There are some difficult truths about NATO that, while critical in their implications, are seldom articulated or openly recognised in discussion. Why is this? Is it, as I suspect, that silence plays a diplomatic function in papering over the cracks between NATO’s different camps and political persuasions? If so, how long can this ‘constructive ambiguity’ be expected to last, before the Alliance’s very real divisions, and very real limitations in capacity and capability, become apparent?
This are questions that will become increasingly relevant in the lead-up to the new Strategic Concept, a document intended to produce new guidance for the organisation to which all 28 member states can subscribe. The central question, of course, is whether a short document like the Strategic Concept will be able to grapple with NATO’s various divisions and faultlines without, that is, resorting to bland generalisations or compromises that leave nothing out – ‘all things to all men’, and so on?
One contentious issue is Article 5. Discussions on Article 5 are critical to the future of NATO, particularly because of what it means to its newer members, who see it as a guarantee against possible aggression from the east. So while NATO is off fighting wars in Afghanistan and working on its ‘comprehensive approach’ elsewhere, Eastern European governments look to Georgia and make pointed reminders of NATO’s original purpose, that ‘article 5’ commitment that ought to come with the membership. What ensues is a balancing act, yet is it at all viable?
More profoundly, the whole premise of an Article 5 commitment, while central to Eastern Europe’s sense of security, is an anachronism, built on Cold-War assumptions. It assumes, for example, that an eventual attack on a NATO country would be unambiguous; and secondly, that NATO’s response to said aggression would be possible. Neither assumption is likely to hold. An illustration: if the obvious threat, Russia, decides to attack a NATO member country, what exactly constitutes an Article 5 transgression? Russia, or any other adversary worth its salt, would seek not to trigger the tripwire for an overt Article 5 reaction, but to operate under that threshold, preferably with plausible deniability (or at least some significant measure of ambiguity) so as to confound, split and paralyse NATO’s decision-making over a suitable response.
And even if there is a decision to invoke Article 5, what exactly would NATO do in response to an attack that, it is likely, would be neither territorial nor militarily conventional, as assumed when Article 5 was first written, but that may instead be characterised by subversion, harassment, cyber-attacks, or energy-related provocation, etc.
It would seem that the emphasis on Article 5 in discussions of NATO’s future is important from a symbolic standpoint, to keep the newer members on board, from losing faith in NATO and from developing their own arrangements for security. Upon closer scrutiny, however, this whole issue is a red herring. If this analysis is correct, are we, and NATO, better served by confronting this issue head-on, or through continued reaffirmations of ‘Article 5’, at summits and in writing, but with no clear idea of how to honour this commitment in practical terms, either today or tomorrow?
The exception to all of the above, some might say, is if there really were a conventional territorial attack on a member state. Yet even in such an extreme instance, say Georgia of 2008 were a NATO member, it seems unlikely that NATO’s response would be as forthcoming as the eastern European country in question might expect. I have heard some NATO officials commend the Alliance for its unrivalled ability to reach decisions quickly but elsewhere, NATO’s own war-games have revealed the difficulty of galvanising swift action in a consensus-based organisation where several members are facing shortfalls in available military means and others require UN or parliamentary approval to launch military operations. Relying on a predominantly American response is of course the order of the day, but this hedging strategy will become increasingly problematic as US priorities shift away from Europe, not to mention the United States’ own financial limitations and ongoing military commitments. Again, this is another truth that may be best left unspoken, but who, if anyone, are we actually fooling?
Criticising the Comprehensive Approach is a bit like shooting fish in a bucket: the mere mention of the concept already tends to produce tired groans, sardonic remarks and the rolling of eyes. Critics quite rightly point to the vagueness of the concept, or to the inability of national governments to coordinate their own affairs (so what hope then for inter-governmental organisations, or relations between such bodies). Yet there are some other subtleties here that tend to get less play.
First, the CA discussion reveals a fundamental malaise within NATO not only as to ‘who does what’, but also as to ‘what to do, and where’. There is no denying that end-states with political as well as security-related components will require the coordinated input of civilian and military actors. At the same time, the regularity with which some NATO officials talk about CA, coordination, or working together, tends toward the obsessive, which tempts me to draw a somewhat cynical conclusion. In lieu of actually looking at the countries or areas in which the would-be coordinated actors are to operate, which would require learning about an alien culture, history, people and politics, there is a tendency to look inward, toward the structures and entities with which we are more familiar, and make the lack of coordination between these the central determining factor between strategic success and failure. And this justification for not dealing more closely with the real matter at hand has no expiry date, for what likelihood is there of a truly ‘comprehensive approach’.
In that sense, it would be very interesting were the sought-after coordination and comprehensiveness achieved, miraculously of course, as this would force the tireless champions of this cause to identify what the comprehensive approach is an approach to. In other words, we return to the realm of strategy and strategic objectives – a difficult nut to crack, it must be said, but a question that is too often deferred by endless exhortations for better ‘coordination’.
Related to the above, there is a group within NATO that is now considering a Plan B, to wit, the standing up of some sort of civilian capacity within NATO itself, to deal with various civilian operational tasks until the broader ‘international community’ is able to take over.
This is a good idea in so far as it recognises the limited operational capability of the civilian partners on which NATO has hitherto relied, but it is also problematic (and resisted by others within the Alliance and beyond). First, this course of action makes NATO’s remit, already contested and divisive, even more ambitious. Second, does NATO have the required legitimacy, capability and political will to wade into civilian areas as well as military ones? Third, this desperate compromise would be conducted (and tolerated only) on the basis that NATO’s engagement in civilian affairs would be strictly temporary. In other words, it assumes that, given just a little more time (the time during which NATO’s civilian force would hold the ring), the international community’s true civilian expeditionary actors would get their act together and take over. This, as far as I can see, is an unrealistic assumption, particularly if those very civilian partners come to see NATO as able and willing to do their work for them, when push comes to shove. It is similar to the debate within the US military as to whether they should take over civilian tasks if their inter-agency partners are not there or fully able to handle them themselves. Yes, there may be an operational need to do precisely that, but this last resort itself affects the likelihood of civilian agencies getting prepared and ready for the next deployment.
The broader question raised here is whether the relative silence on these thorny issues in NATO discussions serves a diplomatic function, or is in recognition of the near-impossibility of finding practical solutions to the associated problems. The follow-on question is whether the utility served by not looking at these issues more honestly outweighs the benefits of tackling them upfront.