NATO contemplates a broader mission

BRUSSELS, Belgium — Eleven years ago, few people other than south-Asia watchers had any idea what the Taliban was, much less could have imagined why more than 100,000 soldiers would be needed to fight it. At that time, the world’s premier military alliance, NATO, had never fought a ground war, operated outside of Europe, or invoked its Article 5 collective-defense clause. 

But Sept. 11, 2001 changed everything for the alliance. Well, almost everything.

The now 28-member bloc is deployed on four continents and leading a very hot war in Afghanistan. But on paper, its strategic outlook is frozen in 1999. Officially, NATO’s mission — enshrined in a document called the “Strategic Concept” — hasn’t been updated since then.

When Anders Fogh Rasmussen took over as NATO secretary general last August, he immediately started work on updating the doctrine. Within a month, Rasmussen had appointed former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to head up a group of a dozen experts from both the private and public sectors, military and civilian, to prepare research that will form the basis of his own proposal, to be presented to heads of state for adoption at a summit in Lisbon in November.

The title of the 56-page report, “Assured Security: Dynamic Engagement,” which was delivered by Albright to Rasmussen Monday, makes clear that to remain relevant and effective, the alliance will have to adopt multiple personalities: more nurturing of its newer members to build their confidence and more fierce against increasingly far-flung and devious enemies. And in all circumstances, it will have to be more frugal.

After eight months of deep discussion with military and civilian officials, academics and the public, Albright said her team had settled on two main points: “First, the alliance has an ongoing duty to guarantee the safety and security of its members,” Albright told the assembled ambassadors from each allied government as she released the study. “Second, it can achieve that objective only if it engages dynamically with countries and organizations that are outside its boundaries.”

Albright advocated first of all getting back to basics, what she called “renewing [the] vows” of the partnership. She said the members of eastern and central Europe often feel their concerns — in particular about Russian aggression — are not taken seriously enough. “There should be no question that NATO’s fundamental purpose should be to protect the security of its members,” she said. The alliance must do more to “truly reassure members,” Albright said, that they are both safe and that Article 5 — the call to mutual defense — would be invoked if needed.

However, Albright acknowledged, “providing for security is a more complicated proposition than in the past,” given that a conventional attack on a NATO country is pretty unlikely. Rather, the report says, “the next significant attack on the alliance could come down a fiber-optic cable.” Albright cited violent extremism, nuclear proliferation and attacks on energy supply as other likely threats.

While the conflict in Afghanistan has been the defining crisis of NATO’s existence for the last several years, often called the make-or-break issue for its future relevance, the report is not obsessed with it. Rather, it includes “lessons learned” on Afghanistan, which reinforce some of its recommendations. These include more allied cohesion, better coordination of civilian and military functions, and the need to prepare forces for long-term operations far from home.

The report prioritized relations with Russia, fitting for an alliance established at the start of the Cold War. “It is clearly in NATO’s best interest to work with Moscow to build a cooperative Euro-Atlantic security order,” Albright summarized, “and to respond to such shared concerns as terrorism, nuclear proliferation, piracy and drug trafficking.” The report also recommends unequivocally going forward with missile defense and with enlargement, the two biggest irritants in the NATO-Russian relationship.

In an effort to be prepared for the unpredictable, Albright recommended an increased focus on developing military forces that are “sustainable, deployable and inter-operable” and capable of rapid response. High priority should be given, she said, to shielding information from cyber attacks. Though many recommendations would indeed cost money, the report suggests they could be mitigated through better cooperation with partner countries and especially the European Union, to which most NATO members already belong and which offers many capabilities, short of a military force.

But if NATO can use the same resources as the EU or member governments, will that give rise to yet another round of public speculation as to whether NATO is necessary? Nick Witney, a European defense specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations said it will — and that it will be the organization’s own fault.

“It feels a bit like the alliance is trading down in order to keep itself happy and useful,” Witney said, “trading down from its proper role as a defensive military alliance … exploring things like energy security, which are frankly none of NATO’s business.”

Not only that, he suggested, there's already a problem with overstretched resources, yet Albright encourages NATO to “consider the possibility, when resources are sufficient and legal authority is clear, of helping the world respond to catastrophic emergencies whether caused by nature or by human beings."

Witney also worried that the Albright strategy would have only short-term relevance, rather than carrying the alliance through another decade. “I think this will be fine for getting you through the Strategic Concept issue [at the November summit] in Lisbon,” Witney said, “but I don’t think it will carry conviction, I don’t think allies will put their hearts into accepting this sort of diversified role, which is threatening to overlap with some of the things the European Union is trying to do.”

Rather, he advocated that NATO take the opposite path: to limit itself to being a defensive alliance. "If that means it spends the next few years out of the spotlight,” Witney explained, “that’s a mark of success.”

In fact, that's one of the Albright team's own recommendations, despite the report's ambitious agenda-setting. "For all its assets, NATO is by no means the sole answer to every problem affecting international security," the report says. "It has no desire to take on missions that other institutions and countries can be counted upon to handle."