In Syria, a war of brutality and destruction on a scale not seen for a generation shows no sign of ending. Across the Mediterranean there is anarchy in Libya. Tunisia, the one success of the Arab Spring, is seemingly under siege from Islamic insurgents from Libya. In the Donbass region of Ukraine, the ceasefire is barely holding; the region has now become a “frozen zone” where people live precariously amongst ruins. Of course, none of these countries is a NATO member. Maybe before NATO’s expansion and the interdependence brought about by globalisation, these conflicts would be irrelevant to NATO’s fitness to protect Europe. But their destabilising effects in Europe show how NATO is failing to provide security and stability: the fear in Eastern Europe over revanchist Russia; the refugee crisis which threatens to tear apart the EU; and finally, the seemingly constant danger of terror attacks from ISIS cells or lone-wolves.
NATO’s original purpose “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down” has left it ill-suited to modern challenges. Not only can it not fight new foes, but it cannot fight its old ones with the new rules of the game. Despite spanning three continents, NATO is a fundamentally Eurocentric alliance and its modern aim has become to protect democratic Europe. To do this it needs to continue to face its original enemy, Russia, and take on a new role of building stability externally. Only by expanding its area of responsibilities can NATO avoid becoming outdated.
Ukraine is a clear showcase of NATO’s failures. The foe it had been fashioned to fight since its birth was able to out-manoeuvre the West and burst back into its old sphere of influence. Much has been made of Russia’s “ambiguous” warfare and how NATO is unable to react to its more subtle techniques of disruption and infiltration. With the line between peace and war becoming increasingly blurred (not to mention the line between internal and international conflict), the very core of NATO’s framework is being called into question. Ambiguous warfare and covert infiltration do not fit neatly under Article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty, which regards an attack on one member as an attack on all. Without clarity of what constitutes a threat to the alliance, the trust between members and the external deterrence their mutual trust provides, is severely weakened. In such an unclear and clouded environment NATO’s governing body, the North Atlantic Council, could be paralysed by its unanimous decision making process. Whilst numerous military exercises in Eastern Europe have improved NATO’s capability to fight ambiguous warfare and broadcast this throughout the world, the problem was always more political than military. The question was never whether NATO forces could fight this kind of war, but whether it would ever be willing to. Whilst the thunder in the Donbas and Russian propaganda threatening Europe with invasion may have died down, the capability of NATO to keep up with a foe determined to outflank it is still in doubt.
More broadly, the instability in North Africa and the Middle East and their effects in Europe show how NATO needs to adapt its understanding of what constitutes a threat to European security and must become an institution to promote security and stability around Europe’s periphery. Zones of instability around Europe have provided a breeding ground for extremism, forcing millions from their homes and creating a great flow of human suffering which is undermining the very principles and stability of the EU. The terror threat is so serious that in Turkey terror attacks are, tragically, becoming the norm, yet are easily ignored and quickly forgotten in mainland Europe. NATO has been unable to coordinate a truly multilateral response to these crises but with the US withdrawing from its role as sole protector of stability, it needs to. With his disparaging remarks about European leaders’ inability to create security in Libya, President Obama signalled that Europe should be taking responsibility for the instability outside of its own borders. NATO has failed to provide stability and to broaden its remit to include wider security concerns. Adherence to NATO’s central principle ‘that an attack on one is an attack on all’, can no longer guarantee European security.
NATO must encourage multilateralism to deal with this instability. This will require a greater willingness to consult and act against less clear and imminent threats to security. NATO is more than capable of conducting proactive operations whose justification falls beyond the scope of Article 5’s defensive nature: the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan; air and ground operations in the Balkans during the 1990s; anti-piracy in the Gulf of Aden; the air campaign against Gaddafi. All are good examples of relatively successful multilateral operations; operations whose success depended on the institutionalisation of NATO as an alliance. Under NATO, western armed forces have an unparalleled ability to cooperate in conflict. The principle of multilateralism is far from outdated; if anything it is needed more than ever. NATO is the institution that is needed to bind Europe together in the protection of it common interests. With the US no longer willing to lead interventions abroad with only token European assistance, and as France and the United Kingdom slowly scale back their militaries, it is becoming increasingly obvious that any large-scale, long term intervention will have to be done jointly.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. Agreement to intervene outside NATO’s core defensive mandate has always caused disagreements between members and, if NATO’s decision making process allows it to become paralysed and indecisive, it will continue to be outdated and unable to cope or act successfully to build security. Yet the clearest indication that NATO will continue to be relevant, if it can evolve, comes from public attitudes towards collective defence. Despite the toxic image of the EU to many, solidarity and kinship across Europe is building, and it is not just a matter of states considering an attack against one as an attack against all.
Now, people across Europe recognise common problems and threats: Charlie Hebdo, the Bataclan and Brussels were all felt across the continent. This has had a knock-on effect on policy, the Paris attacks proved decisive in hardening the British Government’s resolve and much of the public to support intervention against ISIS in Syria. Despite the close nature of the EU referendum, a poll by Opinium found 39% of people supported establishing a single European standing army, with only 26% opposing. Despite the widespread belief in EU reform, such support for a seemingly extreme measure is indicative of a public desire for collective european security. NATO is the best functioning institution to facilitate this; it is severely unlikely that the EU will be able to assume NATO’s role through the common defence and security policy, not only due to the political weaknesses of the EU, but also the strength of NATO as an institution with greater assets and experience. What is needed is for the alliance’s members to convert the will evident among the public into concrete action. As institutionalised as the alliance is, it still depends on member-states consulting and agreeing to take action together.
At its core, NATO is an alliance of collective defence. Yet the failure of the alliance to combat instability beyond its borders presents a major challenge, showing that NATO has become outdated. For proactive measures, it has always relied on the leadership of its most powerful members, notably the US. In order to properly cope with the current security crisis, NATO will have to change its very nature, particularly as the US continues to withdraw from its interventionist role in the Middle East. Without decisive leadership, the alliance’s weakness is revealed. It is far too easily outflanked by its opponents and the changing nature of the threats it faces.
But just because NATO has failed to cope with recent crises does not mean it is consigned to the dustbin of history. Recent years have shown that the need and support for collective defence is stronger than ever. Yes, NATO is in desperate need of an update, but to pretend it is a Cold War relic that should be left to rot and disband would be foolhardy. Europe needs a NATO that can act as a framework for intervention and crisis management; it cannot let anarchy reign on its borders. Yet the effectiveness of NATO in this task will rest upon whether national leaders are prepared to collectively “fill the breach” left by the US and lead the alliance on primarily European issues. Otherwise, NATO will continue to be a paralysed alliance, unable to proactively deal with the challenges Europe needs it to.