So, in October NATO should hold a meeting of the NAC at Heads of State and Government level in the hangar of the new 75,000 ton, £3bn British aircraft-carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth. President Trump then tweets: “Standing on enormous, new, beautiful, aircraft-carrier. Guess what? No Stars and Stripes. UK’s historic, majestic White Ensign. And Brits have 2 of them. #burdensharinginaction”.
Future shocks. Yet again, much of NATO’s political leadership seem hell-bent on sacrificing strategy and the medium-to-long term for the sake of politics and the short-term…and doing their eloquent damnedest to pretend otherwise. There was a lot of good sense spoken by a lot of good people over the past two days, together with a lot of crap about ‘eco-systems’ and NATO solving climate-change. Most of the real-thinking came from NATO officials desperately trying to find ways to close a yawning and ever-widening gap between NATO’s ends, ways and means, Europe’s other-planet political class, and the people who speak for them. And, in between I had to listen to a lot of academics who know an awful lot less about NATO than I do, although some friends of mine were thankfully on hand to breathe at least some good sense into proceedings.
Allied Command Transformation (ACT) is really trying very hard to breathe life into the latest political mantras of adaptation, innovation, and transformation. There was some really good stuff presented by senior NATO officials. And yet, when it came to the last session I sat there with my head in my hands. It was clear that apart maybe from the Germans, who are doing some really interesting work on adaptation, most of the rest of ‘Their Excellencies’ were scraping around on the political floor of pretence at the speed of irrelevance.
The bottom-line is this; NATO must not end up trapped in a kind of persistent vegetative approach. The world is getting dangerous out there, and in here, as this week’s tragic events in London attest. Strategic unity of effort and purpose is what NATO is meant for – to turn collective political action into collective defence. And it is here where the Trump challenge and future shock come together. The longer the nations and their diplomatic representatives ‘play NATO’, which is what is happening at present, the more marginal NATO will become to reality and the less able it will be to defend me.
Let me play out a brief scenario; a desperate Russia led by an unstable, quixotic regime in Moscow actually does what it is now threatening to do – attack the Baltic States. In the teeth of such a crisis do ‘Their Excellencies’ really believe that NATO would be in the front-line? Of course not. The West’s first response would be led by the Americans, (assuming the Americans are not busy elsewhere) with strategic command firmly in the White House, and main operational control run from US CENTCOM in Tampa (with US EUCOM in support). The few close allies (UK, France, Germany, Poland, Norway and the Balts, plus possibly Sweden and Finland) who could offer something would be firmly under American command. NATO would only be brought in when things had calmed down. If the Americans are busy elsewhere? Europe is screwed, at least until the Germans have the heavier formations they are developing in place. However, that will not be until at least 2021 or 2022.
Which brings me to the real paradox of these two days past. NATO is now only a deterrent. It is not a credible warfighting alliance. The problem is that if NATO is not a war-fighting alliance, it is not a credible deterrent.
And, the river flows on…