A good enough alliance?

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, center right, speaks during a North Atlantic Council meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels June 4, 2013. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other NATO leadership attended the meeting. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Released)

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, center right, speaks during a North Atlantic Council meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels June 4, 2013. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and other NATO leadership attended the meeting. (DoD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/Released)

To read some of the press around the NATO Summit earlier this week, you would think that Wales was about to host either a giant traffic jam or the world’s biggest trade fair. Not entirely unfairly, social media was abuzz with the sheer awkwardness of it all, and the Guardian chose to follow suit with the headline “Newport locals unimpressed as world leaders arrive in Wales”. Elsewhere, there has been a jaunty ‘sell Wales’ angle, with trade deals, tourism and the nation’s general standing in the world all apparently set to soar in the wake of 60-odd world leaders barricading themselves behind a steel fence in a hotel off the M4.

Blink, and you might have missed the actual significance of this gathering – the fact that there are real, hard issues at stake, and that it has been seen by some analysts as the most important defence summit since the Cold War. And on Tuesday, Cardiff University hosted an international conference which, through a series of thoughtful contributions from NATO staff, academics, politicians and analysts, made clear that none of this stuff is simple: NATO’s future role is yet to emerge clearly; the very notion of sovereignty continues to be redefined; and there may be situations where a ‘good enough’ outcome is the best we can hope for.

In terms of defining NATO’s responsibilities, Ukraine is both the key current issue for diplomats and the one most obviously in the public eye. Professor Stephen Krasner of Stanford University gave a morning keynote lecture which reflected this concern but would have done little to comfort those seeking easy solutions. NATO, after all, has no formal role with regard to Ukraine (which is not a member); the first responsibility lies with the EU. The question is to what extent NATO or its allies can exert pressure on Russia to behave itself, and the reality (according to Krasner) is not much. One option might be to provide financial aid, but that would simply be sapped away through the back door as Russia raises energy prices. Ukraine is likely to remain within the Russian sphere of influence, and NATO would do better to make credible commitments to the Baltic states, which is perhaps exactly what Barack Obama was doing when visiting Estonia earlier this week.

Nonetheless, the Ukraine crisis has clearly played its part in what seems to many observers to be a retreat to NATO’s founding principles: prioritising collective security and defence among its members, rather than engaging in military interventions of dubious value further afield. But what this defence actually means is another contentious issue. To listen to the United States, which has shored up the alliance financially since its inception, a key priority is to spend more money; this call has been made forcefully during the summit, at a time when only 4 of the 28 members are meeting NATO’s requirement to spend 2% of GDP on defence. To listen, alternatively, to some of the voices in the ‘No the NATO’ protest group, this is part of an ongoing militarisation of NATO members which makes the world less, rather than more, stable. Better to slash defence budgets and redistribute the funds to tackle poverty and inequality, the argument goes.

Most of the discussion at Tuesday’s conference was more nuanced than either of these positions, but all was predicated on the acceptance of NATO’s fundamental value as an alliance. The key thing, said the Danish academic and senior civil servant Professor Mikkel Vedby Rasmussen, is to redesign defence spending for an age of greater austerity. Fighting conventional battles is becoming redundant in the face of different threats such as ISIS, piracy and cyber warfare, and governments would do better to replace the “spend more money” maxim with “spend it better”. Professor Tim Edmunds of Bristol University added that ‘smart defence’ means sharing forces and capability more often, avoiding duplication and unnecessary expenditure. An aspect of this year’s NATO Summit which has received considerably less fanfare is a commitment to increase ‘interoperability’ between members’ armed forces.

There does seem to be a disconnect between lobbying NATO members to simply spend more on their armed forces, and the kind of measured, smart responsiveness discussed at length here. The reality of ‘new threats’ is a recurring theme throughout the conference, with Dr Sergio Catignani adding that not all of these threats – for example cyber attacks or the disruption of energy supplies – would clearly be an attack under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. Neither is it clear that threats to NATO members can be easily countered by collective, geographically based security arrangements, when they are affected by security issues all over the world.

It is, of course, this last point that has led to some of NATO’s most controversial activities, and those which appear most distant from its founding objectives. So far in its 65-year history, Article 5 has only be invoked once – following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. Ultimately that led to NATO taking control of the ISAF operations in Afghanistan, which despite their focus on the country’s security and infrastructure, have been at the centre of a bloody and devastating decade-long conflict. This has, to say the least, failed to solve the problems it was intended to.

More recently, NATO took responsibility for enforcing UN Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorised military action to protect civilians in Libya. At Tuesday’s conference, Etienne de Durand of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales noted – perhaps wryly – that NATO did achieve its original, limited objectives. Unfortunately that success turned to failure as ‘mission creep’ refocused the actions onto the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. The sectarian violence and lawlessness that followed may, ironically, have contributed to a rebellion in Mali which itself required external intervention (this time by the French military, and with greater success).

So it is understandable if NATO members feel that it is time to refocus, and to make efforts to revisit the original purpose of the alliance as they meet in Wales this week. Its Deputy Secretary General, Alexander Vershbow, reminded us yesterday that Russia had an effective working relationship with NATO for two decades following the Cold War. When that cooperation was lost after Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2011, this was primarily to do with shoring up Putin’s domestic standing; as indeed are his actions in Ukraine.

If then, despite its more controversial actions, there is a founding goal of NATO which remains vital today, it is the impetus for nations to look beyond their own borders – beyond the domestic – and make guarantees about the security and autonomy of others. Perhaps the key question about this week’s summit is: What exactly should we be prepared to do to make those guarantees? Dr Robin Niblett of Chatham House commented yesterday that “You can survive, but not survive prettily” – there is a future in the NATO alliance, but it may be one that requires actions that are difficult to stomach for many. To use Professor Krasner’s phrase, is a ‘good enough’ outcome the best we can hope for, at least for the foreseeable future?

Martin Pollard is Chief Executive of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs. He is also a trustee of the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, representing International Aid, and chairs the grants panel for Wales Africa Community Links.

Follow Martin on Twitter: @Martin_Pollard