Can NATO be saved from strategic obscurity?

Despite a renewed sense of purpose with a change in leadership and the crisis in Ukraine, the alliance continues to court its own irrelevancy.

The man who has frequently appeared on our TV screens, talking tough for robust and concerted action against President Vladimir Putin’s aggression stepped down as secretary-general of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) earlier this month: Anders Fogh Rasmussen was replaced by the recent long-serving Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg.

Under Rasmussen, NATO quietly revised its Strategic Concept and its related Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, opportunities opened and then tragically missed to radically reconsider the organisation’s core mission and purpose, and its relationship to global peace and security. The alliance’s failure in this regard should be a clue to the real challenges facing European security beyond the personal attacks on President Putin. In so many walks of life we have achieved an accelerating pace of development and transformation, but when it comes to security and strategic relationships, what transformation was achieved in ending the Cold War arms race by Presidents Reagan, Bush Senior and Gorbachev, has been squandered by leaderships since. The recent challenges in Ukraine and previously in Georgia are the result of earlier decisions in the 1990s, made by an emerging kleptocracy in Moscow, and by NATO members who no longer viewed Russia as worthy of engagement and who themselves were willing to re-write the rules unilaterally.

In many respects NATO now appears lost in the shadow of the Cold War legacy. It faces a brave new world of economic turbulence, terrorism and cyber-threat, issues it is ill-suited to handle. But today’s crisis appears to have catapulted it centre-stage, back to the future, beyond a convenient umbrella to coordinate military intervention in Afghanistan (due to wind-down to a minimal presence at the end of this year), and transformed it into an alliance displaying renewed purpose.

Sensing an opportunity of huge and lasting potential in Russia’s mishandling of the proxy conflict over Ukraine, bureaucrats and military commanders at the headquarters in Brussels feel a certain vindication by developments in 2014. No more questions about whether their alliance–the most powerful in history–has meaning. Diplomats returning from the recent summit in Newport, Wales, speak with renewed purpose. And Rasmussen’s ubiquitous media profile has supported this newfound confidence very effectively.

Of course there is a limit to what one person can do, even at the ‘top’. Any secretary-general has to cope with inertia, disproportionate power amongst member states, and a recalcitrant Moscow. Nevertheless, as the alliance figurehead, the secretary-general has some considerable influence over the message coming from Brussels. Will Stoltenberg continue along the line set out by Rasmussen? The change of leadership itself may provide a ray of hope in the possibility of reconciliation with Russia; Putin himself has already stated his hope that Stoltenberg could be someone he could deal with.

But the indications remain mixed. It is perhaps inevitable that Stoltenberg would be careful to stay in line with the majority view within the Alliance, and has been heavily supportive of the sanctions against Russia. He has suggested he would support the disastrous provocative moves of considering Ukrainian membership of NATO. He has, however, referenced his own cooperation with Russia over the challenging disputes over security in the Arctic, and has been careful to talk of the desire to build a constructive relationship.

Stoltenberg is one in a long line of centre-left reformist politicians whose views on NATO and on the use of force have evolved dramatically in the last thirty years. As reported by Ian Davis of NATO Watch back in March, in his early career back in the 1980s he was hostile not just to nuclear weapons but also to NATO itself. But since his leadership of the Norwegian Labour Party in 2000, he has come to argue for increased military spending and robust expeditionary forces. Think Tony Blair, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

Even if he were willing to explore a more inclusive, cooperative European security structure with Russia, as opposed to the project to strengthen the institutional relevance of NATO, Stoltenberg would still have an uphill struggle. The legacy of failure to capitalise upon the opportunities opened after the end of Cold War– mistakes made by those quick to declare victory and exploit the opening markets in the east–is inexorably leading us back into conflict with Russia.

This is serious. Nobel Peace laureate and former Polish President Lech Walesa recently said that Poland should acquire its own nuclear weapons. Leaving aside the technical, financial, diplomatic and legal challenges to this solution, that such an icon would even suggest this path should send the alarm bells ringing.

It should also be of concern to those with faith in NATO. Why would Poland need to consider an independent strategic defence capability as a member of this defence pact? Unless, that is, it had little faith in the alliance delivering defence and deterrence in the moment of truth.

Similarly, the UK prides itself as the closest ally of the United States–so uniquely close that it is given the most prized possession of the US military: its most sophisticated nuclear system. Indeed, perhaps this is the core reason for the UK renewing the Trident system, to remind the Americans just how special the Brits are. Why else would Britain need an ‘independent’ deterrent if it could rely upon the US nuclear umbrella? This was a key question the Trident Commission in July was unable to answer to any reasonable satisfaction; their conclusion–that Britain could not rely upon the United States in the long term–is surely an uncomfortable one for those NATO bureaucrats in Brussels. Because if even the UK cannot rely upon the United States, how can we in all honesty demand that our allies in eastern Europe take that risk?

But there are also more fundamental questions the alliance needs to consider. It sees itself as a defensive alliance, but one that operates out of area. We look around the world and see a sea of threat and challenge, but how much effort do we genuinely put in thinking about we ourselves are seen? The support within Russia for Putin’s autocratic strategy arises out of a genuine fear that the expansion of western capitalism through NATO will squash Russia. We are quick to consider means of assuring our formal allies, but it is equally important to consider how we might draw the sting from our adversaries by giving them confidence to move in a more constructive direction.

Basing our own security on military and political dominance of global institutions, and upon nuclear deterrence and the threat of annihilation is hardly the example we need to be setting. NATO’s new secretary-general would do well to consider strategies that avoid the unintended consequences that go hand in hand with its chosen posture. Or change the posture.


This article was originally featured on a regular column by Paul on Open Security, a section of

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