NATO plans overhaul to better combat global threats

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — As NATO reviews its mission and purpose, some newer members worry that the alliance's most valued safeguard, the commitment that an attack on one is an attack on all, is not inviolable.

But former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — who is leading the NATO review — said last month that there was no cause for concern. She candidly reaffirmed the alliance's commitment to Article 5, which guarantees members' security.

“There is no question that an important concept is reassurance; that Article 5 is central to the NATO alliance,” she said, after a January conference with dozens of Czech representatives.

When asked why she thought the Czechs and others were worried, Albright danced gingerly around the question. “Partially there has not been enough discussion about how Article 5 works in an enlarged alliance. With an alliance that is 60 years old … it requires a kind of rededication, a renewal of vows, so to speak.”

The last time NATO reassessed its operations was in 1999. Not only has the alliance taken in a host of new members since then, but the nature of security threats in a rapidly changing world has also shifted considerably since that time. The overall aim of the strategic concept review, according to Albright, “is to examine every aspect of NATO's operations and plans within the context of an ever-changing globe.”

Tomas Weiss, a defense expert at the Europeum public policy center in Prague, traced the unease of NATO's newer members to former President George W. Bush’s response to the 9/11 attack on the United States. Even though NATO’s most powerful member had been attacked, the U.S. refused to invoke Article 5 for the purpose of leading a retaliatory military attack on Afghanistan.

“[This] was the first thing that meant, to some, that the U.S. actually doesn’t see the Article 5 as the core of their security; because when they really got attacked they didn’t use it,” he said, adding that technically they used it but only to have NATO’s “AWACS aircraft to guard the U.S. air space.”

The military invasion of Afghanistan was a U.S.-led coalition of the willing, not a NATO-led response.

The Bush administration again raised alarm bells among some NATO members in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003, when Turkey’s attempt to invoke Article 4 was stone-walled for weeks. Article 4 gives NATO members the right to call for consultations with alliance members when they fear possible attack.

The government in Ankara feared Baghdad might respond to a U.S.-led attack on Iraq with a counter-attack against Turkey, a fellow NATO member with a shared border. But since Turkey refused to participate in the invasion of Iraq the Bush administration said they didn’t need a consultation. Even though a meeting was subsequently convened to assuage Turkey, “It raised new doubts about whether NATO actually still provides security or not,“ Weiss said.

In Prague, Albright also stressed the need to “reset our relations with Russia.” Many citizens in the former Soviet block remain traumatized by Moscow’s oppressive rule during the Cold War, and feel they didn’t join NATO so that they could become the Kremlin's new pal.

But outside the former Warsaw Pact countries there is near universal agreement among policy experts that better relations with Moscow is in everyone’s best security interests.

Dana Allin, a foreign policy expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said that while Moscow may have been back-sliding on democracy at home in recent years, there is little evidence that they pose a military threat to NATO members, even those on Russia’s doorstep.

“Could one hypothetically conceive of a threat in the future? Maybe,” Allin said. “But it is not in the interest of the alliance to make a big deal against the Russian threat, which doesn’t exist.”
He added, “That may make the Poles and Czechs somewhat nervous, but emphasizing a Russian threat would make Russia nervous.”

Beyond assuaging anxieties in Prague and other East European capitals inside NATO's protective shield, Albright and her advisory board are performing a top-down review of potential threats to the alliance in the coming decade — and how best to counter them.

Two days after her stop in Prague, Albright was in Oslo, Norway, for the third conference on NATO's strategic concept review. (The fourth and final conference will take place in February in Washington.)

The main focus of the talks in Oslo was on the comparatively benign issue of partnerships. It’s not that partnerships, with countries as varied as Russia and Australia, aren’t important, it is just that no one in the alliance is really going to get too worked up over the issue.

Albright noted that NATO now has more partners than members, and she described the role of cooperating non-member states as “central to any realistic vision of NATO’s future. ... One might think that as NATO membership has grown the need for outside partners would have been reduced. In fact, the opposite has occurred.”

Experts agree that an actual military threat is now quite limited. Weiss, the defense expert at Europeum, says current and future threats include, terrorism, cyber-terrorism, economic security and social security issues such as immigration.

So how can NATO members guard against these new threats?

“Well, what can it do against military threats?” Weiss asked rhetorically. “There is cooperation between the militaries, so it is similar in other areas. You need an exchange of information; common planning; cooperation; exchange of practices; standardization — this works in any area.”

Albright’s group is due to submit their report in April and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is expected to present a new strategic concept by year’s end.