A daily bulletin of news & opinion

23 October 2010

This week NATO unveiled a draft version of its long-awaited New Strategic Concept – dubbed “NATO 3.0”. For all its complexities, this new vision of life in the 21st century must answer one very simple question: what is NATO for?

NATO 1.0 had a clear purpose: to defeat the Soviet Union. It worked beautifully. But with the end of the Cold War, the alliance lost its enemy and its mission, and NATO 2.0 was left fumbling for relevance. It expanded eastwards, but the logic of doing so was never clear. It was ill-suited to combating a new foe, “terror”. And its biggest-ever operation, the war in Afghanistan, has been a mess, exposing the lop-sided beast into which NATO has mutated, the brawny US on one side and willowy Europe on the other. The partnership has grown embarrassingly unequal, a two-tier alliance in which the Americans and a handful of other countries do the fighting, while the rest of the 28 member states hover girlishly on the sidelines whenever the bullets start to fly.

“Afghanistan has painfully exposed the need for more cooperation and coherence between member states,” says Dave Clemente of UK think-tank Chatham House. “But NATO is still important: it would be very hard to subsume NATO’s responsibilities into the EU, for example, and of course the US also has its interests. What NATO has to do is find new ways to make its presence felt.”

The question is whether NATO 3.0 can heal these fractures and make the alliance whole again, justifying its existence in the process. This week, Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen put some flesh on the bones: he plans to reduce NATO’s headcount from 13,000 to 9,000 and cut the sprawl of NATO agencies from 14 down to just three. But what will this leaner, meaner (and cheaper) NATO actually do?

First, NATO 3.0 aims to turn the age of austerity to its advantage and become an important resource for defence procurement. NATO currently owns little equipment – it mainly uses gear owned by member states – but that will change as cash-strapped allies pool their funds and buy joint NATO kit. The UK’s announcement of deep defence cuts this week emphasised how NATO could play a valuable role here.

Secondly, Rasmussen unveiled a €147m plan for the building and running of a missile defence shield covering NATO member states. This may be a worthy idea, given the missile programmes of countries such as Iran and North Korea; but alone it is not enough to justify the alliance’s continuing existence. Moreover, it can be nigh on impossible to push through reforms in an alliance of 28 countries. “These proposals could easily run aground on the rocks of political infighting,” warns Clemente.


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