The NATO summit under way in Chicago will answer whether the alliance’s long shadow over the global political landscape is under threat from the US pivot to Asia.

On the agenda are four issues: the future of Afghanistan, beyond the 2014 handover of security responsibilities to the Afghan National Army; mix of military capabilities the alliance will need to meet its objectives; the establishment of a European-based NATO missile defence system; and, how the alliance can build on the network of partnerships it has established with countries around the world, including Australia.

While a final statement will be announced that sets out NATO’s intentions on each of these, it is unlikely that any of this will be earth-shattering in importance. The alliance is just not what it used to be.

Established in 1949, NATO was an effective anti-communist collective defence alliance protecting western Europe from Soviet aggression.  This was achieved primarily by ensuring a continued American military presence in Europe, but also by entwining West German re-armament into a multilateral organisation, famously summarised by Lord Ismay the First Secretary-General of NATO of “keeping the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”.

Since the end of the cold war, while NATO continues to exist and retains its role of the collective defence against potential external (that is, Russian) aggression, it has sought to extend its role as that of a global security actor.  However,  in this NATO has only limited success and these efforts have ultimately weakened its status as a major factor in international security.

While the focus of the summit will be on the future of Afghanistan, the reality is that the alliance has made a political decision to withdraw at the end of 2014 and nothing will affect this decision. NATO is exhausted from its near-decade long leadership of the International Security Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) and the global financial crisis is only re-enforcing the desire to withdraw.

Another element that will be talked up in the summit is the notion of “Smart Defence”.  This is merely the rebranding of the age-old issue of burden-sharing.  The US as the dominate member of the alliance, wants the other members to “pay their share”.  Through Smart Defence greater co-ordination of defence spending will avoid duplication and generate greater return from ever-diminishing European defence budgets. The problem is that whenever the Europeans talk about integration of their defence policies they tend to look to do so through the European Union rather than NATO.

It is easy to argue that the lessons for NATO from the Libyan and Afghan interventions (and indeed the Bosnia and Kosovo air campaigns in the 1990s) is for the alliance to get involved in interventions only where the members can limit their interventions to the enforcement of no-fly zones or provide air support for one side of a civil conflict, avoiding the deployment of large-scale land forces conducting stabilisation operations. However, this is too simplistic and merely a reflection of result of the latest NATO missions.

What is forgotten in such analysis is that even days before the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya, NATO was being criticised for its strategy of limiting its intervention to the enforcement of the no-fly zone and strikes against the Libyan military as being ineffective leading to a stalemate with no exit strategy for NATO.  Likewise, NATO forces have been effective in the stabilisation mission through its leadership of the Kosovo Force (or K-For).

No long-lasting lessons have come from these different missions.  NATO will continue to select when and how to intervene based on the preferences of the three leading NATO powers: the US, Britain and France. These three states (along with Canada) do the “heavy lifting” of the combat operations and as a result exercise considerable influence on alliance intervention decision making.  Other NATO members may also take the lead in promoting intervention, but if so they will be required to pull their weight in any such operation. The other NATO states, however, are unlikely to be able to stop any NATO action should there be agreement among the three leading states.

The type of intervention will also depend on the circumstances of the day.  If there is not strong US support for a leadership role in the intervention, then NATO will be limited to air and sea operations, such as enforcing no-fly zones, limited close air-support, policing economic and military sanctions along coastlines, etc.  Without extensive American military participation, NATO combat forces are limited and do not have sufficient sustainment capabilities for any lengthy period of stabilisation operations, especially in an environment where insurgent forces continue to operate.

It is also unlikely that the US would seek NATO’s assistance in any intervention it wishes to lead, especially in the early war-fighting stage.  The lessons the American’s took from the Kosovo air-campaign is that they do not like to fight a “war by committee”.  While the alliance’s governing council did not veto any American strategic decisions, the Americans did not like having to consult on these issues. Rather, the model will be that of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan where the US will lead a coalition of the willing, only shifting to a NATO-led mission as part of the post-conflict stabilisation operations.

Likewise, France and Britain will only seek NATO support in interventions when the mission is deemed too big for unilateral action. More recently the UK and France have opted to conduct unilateral operations (although at times under UN mandates) in Sierra Leone (UK), Chad and the Ivory Coast (France).

As for the European missile defence shield, this is less controversial as NATO is more or less allowing a US-led system to be deployed in central and eastern Europe.  While the effectiveness of the system can be debated, the bigger issue is selling the need for the shield to the Russians.  The size of the system to be deployed will be too small to defend against anything more than an attack by a small nuclear power such as Iran, but Russian-NATO relations are always tricky.

There is speculation that the self-declared “American Pivot to Asia” will see a further weakening of NATO as the US focuses on strategic competition with China.  While such re-focusing on the Asia Pacific is a welcome development, especially for the policy-makers in Canberra, this will have only limited impact on NATO.  NATO itself has sought to engage more with states in the Asia-Pacific, establishing formal relations as “Partners Around the Globe” with Australia, New Zealand and Japan in 2006 and South Korea in 2010.

Nevertheless, giving greater attention to a specific region is merely an indication of intent, similar declarations by the Americans in the 1990s were quickly derailed by tensions and crises in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.  Any future crises will also see American attention shift to that conflict.

Peter Fray

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