NATO will become irrelevant- 2

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NATO should be careful not to let the ‘back to basics’ rhetoric steal the show at the 2016 Warsaw Summit. By moving away from out-ofarea operations with a crisis management focus back to its original purpose – collective defence – NATO will become irrelevant in the long run.

A relevant NATO in a changed world

In the past NATO has had the luxury of being able to focus on just one or two of its core tasks. In the emerging security environment, however, the dilemma is that the challenges on NATO’s eastern and southern flanks seem to suggest that the Alliance should hurry ‘back to basics’ by shifting its focus to collective defence.

Yet, it would be naïve to assume that NATO can simply abandon its commitment to crisis management at a time where there has never been more need for meeting security challenges in an increasingly unstable neighborhood.

‘Going back to basics’ ignores that in the new global environment, the United States will continue to rebalance towards Asia, and that alternative visions for international order-making are emerging. Although there is no expectation for NATO to follow the United States in its rebalance towards Asia, there can be no doubt that the United States (no matter who resides in the White House from 2017) will expect the Europeans to do more in their own neighborhood.

Moreover, in an environment of loosening alignments, differing visions of order-making and declining magnetism of the liberal model, partnerships will be needed more than ever to forge essential links across dividing lines, albeit that they are likely to be more difficult to sustain.

The problem is that the ‘going back to basics’ narrative emphasises one aspect of the changing security environment, but neglects other important changes that require NATO to focus on cooperative security and crisis management. In the long run ‘going back to basics’ will make NATO irrelevant.

The Warsaw Summit should aim to insure a relevant NATO for the 21st century rather than a retrenching Alliance characterized by ‘going back to basics’. A relevant NATO is able to play a full role in all three core tasks;

■ in collective security – by fully implementing the decisions taken at the Wales Summit, including the 2 per cent spending pledge and the speedy and full implementation of the Readiness Action Plan (RAP).

■ in cooperative security – by reassessing the role and function of NATO’s partnerships. Although partnerships can be based on shared values and eventually lead to membership, in the emerging strategic environment it is more likely they will be based on (perhaps narrow) shared interests and specific policy areas.

Moreover partnerships with other international organizations, including the EU, are a pre-requisite for meeting many of the challenges in NATO’s own neighbourhood.

■ in crisis management – by realizing that top-table credibility today comes from availability to contribute to crisis management operations rather than from having a static territorial defence.

Agreement of, and participation in, crisis management operations is not an optional extra but is the foundation of a new implicit transatlantic bargain in which the ‘price’ for the continued relevance of the American security guarantee is an active contribution to order-making in the vicinity of Europe whilst the United States balances towards Asia.

The improvements achieved through the RAP are equally relevant for crisis management as they are for collective defence. Conclusion Going ‘back to basics’, understood as an Alliance in which the United States guarantees Europe’s security in much the same way as it did during the Cold War, is absolutely not an option.

To be sure, European NATO members need to implement the decisions taken at the Wales Summit to reassure its eastern allies and to reinforce its readiness and collective defence capabilities, but readiness and internal reassurance cannot come at the expense of NATO’s two other core tasks.

National positions on how to proceed span a wide spectrum in NATO and not all support the rebalance from crisis management to collective defence. Even so the ‘back to basics’ narrative is damaging because it is pervasive and it implies otherwise.

The Polish hosts for the 2016 Warsaw Summit and NATO’s international staff should be mindful of the damage such a narrative can do to the long-term health of the Alliance. Having taken the decisions at Wales to increase readiness and reassurance (and swift implementation) is a positive first step towards a more healthy Alliance – next step is a new division of labour and a narrative of a more equal transatlantic partnership.

Trine Flockhart, Professor of International Relations, University of Kent



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  1. Going back to basics’ ignores that in the new global environment, the United States will continue to rebalance towards Asia, and that alternative visions for international order-making are emerging.

  2. Warsaw must be well-prepared to host an event of such magnitude. While the official organiser of the NATO Summit is obviously the Government, Warsaw has been assigned with a wide range of responsibilities to make sure that the city functions properly during the Summit

  3. In recent years, the Alliance has struggled to address the longstanding capability shortfalls taught by operational experience. Similarly, the widespread expectation that intensifying multinational cooperation would offset the impact of national force reductions has not been borne out.

  4. The precise contours of Russia’s response to the Warsaw Summit are open to question. However, Russian commentators note that the sources of friction with NATO go well beyond Ukraine. According to the latest iteration (December 2015) of Russia’s National Security Strategy

  5. Moscow foresees further NATO enlargement, deepening internal divisions over Russia-linked policy challenges or how to deal with them, and an overall appetite to resist dealing with Moscow as a potential partner. In turn, Moscow will likely use rhetoric as its main response to the Warsaw summit, while undertaking cautious adjustments to its defense posture, awaiting the political implications of the change of the US president among other factors in its strategic calculus.

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