Member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) have been meeting in Lisbon over the past few days. This meeting of member countries is regarded as one of the most important meetings of NATO in recent times, as its purpose has been to define a new mission statement, and to sign up to a new strategic doctrine for the next decade. But how successful has NATO been in addressing the real security needs of its 28 member states, and how relevant is NATO in our current world order?
NATO came into being as an organisation for military cooperation in 1949, when the first 12 member states from Western Europe, Scandinavia, the USA and Canada signed an agreement in Washington DC. The parties agreed that an armed attack on one or more NATO members in Europe or North America would be considered an attack on all members. Under such circumstances, all member states would be obliged to assist the member under attack, although the nature of the assistance was left quite vague. It did not necessarily oblige member states to respond with military action against the aggressor in helping its fellow NATO members. This key concept was articulated in Article 5 of the NATO charter.
In the early years of NATO, it proved valuable in forging cooperation between the defence forces of the member states. This allowed for the standardisation of many pieces of equipment in use, and many processes and practices employed by the military. It created “best practice” across many military forces. NATOs first real test as an organisation came with the Korean War in 1950. The threat posed by the Communists forced member states to make available a NATO force, and the forced the organisation to formalise the way in which it ran itself. The Soviet Union was refused membership of NATO in 1954, and this resulted in the USSR setting up its own rival to NATO. The establishment of the Warsaw Pact to stand up to NATO laid the groundwork for the Cold War, which lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. NATO’s first Director-General, Lord Ismay, once famously stated that the organisation’s goal was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. The Warsaw Pact was eventually dissolved in 1991, thereby removing NATO’s main adversary and perhaps part of its reason for existence.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has brought into question NATO’s relevance in the modern era of conflict and military threat. NATO took an active role in the Balkans War where NATO forces operated against the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The attack on US soil on September 11, 2001 resulted in NATO invoking Article 5 of its charter for the first time in its history. The attack on the US was considered an attack on all NATO members, and NATO responded by joining US forces in the war in Afghanistan. This war has occupied NATO for the last decade.
The Lisbon meeting seems to have been dominated by concerns of NATO members as to how their forces can be extricated from the quagmire of the war in Afghanistan. Afghan president Hamed Karzai also attended the NATO meeting to engage in this discussion. The difficulty in the relationship between NATO and the Afghan government was reflected in a difficult meeting earlier in the week between Karzai and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus. Karzai has expressed concern about certain tactics employed by NATO forces on the ground in Afghanistan. Although the war in Afghanistan has cost NATO member countries huge sums of money to support and significant loss of life to its soldiers, it has at least provided some relevance to NATO as an organisation over the past decade. This relevance is waning, and could run out completely with the approach of the the targeted withdrawal date of NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014 or 2015.
To help define NATO’s role in the future, NATO asked former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, to assemble a committee of experts and to draft recommendations for NATO’s strategy over the next ten years. The Albright document makes interesting reading, not only for what it does say, but specifically for what it does not. In my view, it is far too bland and reflects a lack of willingness to tell things as they really are. In following this path, NATO runs the risk of being irrelevant and not addressing the real security and military risks confronting its member countries.
Interestingly and tellingly, the Albright committee document is indirect and weak when addressing the threats on NATO members arising from the Middle East. Although there is a reference to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and her other neighbours, Albright’s document calls upon NATO to be involved by adding value to dialogue groups in the region. This is tantamount to avoiding the issue at all. Considering that many security experts have gone as far as labelling this conflict as having a substantial impact on the stability and security of the free world, the recommendation of the NATO experts is surprising. More than this, the experts call upon NATO to help to implement a peace agreement consistent with conditions that have been laid down. There is no reference to playing a role in getting to this agreement. Is this something that does not interest or affect NATO as an organisation?
Most interesting of all is the way in which the nuclear threat posed by Iran is addressed. The document simply says that the allies should be open to discussion with its partners on the implications of a possible nuclear breakout by Iran. Surely, this is the world’s greatest military and security threat. Considering the fact that most NATO members are situated in Central and Western Europe and, fall quite neatly into Iran’s missile range, it is my view that NATO is simply ignoring the greatest threat to its member countries and to world peace. When adding to that its unwillingness to recognise the threat posed by Iranian proxies in the Middle East in the form of Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and others, NATO risks making itself completely irrelevant to its member states. One of the requirements for membership of NATO is that members must be democratic countries. As the only democratic country amongst a sea of nations seeking the downfall and destruction of NATO members, Israel is surely a natural ally and partner for NATO. Ignoring this fact risks the relegation of NATO to the trash heap of history.
One of the driving forces behind this policy of ambivalence is surely Turkey’s membership of NATO. Once, Turkey was a critical member of the organisation in that it gave geographical access to locate missiles in critical positions to counter the threat of the Warsaw Pact. These days, Turkey’s position on the world political stage is much more threatening and less in line with its NATO allies than ever before. Having had its approaches for membership to the European Union rebuffed, Turkey is increasingly moving into the clutches of its ally Iran. Both countries share the fact that vast majority of their populations are Muslims. Previously this was not a major factor, and now it is not politically correct to point it out. The truth, however, is that this is an increasingly important issue when evaluating the military and security risks of the modern world. Turkey has shown its true colours in recent months by working in NATO to prevent the sharing of critical security information with Israel. Such an act weakens the security of the vast majority of NATO members, and shows that Turkey’s continued membership of the organisation, while moving increasingly closer to Iran, is a direct conflict of interests.
Since it came into being in 1949, NATO was never really called upon to exercise its main objective as set out in Article 5. Even though the article was invoked in 2001 for the first time, the circumstances in which the article was exercised were completely different from the situation that was envisaged 60 years ago. The attack on a NATO member was not by the army of a country, but by the army of a renegade terrorist group representing one of the world’s major religions. NATO may now have agreed upon its strategy for withdrawal from Afghanistan, but it has failed to show what relevance the organisation will thereafter. The threat from Russia is long gone, and NATO now has the chance to establish itself a strong position in protecting its members from the Islamic threat. Attacks on London, Madrid, New York, Washington and other locations on the soil of NATO countries have already shown NATO to be ineffective against this threat so far. There is still time to respond to it by recognising the problem and taking actions to protect members against it. Failure to do so will, however, prove NATO’s irrelevance, and ultimately spell the end of the organisation.