Redefine NATO for a new era
Next year will see the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Washington Treaty that created NATO. As with all significant anniversaries, it will be a time of reflection on past achievements and an opportunity to take stock of the future.
NATO has become part of the fabric of international affairs. Its core values — faith in the principles of the United Nations, a desire to live in peace with all peoples and governments and the will to work collectively for peace and security in the trans-Atlantic area — have served it well.
These values are as relevant now as they were in 1949, but today’s NATO is very different. Many former Warsaw Pact members are now Allies and other nations are on the path to membership.
NATO’s enduring success has reflected a remarkable ability to bend with the wind of changing strategic circumstances. As the Berlin Wall fell, few could have foreseen the scale, diversity and unrelenting pace of the global challenges that would emerge in the wake of the Cold War.
These threats were complicated by the need to protect millions around the world from violence and conflict; to provide humanitarian aid to further millions of people; and the need to face up to the international consequences of poverty, inequality and demographic change.
These challenges have tested an Alliance closely associated with collective territorial defense, but induced adaptation as well. NATO played a decisive role in the Balkans and today it is busier than ever, with more than 50,000 personnel deployed on five missions on three different continents, from Kosovo to Iraq. In ISAF in Afghanistan, NATO is conducting by far its biggest and most complex operation.
NATO’s impending anniversary provides the opportunity to start redefining its developing role in this new world order. This is an opportunity to reaffirm the vitality of the trans-Atlantic link, whilst forging new partnerships and working better and more closely with other international institutions. It is an opportunity to develop a new strategic concept that underscores the alliance’s contribution to meeting the evolv- ing security challenges of the 21st century. This concept would recognize that, in today’s increasingly interconnected world, collective defense requires NATO also to engage outside its core area to contribute to international stability.
Clearly, expeditionary operations and capabilities contribute directly to our own defense and security. Many have yet to understand this fully. NATO is in Afghanistan taking on extremism and the roots of that extremism precisely because it is a direct — and proven — threat to every citizen in every NATO country. The tentacles of this extremism have spread far and wide, but its roots have been in the Taliban-protected training camps and safe havens of Afghanistan.
But as well as refreshing our vision for NATO, we need to ensure it is properly equipped and structured to deliver. This is important to both the United Kingdom and Hungary. And to help give further impetus to NATO’s transformation we are each hosting key meetings of defense ministers — in London last week and in Budapest in October.
This work needs to focus rigorously on three key priority areas: on well-planned, well-managed and well-executed operations; on delivering the key capabilities needed to support them, now and in the future; and on a framework of partnerships that allow us to work with all those who share our interests and can contribute to them as part of a comprehensive approach.
We have already come a long way in recognizing the importance of expeditionary capabilities in dealing with the broad range of threats the Alliance is likely to face. Where we fall short is the continuing mismatch between NATO’s collective aspirations and what individual allies actually deliver.
Too often we find ourselves wanting in key areas, such as strategic and intra-theater lift; capabilities which affect our ability to conduct current and future operations in the way we might want. This is partly a question of proper investment in defense; partly a lack of rigor in prioritizing the things we, as an Alliance, need most. Things are improving, but not as quickly as we would want.
The United Kingdom, along with other allies such as France, has tried to work through a series of initiatives to make more of these key capabilities available for operations. Hungary has responded by joining others in a Strategic Airlift Capability program, and by offering up more of its own helicopters for NATO operations if other allies can help it carry out the upgrades and training they require to deploy. We hope others soon will follow Hungary’s lead.
The smooth-functioning of any relationship relies on common effort as well as common values. NATO is no different. It is important therefore, that the European Allies and the United States equally remain committed to NATO, and equally engaged in its decision-making. To achieve this, the costs of preserving the trans- Atlantic link need to be borne according to the allies’ genuine abilities and participation in NATO missions should be carried out with joint and proportionate burden-sharing.
Without this, NATO risks becoming a coalition of the able or the willing, with the United States gradually, but inevitably, reappraising its role. This cannot be in the interests of Europe, and with time would have historic consequences for smaller Allied nations — especially those on NATO’s eastern borders.
It is in the strategic national interest of the new member nations to ensure that, never again, others could make decisions about them, and without them. Also, older members’ strategic interests will only be realized in the long term if NATO stays a strong, undivided organization, with the United States’ active commitment and presence in Europe.
Driving change in a consensus-based organization is notoriously hard, but that is the challenge that we, as defense ministers of our respective nations, have set ourselves.
A transformed NATO is most certainly not about trying to do less with less, or somehow scaling back our ambition. It is about helping the alliance do what it is we have said we need to do. It is about a renewed trans-Atlantic Alliance, a NATO truly greater than the sum of its parts. And in hosting our respective meetings this autumn, we hope to be leading agents for that change.
Des Browne and Imre Szekeres are the defense ministers, respectively, of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Hungary.