Reconcilable Differences? Rethinking NATO’s Strategy

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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Image: Håkan Dahlström/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Centre for International Policy Studies on 16 November, 2015.

NATO has just announced that it will soon put forward proposals for a new “southern strategy,” in response to growing instability in the Middle East and Russia’s growing military presence south of the Bosphorus. According to the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, the strategy will include a range of measures, such as enhanced surveillance in the Mediterranean by allied forces, the use of NATO troops in advisory roles in crisis-affected countries across North Africa and the Middle East, and reinforced permanent NATO military deployments in the region.

Stoltenberg, who was in Spain to observe Trident Juncture, NATO’s largest war game exercises since 2002, stated that there were now “many threats to the South of the alliance” that required the alliance’s urgent attention. Echoing its new approach to security in Eastern Europe and the Baltics, NATO’s new southern strategy will also translate into more regular and large-scale military drills across the region. More broadly, NATO has also expressed its intention to expand defence cooperation with neighbouring states, as it seeks to build a “continuum of deterrence” in the south. The announcement of this strategy comes in response to NATO officials’ concerns that, in its effort to reinforce itself in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis, the alliance may have neglected its Mediterranean flank.

The new emphasis on the Mediterranean is viewed with anxiety in Central and Eastern Europe. Policy-makers and analysts from that part of the world have long argued that NATO must not shift its attention away from its (still vulnerable) Eastern flank. Revealingly, on November 4 the heads of state of nine Central and East European countries issued a Joint Declaration on “Allied Solidarity and Shared Responsibility,” stressing the geo-strategic importance of the eastern flank, and urging NATO to continue to strengthen their region and to fully implement the Readiness Action Plan adopted at the NATO Summit in Wales in 2014.

In recent months, the alliance has taken steps to reinforce its presence in Eastern Europe, and is currently discussing plans to do more in the future. In particular, the allies are reportedly considering increasing the number of troops stationed in member states bordering Russia and putting them under formal NATO command. The implementation of any plan to substantially enhance troop numbers in East Europe, however, is likely to face reservations if not outright opposition from some West European allies — particularly, but not exclusively, Germany. In recent months, several prominent West European voices have warned against locking Moscow out of Europe or treating Russia as an enemy. The problem is that new troop deployments would be seen by Moscow as a violation of a 1997 NATO agreement with Russia not to station substantial numbers of combat troops on its borders. Allied officials have accused Russia of repeated violations of its commitments under the 1997 Founding Act, but have reiterated that the alliance would continue to abide by it. Although there is no commonly agreed definition of “substantial force”, in the past Russian officials suggested defining substantial as a brigade-size force. Hence, they would almost certainly interpret the deployment of forces of that size (or larger) as violations of the 1997 Act.

To many Central/East Europeans, this is yet another reflection of a misguided and potentially dangerous Western concern to avoid antagonizing Russia. This perception came to light, yet again, in response to the NATO Secretary General’s calls for the renegotiation of a treaty covering troop exercises and deployments in Europe. In an interview with the Financial Times, Stoltenberg argued that it was important to work with Moscow to implement new emergency procedures governing military exercises, to avoid a growing risk of war by accident or by surprise. The treaty that requires renegotiation, known as the Vienna Document, is one of the cornerstone accords of European security. It was signed as the Cold War was ending, in an effort to establish rules for inspections, transparency and notification of large-scale military activities. Today, in a changed security environment, all of NATO’s 28 member states agree that the Vienna Document needs to be revised. Yet, many Central/East Europeans insist that the renegotiation of that treaty must not lead to a process that might be regarded as the first step towards rapprochement with Moscow. Stoltenberg argues that negotiations over military safeguards are entirely separate from NATO’s overarching policy of opposition to the Kremlin’s activities. Still, concerns about potentially problematic concessions to Moscow persist in many former communist states that are now NATO members.

All these concerns and questions are likely to become more prominent in the coming months, as the alliance prepares for its 2016 Summit in Warsaw. NATO has already stated that this summit comes at a crucial time, as the tectonic plates of Euro-Atlantic security have shifted both in the East and the South. In the months leading up to the Warsaw Summit, the NATO allies — including Canada — will need to address some difficult questions about the future.

First, they will need to think about how they are going to pay for all their new and proposed initiatives designed to protect NATO’s eastern and southern flanks. This will involve revisiting the perennial (and consistently awkward) issue of the unfair “division of labour” within NATO. It will also require thinking creatively about enhancing cooperation with NATO’s partners, and possibly with the private sector. Beyond those questions, however, the allies must deal with a more substantial challenge: arriving at a common understanding of the key risks and threats facing NATO. At present, Central/East European states are strongly focused on Russia, as memories of the Soviet era still inform their perceptions of the European security environment. Meanwhile, other allies are increasingly concerned about ISIS and the ever-growing refugee crisis.This concern is likely to intensify in the aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and especially Paris. Revealingly, President Hollande has called the attacks in Paris “an act of war” and has vowed that France would be ruthless in its response. The Central/East Europeans’ growing fear is that Western allies might dilute their commitment to their defense, and pursue cooperation with Russia in the name of combating ISIS. It remains to be seen if NATO’s members can find a way to reconcile these different perceptions and concerns in the coming months.

Alexandra Gheciu is an associate professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and associate director of CIPS. Her main research interests include international security, international institutions and Euro-Atlantic relations.

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