Select Committee on Defence Written Evidence

Memorandum from Dr Michael Williams


  1.  Since 1989 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has attempted to transform itself from a reactive, defensive organization centred on the protection of Western Europe to a proactive risk manager that addresses security concerns that affect Europe and North America, but emanate far from the transatlantic region. But Allies have been slow to adapt to the post-Cold War security environment. While NATO's role as a collective security guarantee for countries threatened by other states remains widely accepted, there is no clear agreement on the nature and lethality of non-state threats or how to tackle them. Security chiefs would all acknowledge that organised criminals, terrorists, drug lords and extreme ideologues catalyse insecurity, but there is no consensus on the role of expeditionary military forces in tackling them. The Alliance is torn between continued expansion, (principally to lock developing, post-conflict and former Soviet Union countries into liberal democratic models and managing pol-mil relations on Europe's fringes) or transforming into an expeditionary force that address problems that emanate from abroad. Kosovo was the last campaign in which traditionally equipped forces opposed NATO using traditional tactics. And despite a subdued population, minimal insurgency and a massive military overmatch, it has taken nearly a decade (and the sustained deployment of some 20,000 troops) to deliver a secure environemnt in a territory the size of Yorkshire.

  2.  In Afghanistan, several times the size and a massive logistical, linguistic and political challenge, there continues to be a lack of consensus within the Alliance, not only over how to use military forces to manage security issues, but which ones are important enough for European publics to accept casualties for. This is particularly true since the Taliban were removed from government and the so-called reconstruction phase began. The result is an inefficient campaign conducted by caveated contingents, starved of resources and driven by divisions over intent. Europe stands with America in seeking collective security. But there is no unifying narrative strong enough to convince European capitals to share the collective risk. Once engaged in a mission, this uncertainty is expressed through varying political commitment and widely divergent investment in capability. This further marginalises Europe as a partner in American foreign and defence policy and may finally result in a severe decoupling between allies. The future of NATO is far from certain and much depends on the outcome of the mission in Afghanistan—a mission which illustrates all of these issues in startling detail. Britain must consider which path best suits UK interests—if NATO is to be used to further stablize Europe, can the Alliance concurrently facilitate British interests through expeditionary missions.


  3.  At the core of the Alliance's current difficulties is a lack of consensus about what NATO is supposed to do. The allies all agree that NATO is political-military alliance made up of democratic states that share common values. Beyond this, however, disagreement if rife. During the Cold War the rationale of the Alliance was simple—to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe and if invaded, to repel the Soviets. The threat was easily identified. The Soviets believed in a hostile and competitive ideology that advocated a global workers' revolution and the Kremlin possessed the wherewithal to attack Europe and North America using both conventional and unconventional means. Although the Allies agreed that the USSR was a threat, there was still disagreement about how to handle the threat. Hence American furore at West German Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik or German outrage over American plans to put more missiles into Germany. Today the Alliance would very much like to squabble over such details—at least no one was really asking if NATO was relevant and the threat was easy to identify even if how to defeat it was a matter of debate.

  4.  Instead of the Soviet monolith the Allies now face a diverse number of security risks. Weapons proliferation, rogue states, failing states, global pandemics, international terrorist networks, people trafficking, crime syndicates, climate change and energy shortages are now pressing security issues. It is very true that many of these issues existed before the present day, but they were subsumed within the global Cold War. Furthermore, Western society has evolved over the past two decades to be come increasingly obsessed with the idea of risk. The situation is particularly acute in America, but it is not a uniquely American preoccupation. Therefore, even though people in the West are now safer than they ever have been in the last 100 years, they feel more at risk. This is why although statistics tell us that we have a better chance of dying from falling off a ladder than we do in a terrorist attack, the US and its allies are currently engaged in a Global War on Terror, rather than a Global War on Ladders. [119]The problem for NATO is deciding which challenges to manage. That many of them emanate from beyond NATO's borders complicates the matter even further. It is because of this changing rationality that conceptualizes security in terms managing risks, rather than a means-ends approach to deterring threats that NATO has sought to become a more proactive organization. At the moment, however, the metamorphosis is incomplete, in part because of the continued expansion of the Alliance.

  5.  The demise of the Soviet Union not only enabled the West to address a variety of new security risks, it also left a vacuum in East-Central Europe. NATO filled this vacuum, expanding to include countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary. In doing so NATO insured that these countries would have a firm supporting structure to guide their transition from closed dictatorships to open democracies and that their militaries would be subordinate to civilian rule. In many ways, this was a core function of NATO during the Cold War when the Alliance helped ensure peaceful transitions to democratic governments in countries such as Portugal, Spain and Greece. Just as NATO was a stabilizing factor in Southern Europe, the strategy of eastward expansion has also worked. Expansion continues now to the point that new NATO members include Macedonia and Bulgaria, with the possibility of membership being extended to countries such as Albania and Croatia. The problem that this presents is that these new countries make it more difficult to achieve consensus, which makes it harder to use NATO as an expeditionary force. Therefore, whilst the stabilizing factor of expansion benefits British interests, it also limits any ambitions that the Alliance can be used in an expeditionary capacity. Furthermore, even when new members are willing to act abroad in an expeditionary campaign, they lack the resources to do so. Even states such as Poland or the Czech Republic, which are trying to transform their forces, for the time being, offer little support to Alliance capability.


  6.  Once the Allies answer the question of what NATO's purpose is, they can then more easily address the issues of NATO's area of responsibility. Here there are essentially two possibilities. If the Alliance is deemed to be a collective defence organization, oriented on managing security relations among European states and defending the territory of Europe in a reactive way, then NATO will remain a European centred organization. If the Alliance agrees that managing security risks should start where the risks emanate from, then there is no choice but for the Alliance to be global in nature. [120]The latter is the most logical choice for Britain. The United States has made it clear that US policy vis-a"-vis Europe is not about Europe per se, but about how Europe and America can work together. The extension of this logic is that Washington wants NATO to be a global organization that provides for transatlantic security and defence by engaging problems around the world. The US drive to secure closer relations with Japan, Australia and New Zealand supports this goal. The involvement of all three countries in current US and European operations in Iraq and Afghanistan illustrates the possibility of increased transatlantic cooperation with key players in the Asia pacific region.

  7.  Some European states have, up until now at least, been worried about making NATO a global organization. Of particular concern is that the involvement of states such as Japan and Australia would tilt the balance of power within the Alliance towards Washington. While this concern is understandable, no one is advocating that Asian pacific counties join NATO—they would instead be special partners (such as Sweden currently is). Furthermore, while many of these countries are very pro-US, they have still sought to be clear when divisions exist between their policy positions and Washington. Canberra, for example, has clearly stated that it will not be goaded into supporting hostile rhetoric from Washington aimed at China as China is Australia's second largest trading partner. The reality is that it would be better for the Alliance to integrate certain Asia-pacific countries into NATO partnership structures than to exclude them, thus forcing the US to perhaps go more in the direction of ad hoc coalitions to get the necessary support to effect policy. By partnering with these countries, NATO's capability deficit is also somewhat reduced.

  8.  NATO today is de facto a four tier alliance.

    (a)  Tier I: This group includes countries such as the UK, US, Canada, the Netherlands and Denmark that acknowledge the role that expeditionary missions need to play in transatlantic security policy. These countries have prepared themselves for such missions and willingly deploy in hazardous areas. Interestingly enough, this group includes non-NATO allies, such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Sweden.

    (b)  Tier II: Members of tier II are the major countries of "Old Europe" such as Germany, France, Spain, Italy among others. There countries Strategic Defence Reviews continually emphasis less and less defence spending. They are reluctant to deploy abroad, and when they do deploy they tend to do so in a highly risk averse manner that makes their contribution more cosmetic more than anything else. The one possible exception if France. Paris has invested quite heavily in defence (compared to other European countries) and the French maintain an open mind with regard to expeditionary missions. The major dilemma has traditionally been opposition to US-led initiatives. Perhaps, the new Sarkozy government will adjust course to be more engaged in an Alliance expeditionary capacity.

    (c)  Tier III: This group consists of new member countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary that understand the need for expeditionary missions and want to support them. They have willingly engaged in such missions and have started military transformation so that they can participate in expeditionary campaigns. At the moment, however, they militaries are not able to provide all of the required capabilities to engage in such missions and require heavy subsidies (financial and equipment) from the West (ie Washington) to deploy abroad.

    (d)  Tier IV: Members of this group include states such as Macedonia and Bulgaria. They are not able to deploy substantial contributions abroad and bring very little to the table in terms of capabilities when they are deployed abroad. They lack the funds or ability to sufficiently support expeditionary activities within the alliance framework. The militaries are small and have difficulty operating alongside Western European forces on a number of levels, not the least important of which is a lack of English speaking troops.

    (e)  The Next Round of Expansion—This round will include countries such as Albania and Croatia. The Alliance seriously needs to address what these countries will bring to NATO and what effect they will have on Alliance ambitions to be a global actor. All indications seem to point to these states as consumers of Alliance security, but not providers of it.


  9.  The question of "who is NATO" has already been partially addressed. A more global NATO does not necessary mean new allies, but just new partners. The more substantive bit of this question is "who does what within NATO?" The situation in Afghanistan is effectively a coalition of the willing within NATO. Certain states believe that kinetic military operations are necessary to bring security to Southern Afghanistan. As such Britain, the United States, the Netherlands, and Canada (Denmark will be coming on board soon) find themselves doing all the fighting while the rest of the allies participate in "reconstruction" activities that many NGOs repeatedly emphasize they could undertake.

  10.  The issue of capabilities is not new. Throughout the Cold War Washington droned on about the necessity of Europe having a better ability to defend itself. Today the complaint is the same—Europe needs more airlift, more armour, more money into research and development—but there is now an added element. Capability really boils down to political will. If the Soviets marched over the Fulda Gap there is little doubt Bonn would have responded. Today, despite the former German defence minister proclaiming the defence of Germany starts in the Hindu Kush, Berlin is not willing to push the case that Germany must be involved in Southern Afghanistan.

  11.  This problem thus makes it important for the United Kingdom and other like-minded allies, that the Alliance incorporates new partners (or in the extreme, allies) with serious capability and will to act. Should the Alliance become increasingly unwilling to act, or willing to act in rhetoric only, then the logical conclusion is that the United States would seek to establish coalitions of the willing to support US policy. One must ask why exactly the US should work through NATO if the majority of the allies bring little to the table, but complicate the decision making process immensely. This question must also be considered by Britain—do the benefits of NATO (legitimacy?) outweigh the drawbacks? A disastrous experience in Iraq does not discredited the idea of coalitions of the willing—indeed coalitions of the willing have more often than not been successful. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) stretching from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean (and beyond in theory) is one such working example as is the Peace Support Operations Training Centre in Bosnia. If will and capability are not existent, the Alliance will not endure as a working organization in the long-term. It may remain as a political husk, since its complete demise would be too disturbing to the idea of the West, but it would cease to be a working forum for debate and formulation of transatlantic defence policy.


  12.  All of these issues are easily identified in NATO's current mission in Afghanistan. What exactly is NATO doing in Afghanistan? There is the official rhetoric about assisting the Government of Afghanistan (GoA) in providing peace and security and extending the reach of the GoA. But if you ask ten NATO allies, you will most likely get ten different answers. Since practically each ally has a different rationale for being in Afghanistan, they conceptualize the problems differently and prescribe different solutions. This has resulted in a disjointed Western (and international) approach to the country. This disjointedness has meant that the security situation has only improved marginally in some parts of the country and in secure areas it has meant inadequate levels of reconstruction and development.

  13.  It may be because the allies have different rationales for being in Afghanistan that they assign caveats (or not) to their presence in the country. The German emphasis on reconstruction and development means that there should be no need for the Bundeswehr to fight in Helmand. On the other hand, while Washington and London might agree that reconstruction is a key aspect of success, they argue that security is a prerequisite for reconstruction and development, and as such, advocate kinetic military operations. At the heart of the capability and will issue is once again the question of "why is NATO in Afghanistan" which then leads ultimately to "what is NATO for?" The capacity and will issue cannot be resolved without answering this question.

  14.  The biggest challenge facing the Alliance at the moment, however, is not conceptual, but practical. NATO's role in Afghanistan has always been a tough one and the Alliance has been on the verge of failure a couple times. NATO has attempted to do Afghanistan on the cheap and as such it has suffered. The fact that General Richards believes that if the Taliban had chosen to use manoeuvre warfare in summer 2006 instead of digging in against NATO forces, he could have lost the battle, is very revealing. [121]The Alliance has overcome some difficulties, finally bolstering forces in the south of the country (which now include a theatre reserve requested by General Richards in 2006), but the lack of a joined up approach, coupled with a lack of assistance from the rest of the international community does not bode well for the future of the mission.

  15.  In the immediate term NATO must defined what success in Afghanistan looks like. To do this, the Alliance must work out why it is Afghanistan and what the ultimate mission is. From this point NATO can then establish what "success" (or at the very least failure) looks like. The Alliance should be careful to not ascribe too much to success—it should be a realistic and achievable standard. Although NATO troops will be in Afghanistan for a long time to come, with success defined, the Alliance could then draw up a plan that would allow it play an increasingly smaller role over the next decade, handing over responsibility to the Afghan government and other international organizations and non-governmental organizations that are better placed to help the country develop in the long-term.


  16.  In the face of the aforementioned factors NATO has two potential courses of action.

    (a)  Internal Assimilation—the Alliance focuses on being an engine of "peaceful expectation of change" in Europe. NATO will help to integrate new members into the community of democracies and it will help to train and update the militaries of former Warsaw Pact countries. If the Alliance continues to expand, however, the most likely outcome is that expeditionary missions either fall by the wayside or are assumed by a "coalition of the willing".

    (b)  Expeditionary Capacity—In this scenario the Alliance tackles the demons of operating abroad. There needs to be serious discussion about what members contribute to NATO and how the Alliance engages in expeditionary missions such as those in Afghanistan. Under this model the Alliance cannot expand indefinitely and future expansion must be contingent upon shared values and capability. Adding Australia or Japan to the Alliance would make much more sense than adding Croatia from this point of view.

    (c)  It is possible that expansion and expeditionary missions are not diametrically opposed. Over the long term, adding members such as Poland and Hungary that are willing to act and just need to develop a capability will hopefully mean more boots on the ground (which pay for themselves). In the short to medium term, however, expansion to include allies that mainly consume resources, rather than provides them, means that the Alliance will have difficult time. Each ally has a vote in what the Alliance should or should not do, regardless of what they contribute to Alliance capabilities.

  17.  NATO faces a number of daunting challenges and its future is far from certain. It may be tempting to see the Alliance as a dated organization, but to do so is to overlook that very real fact that NATO is the physical manifestation of the West. The shared values of NATO member states are very real and they are the bedrock of the Alliance. It is because of these values that NATO will most likely succeed in Afghanistan. The Alliance may come through bloodied, bruised and perhaps not as effective as it could have been, but it should come through. Unlike the coalition of the willing in Iraq, which has steadily lost members over the years, NATO remains committed to Afghanistan. To fail in Afghanistan would call into question the idea of the West and the commonality of Western values. Although there is much speculation that America and Europe no longer share common values, this is nonsense. Both sides of the Atlantic believe in free-market economics, democracy and human rights. Europe and America do disagree on how to best promote these values and how to normatize them into international frameworks, but these differences are not what make the Alliance weak, they are what makes it strong. A callous and over zealous American administration has made the situation worse, but balance is slowly being restored to Washington politics. If policy-makers in Europe and Washington are smart, they will recognize that disagreeing over how to promote democracy and human rights at least means that you are starting from the same page—that democracy and human rights are good things. The same can not be said of Europe or America's relationships with many other countries.

  Dr. Michael Williams is the Head of the Transatlantic Programme at the Royal United Services Institute. He also directs the RUSI project on Civil-Military Relations. Dr. Williams is the editor of Power in World Politics (Routledge 2007) and the author of From Kosovo to Khandahar: The Evolution of an Alliance (Routledge 2008).

Head, Transatlantic Programme, RUSI

11 June 2007

119   According to the US Centers for Disease Control the average American has a one in 88,000 chance of dying in a terrorist attack, compared to a one in 10,010 chance of dying from a fall. See: Benjamin Friedman, Think Again: Homeland Security, Foreign Policy (July/August 2005) Back

120   Global in nature does not necessarily mean new allies from outside Europe, but that the Alliance acts outside Europe as is the current trend. The possibility that global NATO means members from outside Europe, such as Australia or Japan, is another issue the alliance will have to confront in the medium term as it continues to work more and more closely with these states. Back

121   RUSI Interview with General David Richards, RUSI Journal 152 (2), April 2007. pp. 24-32. Back

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