With New Challenges, Should NATO Go Global?

NATO’s top civilian leader, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen envisions an expanded, global role for NATO. Today, threats to NATO’s founding members, let alone the world, tend to be global in nature and frequently from non-state actors. Hence, overcoming such threats requires a globally connected security Alliance. Though Rasmussen’s vision is less ambitious than a 2006 Global NATO proposal, writes security expert Richard Weitz, such a proposal has aroused anxieties in Russia and China. They fear that NATO would circumvent UN decisions if it suited the Alliance’s purposes. Its decision to take action in Kosovo despite Russia’s and China’s veto in the Security Council is a case in point. Still, this doesn’t mean that NATO will be any more effective in counteracting global threats, as Afghanistan and other past actions attest. Among other things their operations are mired in interoperability and communication inefficiencies. Indeed, as Weitz argues, NATO’s biggest challenge is proper coordination in Afghanistan. If the Alliance can’t work effectively in that country, there’s no point in it trying to become a global policeman. – YaleGlobal

With New Challenges, Should NATO Go Global?

Before taking global responsibility, NATO needs to get its own house in order
Richard Weitz
Friday, February 26, 2010

Global temptation: NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (top) envisons a bigger role but the orgainzation's performance in Afgahnistan raises doubt

WASHINGTON: Since the Cold War, NATO and other institutions have been struggling to redefine their roles in strengthening international security. Now the top civilian leader of NATO, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, wants to expand the organization’s mandate in keeping with the changing circumstances. “In an age of globalized insecurity,” he recently told the influential Munich Security Conference, “our territorial defense must begin beyond our borders.” Realization of such a project, however, would depend on overcoming resistance from China and Russia and, most importantly, achieving success in NATO’s current mission in Afghanistan.

Rasmussen and other NATO leaders have cited several new global threats as requiring additional NATO missions besides the Alliance’s traditional focus on collective self-defense: terrorists with worldwide reach, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through new international trafficking networks, cyber attacks that can travel with lightening speed through the World Wide Web, and threats to the economic security of allies from energy supply disruptions, global climate change, and maritime piracy.

The Global NATO idea is not new. Even before Rasmussen became NATO’s chief civilian last August, Alliance leaders had called on NATO to expand its geographic horizons. The current US Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, co-authored a prominent Foreign Affairs article in 2006 that called for the Alliance to allow any democratic country, regardless of location, to enter NATO if it desired to join and could contribute to securing the organization’s security goals. This proposal could not overcome opposition from France and other Alliance members seeking to constrain NATO’s global reach.

Addressing new worldwide threats became prominent in Alliance thinking when NATO began updating its Strategic Concept last year. This document defines the Alliance’s purpose, nature, and fundamental security tasks. The current draft dates from 1999 – before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the protracted insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the transformation of transnational communications, transportation, and other global networks. The authors of the new draft, due later this year, are now considering how NATO can best manage these novel circumstances.

Rasmussen told the Munich conference that he wants NATO to collaborate with other countries and institutions “much more actively and systematically.” Such collaboration is not new, if intermittent and on an ad hoc basis. But usually, the institutions involved struggle to define their respective roles and responsibilities for each case, sometimes through formal compacts, sometimes with informal understandings.

In some cases, as in the collective maritime operation against Somali pirates, the inefficient coordination among NATO, EU, and the other maritime security bodies involved simply wasted resources. In addition, interoperability problems, like the inability to communicate or coordinate tactics and techniques, impeded their joint response. But in other instances, as in Afghanistan, inadequate integration imperiled the mission’s ultimate success. For example, NATO, EU, and UN officials repeatedly under-resourced important missions, such as training of the Afghan police.

Matters would improve if NATO could collaborate with other international security institutions in the same way that the NATO governments cooperate with one another within the Alliance. The militaries of the 28 NATO members, as well as many of the Alliance’s formal partners, frequently meet, plan, and train together – increasing their effectiveness. Convening regular meetings and holding periodic exercises involving the UN, the EU, the African Union and other global security institutions would help them conduct joint operations more efficiently and effectively.

Rasmussen also envisions NATO becoming “the hub of a network of security partnerships and a centre for consultation on international security issues – even issues on which the Alliance might never take action.” In this role, NATO could function as something of a global think tank, convening international seminars on international security challenges that would include representatives of other security institutions.

The Alliance could also serve as a repository of lessons learned from past multi-institutional security operations. For example, NATO, the UN, and other international organizations have been engaged in several peace operations in the former Yugoslavia. Problems arose due to the different tactics, techniques, and procedures employed by each organization. They required years to learn how to work together on such important issues as communicating effectively, implementing a coherent strategy, and achieving unity of command. NATO could serve a valuable service if it could compile these lessons and then place them in a database accessible for future operations.

Some non-member countries depict Rasmussen’s dream of a global NATO as something of a global nightmare. China’s state-run media has tended to portray the alliance’s non-European operations in an unfavorable light. A September 2006 editorial in the semi-official People’s Daily attacked alleged US plans to create a “Global NATO,” stating that the Alliance’s “interference in the affairs of major ‘hot spot’ regions” – such as Kosovo and Afghanistan – “has drawn extensive concern of people worldwide.”

Russian defense strategists expressed similar unease, characterizing the Alliance’s alleged efforts to acquire “global functions in contravention of international law” as a major danger to Russia.

In their joint statements, Russian and Chinese policy makers regularly stress the unique legitimacy of the United Nations – specifically, the UN Security Council, where Beijing and Moscow can veto proposed resolution – to authorize collective military actions. What they seem to most fear is that NATO would again seek to circumvent the United Nations if the two institutions disagree on how to respond to a global security crisis. After Moscow and Beijing blocked a UN resolution authorizing the use of force in Kosovo in 1999, NATO governments, citing urgent humanitarian considerations, acted on their own authority and launched a massive air campaign against Serbia.

In a recent interview, Rasmussen told me that he envisaged something different than the earlier Global NATO proposal. First, he sought a geographically broad but functionally limited consultative role for the Alliance. Second, he emphasized that NATO aimed to strengthen the United Nations and other international institutions rather than displace them, and to partner with non-member countries rather than assimilate them. Finally, Rasmussen underscored that managing the Afghanistan conflict rather than using NATO to solve countless global security problems was driving his thinking.

Afghanistan does represent the best case for NATO to assume an international security coordination role. Already, Alliance commanders are partnering with 16 non-NATO members – including Australia, Sweden, and South Korea – in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). At the same time, poor coordination vitiates the contributions of the large number of international actors engaged in Afghanistan. NATO would make a real contribution if it could better harmonize their diverse civilian and military activities.

In addition, the great powers that remain outside NATO and ISAF – Russia, China, and India – have all suffered mass casualty attacks from the Islamist groups now fighting against NATO. These three governments might not welcome an enduring NATO presence in Central Asia, and likely suspect that Alliance leaders are trying to drag them into the Afghan imbroglio on NATO’s behalf. Nonetheless, they do not want a Taliban-Al Qaeda terrorist network to reemerge in Afghanistan.

If NATO improves coordination among the dozens of countries and international institutions engaged in Afghanistan, then the Alliance might profitably consider performing the same role in other global hotspots. If it fails in Afghanistan, then NATO should properly concentrate on getting its own house in order before venturing out of its area any time soon.


Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia. Dr. Weitz also is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Project on National Security Reform and the Center for a New American Security.

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