NATO stands at a crossroads: the 26-member alliance is simultaneously engaged in the most difficult military mission it has ever undertaken – its first ever ground war – while also undergoing pressure to transform itself in an uncertain world. In particular, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan is being widely held up as the ultimate test of the Alliance in its post-Cold War incarnation. Success in Afghanistan, it is claimed, will also secure the future of the alliance, while failure could lead to a muted 60th anniversary next year and even an end to NATO itself.

Anti-communism was the foundation of the Cold War and the rationale for NATO. In the post-Cold War environment NATO has expanded its ambit and developed a body of standards, structures, knowledge, and protocols for complex multinational military coalitions that is unrivalled in history. But the alliance continues to operate within a strategic concept that is stuck in the last century, and has so far failed to articulate a truly convincing rationale and coherent strategy for this century. By choosing the right path now, NATO has the potential to be an agent for change that benefits human security both inside and outside the alliance.

Changes Needed

Changes to the strategy in Afghanistan and a new Strategic Concept are both urgently needed if NATO is retain its credibility and legitimacy, within the eyes of the wider world and citizens in member states.

It’s important to stress that this is not the first time that NATO finds its tanks parked at a crossroads. Similar debates over NATO’s role and structure have arisen in the past over issues such as the Vietnam War, Pershing missiles in Europe, the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Kosovo, and most recently the response to 9/11 and the original decisions to intervene in Iraq and Afghanistan. Other, long-running NATO debates have until now been more like exit-less roundabouts than forks in the road. They include:

  • Transatlantic burden sharing – the debate about which countries are pulling their weight is one of the longest running in the alliance. The debate is now widening beyond defense spending to include contributions to non-military international public goods (such as aid to developing countries and reducing emissions of climate-damaging pollutants). European countries tend to be better at the latter, while the United States military budget continues to dwarf those in Europe.
  • Interoperability – a corollary to the burden-sharing debate is the “capabilities gap” between the United States and its allies. This U.S. lead in military technology makes working together difficult for deployed forces, especially in today’s complex and difficult missions;
  • Enlargement – the process of enlargement (discussed further below) was designed to project stability to central Europe and also led to a number of important new cooperative initiatives aimed at strengthening ties with former adversaries. However, enlargement was controversial in the 1990s, and many foresaw the risk that it might eventually destabilize relations with Russia, something that is now happening with the proposed deployment of U.S. missile defense architecture in Poland and the Czech Republic;
  • Out-of area versus collective defense – with NATO’s involvement in Afghanistan — and previously in Bosnia and Kosovo — NATO is very much now “out of area,” but again this was not inevitable during the debates that raged in the 1990s; and
  • The role of France (in or out?) – Paris has always been suspicious of NATO because of U.S. domination within the Alliance, and pulled its troops out of the NATO military command in 1966. While France has remained an active NATO member it continues to be a bit of a “wild card” within the alliance.


The war in Afghanistan is going badly: security is deteriorating, opium and heroin production is flourishing, the main north-south highway connecting Kabul in the north and Kandahar in the south is no longer safe for unescorted traffic, and the threat of terrorism looms everywhere. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged that the United States and its NATO allies need to work together to find a more effective Afghan strategy.

But the unanswered question in Afghanistan, and one that is at the heart of the divisions within NATO, is what counts as success? Realists, dominant in (but not limited to) the U.S. camp, would probably settle for denying territory to fanatics hell-bent on returning the country to a training ground for 9/11 attacks. But such a limitless “war on terror” is unsustainable and likely to be self-defeating. As NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in November 2006, “There is no military solution; the answer is development, nation-building, building of roads, schools.”

Most NATO political leaders still publicly identify the mission as bringing democracy and stability to Afghanistan. For example, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband reiterated a broad commitment to liberal or “humanitarian” intervention in a major speech on February 12, arguing that Britain must steadfastly pursue a moral “mission to help democracy spread through the world.” This mission would require NATO to be in Afghanistan for the long haul. It would take years, probably decades of smart intervention to turn Afghanistan from a failing to an improving state. Yet one authoritative expert report after another is warning of imminent failure (see, for example, the recent reports by the Afghanistan Study Group, co-chaired by retired Marine Corps General James L. Jones and former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering, and the Atlantic Council of the United States).

The most violent parts of Afghanistan have been in the east and south, where Taliban and al-Qaeda forces continue to hold sway. NATO’s aggressive counter-insurgency operations have led to an increase in civilian casualties. Yet by failing to collect or disclose information on this increase, NATO is refusing to acknowledge the negative impacts this war is having on Afghanistan. National caveats on troop deployments, the rise in drug production, and failures in effective police training remain problematic, and there are question marks over whether the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) are achieving the right combination of security and reconstruction.

A monumental effort is necessary on the part of NATO and the wider international community to better coordinate military and civilian instruments (especially crisis management, reconstruction and development), reduce civilian casualties, and demonstrate the political will to sustain a long-term commitment to the country. Above all else, NATO needs a new unity of purpose in Afghanistan. This may require reconsidering continental European national caveats and a greater willingness to “pull its weight” (as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was quick to point out to the assembled NATO defense ministers gathered in Vilnius on February 7.) But it should also involve movement on the part of the United States, including the full integration of US troops in Afghanistan under NATO command. The current debate over who will provide the extra 7,500 “surge” troops for Afghanistan is a distraction from the need to redirect the mission’s priorities.

In October 2006, NATO extended its ISAF operations to include the east of Afghanistan, and now has about 41,000 troops under its command. This total includes 15,000 US troops – 10,000 of them that were previously part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan (OEF-A), leaving about 8,000 US troops to continue fighting under OEF-A. That operation should be ended immediately, with all US troops becoming part of a new unified NATO mission to be guided in partnership with the Afghan Government and the soon-to-be-appointed UN special envoy to Afghanistan.

Finally, it is important to de-couple the future of NATO from the future of Afghanistan. Whatever the outcome in Afghanistan, NATO almost certainly has a future. But lessons in Afghanistan need to be learned. NATO’s Afghanistan mission raises a host of issues that should make alliance leaders think beyond this specific conflict. They need to consider the types of missions the Alliance is likely to undertake in the future. As discussed further below, the lessons drawn from Afghanistan along with what has been learned from other recent missions suggest that NATO should affirm and focus on collective defense, disaster relief and reconstruction, conflict prevention, counter-and non-proliferation, and peacekeeping missions as the primary purposes of the alliance.

Post Cold War Crisis: NATO’s Purpose

How times have changed. “Safeguarding the freedom and security of all” NATO’s members was the primary purpose of NATO during the Cold War, as set out in the 1949 Washington Treaty. When the West faced the monolithic threat of the Soviet Union, NATO’s purpose was to counter the power of, and deter an attack from, the Warsaw Pact. NATO’s mandate back then was collective defense, expressed in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which stipulates that NATO should treat an attack on one of its members as an attack on all of its members.

After its birth in 1949 with 12 countries (Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States), NATO admitted Greece and Turkey in 1952, the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955, and Spain in 1982. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO’s very existence came into question, despite agreeing a new Strategic Concept that same year. NATO was no longer needed to defend Western Europe from an unlikely invasion by an economically weak and politically wounded Russia. Amid debates over NATO’s purpose, institutional survival also took hold. Member states had invested too much time and money and were accustomed to the operating procedures of the alliance. Since the latter part of the 1990s, however, NATO leaders have genuinely sought to make the alliance more relevant to the post-Cold War security environment through four key interlocking processes:

  • Agreement of a new Strategic Concept in 1999;
  • Crisis management missions in the Balkans;
  • Building security through partnerships, e.g. Partnership for Peace (PfP), the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), and the NATO-Russian Council; and
  • NATO enlargement.

As part of the latter process, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland were admitted into NATO in 1999, followed by seven more nations in 2004: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.

The alliance’s eastward enlargement has now slowed, with the accession process of four more aspiring members — Croatia, Macedonia, Albania and Georgia — placed on the back-burner. All were hoping to get a clear structure and possible timetable for their membership at the November 2006 NATO Summit in Riga, Latvia (the first to be held on the territory of the former Soviet Union), although only Croatia is now likely to gain membership by 2008. However, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro were invited to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace program – the first step in preparing a country for eventual NATO membership. The offer to Serbia was a particular surprise given that Belgrade had not yet handed over two indicted war criminals (Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic), whose arrests had long been demanded by NATO member states.

NATO’s Transformation

The debate about transforming NATO is already well under way. The most recent contribution was Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World – Renewing Transatlantic Partnership, a report published in January by five former armed forces chiefs: General John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff and NATO’s ex-supreme commander in Europe; General Klaus Naumann, Germany’s former top soldier and ex-chairman of NATO’s military committee; General Henk van den Breemen, a former Dutch chief of staff (the principal author and chair of the report); Admiral Jacques Lanxade, a former French chief of staff; and Lord Inge, field marshal and ex-chief of the general staff and the defense staff in the UK. Funded by the Dutch Noaber Foundation (who said Europeans never pay for anything), the report calls for major reform of NATO and a new pact drawing the U.S., NATO, and the European Union together in a “grand strategy” to tackle the challenges of an increasingly dystopian world.

The authors describe the changing nature of the international security environment, listing the key threats as political fanaticism and religious fundamentalism, international terrorism, organized crime and the spread of weapons of mass destruction, potential instability and increased migration brought about by climate change and energy insecurity, and a weakening of the nation state and intergovernmental organizations such as the UN, NATO, and the EU. They also refer to weaknesses and limitations in the utility of military force, but nonetheless, go on to largely advocate square peg military solutions for the round holed contemporary security challenges that they say we face. Indeed, the whole 150-page blueprint is bathed in “us vs. them” thinking, with “us” as highly moral, constrained by international law etc., and “them” as beyond the pale. Most worryingly, the generals argue that a “first strike” nuclear option remains an “indispensable instrument” since there is “simply no realistic prospect of a nuclear-free world.” Thus, their conclusion is that “the first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction.”

Thankfully, this view of nuclear weapons is not shared by the four veteran U.S. cold warriors —former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn — who are leading the call for their complete elimination. Having reiterated the call for a nuclear weapon-free world in The Wall Street Journal in January (on the anniversary of the original declaration), seven other former U.S. secretaries of state, seven former U.S. national security advisers and five former U.S. secretaries of defense now swell their ranks. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have also endorsed this vision as well as the progressive steps needed to realize it.

Thus, the NATO generals’ report is likely to have little impact in Washington — it repeats what many in the current administration already believe and a future administration is unlikely to make much use of it — and has even fewer supporters in Europe. Instead, a more encouraging path is being trod by a joint German and Norwegian governmental initiative. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Norwegian counterpart Jonas Gahr Støre have called on NATO countries to do more for disarmament. The Ministers discussed the proposal in December 2007 in Brussels with the other NATO Foreign Ministers. Their goal is to identify areas in which NATO can better define its profile on disarmament, arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. While details still remain sketchy, the initiative builds on their earlier joint statement, “Two Sides of the Same Coin: Nuclear Non-proliferation and Nuclear Disarmament,” in Frankfurter Rundschau in November 2006, in which they state: “Norway and Germany share a common understanding of the value of a treaty-based, transparent and verifiable system of disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation. Our governments advocate a double track approach where we work jointly to enhance compliance with non-proliferation obligations, and to generate a new momentum for nuclear disarmament.”

Further details of the Norwegian-German initiative are anticipated at the NATO Bucharest Summit in April. Their proposals are expected to cover all aspects of NATO military strategy including nuclear doctrine. Certainly, NATO, with overwhelming conventional superiority over any potential enemy and three of the five acknowledged nuclear weapon states in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has a unique responsibility to create the conditions conducive to achieving the nuclear “Getting to Zero” solution. In the process of negotiating a new strategic concept NATO should reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in strategic planning, with a view to moving progressively towards the adoption of a non-nuclear weapon security doctrine.

If NATO states were to renounce the nuclear umbrella and urge the three member states with nuclear weapons to engage in further deep cuts to their arsenals, as a sign of confidence in their international security environment, it would go some distance in persuading others outside that umbrella of good faith when it comes to maintaining and strengthening the non-proliferation regime. Above all and with the utmost urgency, NATO should eliminate its 480 forward-deployed aging tactical nuclear warheads in Europe, weapons that have no conceivable military utility, urge Russia to follow suit, and agree a bilateral treaty formalizing the move.

But the root-and-branch reforms of NATO need to go further than nuclear policy. The problems in Afghanistan, the insufficiency of the Comprehensive Political Guidance document agreed by Heads of State at the Riga Summit in 2006, and the alliance’s rush to participate in an expanded missile defense program that is under-tested, destabilizing, and overly expensive, reveals that much still needs to be done in terms of the often cited “NATO transformation.” In addition to carrying out a much-needed debate on how to stabilize Afghanistan, the enormous changes that have taken place since the 1999 Strategic Concept was agreed upon should push NATO to initiate a review process leading to a new Strategic Concept in 2009. The British American Security Information Council (BASIC) has argued in recent evidence to the UK House of Commons Defence Committee inquiry into The Future of NATO that three modest goals should be fundamental to such a review at this stage:

  • Affirming collective defense, disaster relief, conflict prevention, counter-and non-proliferation, and peacekeeping missions as the primary purpose of NATO;
  • Eliminating battlefield nuclear weapons from Europe and the early adoption of a non-nuclear weapon security doctrine for the alliance as part of a global leadership strategy in moving toward a nuclear weapon-free world (as described above); and
  • Improving transparency, accountability, and value for money within NATO, especially with regard to defense planning and procurement.

Under the first goal, NATO would re-focus on collective defense of the transatlantic area with selective humanitarian/disaster relief, conflict prevention, counter- and non-proliferation and peacekeeping missions conducted “out of area” only where appropriately mandated by the United Nations and in accordance with international law. For the present, NATO does not need to become a global membership or partnership organization (as has been suggested by, among others, Ivo Daalder and James Goldgeier in Foreign Affairs in September/October 2006). But as in Afghanistan (where 15% of the troops are provided by non-NATO countries), the Alliance could facilitate and oversee ‘coalitions of the willing’ in support of these missions.

A Global NATO

The call for a “Global NATO” is partly based on concerns that the Alliance faces “perilous overstretch” — despite the fact that one member state, the United States, is responsible for about half of global military expenditure in 2007 and NATO collectively accounting for around two-thirds of the global total. The stretch has come from the existing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, on top of the role the alliance is increasingly being asked to play in conflicts in parts of Africa and other potential trouble spots around the world. Those being touted as sharing NATO’s values and many common interests include Australia, Brazil, Japan, India, New Zealand, South Africa, and South Korea. The argument that NATO should now be open to any state that qualifies for membership, and should not be restricted to North American and European countries, deserves further discussion. But the globalization of NATO should play second fiddle to securing European-U.S. agreement on future priorities.

One of those priorities must be to re-shape the NATO Rapid Reaction Force (NRF) for peacekeeping and disaster response capabilities, with separate limited counter-insurgency and counter-intelligence capabilities being developed with clear rules of deployment. NATO should also strengthen its cooperative threat reduction, weapons collection and destruction, and counter-proliferation capabilities, with a special emphasis on maritime interdiction under the Proliferation Security Initiative.

Arguments over common funding, allied interoperability and in-theatre logistics would still need to be resolved. For example, the acrimony that erupted in 2005 over some allies bearing the front-end costs of the NRF disaster relief deployment to Pakistan must not be repeated. However, resolution of such issues is likely to become easier in an Alliance working within a clearly defined and consensual Strategic Concept as opposed to the “two-tier NATO” that appears to be developing at present.

Finally, the lack of attention paid to the costs and the technical merit of the missile defense program is symbolic of a democratic deficit at the heart of the alliance. Another example of failed transparency and accountability, along with inadequate concern for civilian security, is the eight-year delay in NATO telling the Serbian government where thousands of cluster bombs were dropped during the 1999 Kosovo campaign. Throughout NATO’s history, MPs in their national parliaments when asking questions about NATO decisions have invariably been told that such decisions are confidential. When the same questions were put to the Secretary General, he invariably replied that NATO was but an alliance of sovereign states. This Catch-22 situation may have served a purpose during the Cold War, but is no longer appropriate today. Adequate mechanisms for parliamentary accountability within NATO are urgently required. Thus, a review of NATO’s secrecy rules should be an integral part of the larger review of the Alliance’s Strategic Concept.

The legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical genius while at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer might be tempted to do likewise at a dusty crossroads in Helmand Province in exchange for a successful outcome in Afghanistan. (The role of the devil would be played by Robert Gates, who warns of NATO descending into a “two-tier” alliance, because some allies are unwilling to “fight and die” for the cause.) Yet such Faustian pacts frequently backfire. Just as Robert Johnson never experienced the fruits of his labor, since the devil seized his prize shortly after the pact was made, NATO’s presence in Afghanistan could be equally short-lived, especially if it continues down the current path advocated by the Pentagon.

Ian Davis, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (, is a London-based consultant for the British American Security Information Council (BASIC).

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