March 31, 2009 / 2:45 PM / 10 years ago

ANALYSIS-In from the cold, NATO struggles to find new role

By Sophie Hardach

PARIS, March 31 (Reuters) - Some 20 years after the end of the Cold War, NATO is endeavouring to develop a new strategic concept to justify its existence.

Eager to prove the alliance’s enduring relevance, members have floated a multitude of extra tasks and threats they want NATO to tackle, from climate change to mass migration, from Islamist militants to energy security.

But the ambitious review might be counter-productive.

Given that NATO’s ambitions already outstretch its resources, as shown by the war in Afghanistan, adding a whole new list of tasks could weaken its credibility further.

More importantly, extending NATO’s core duty as a defence alliance into new areas might pose a risk to global security by treating political and economic problems as military threats.

During the Cold War, NATO’s task was straightforward. At its heart lay Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which stipulates that an armed attack against one member shall be considered an attack against them all.

As NATO celebrates its 60th anniversary, the alliance is larger, its enemies are less well defined and each country has its own idea of what NATO should focus on in the years ahead.


NATO’s "Multiple Futures" project gathers suggestions from 26 member states to identify future threats underpinning a new strategic concept. Work on the concept will start after a NATO summit in Strasbourg this week and could take about 18 months.

"Defence planning starts with political planning," project director Jose Fernandez Demaria told Reuters this month.

Demaria said some members wanted the alliance specifically to name Islamist radicalism as a threat; others feared a wave of illegal immigrants or an onslaught of cyber-attacks.

Advocates of a broader strategy argue NATO members should be able to rely on the alliance to help them fight such threats.

"NATO is best prepared to deal with the least likely threats to its security — a conventional military attack — and least well-prepared to deal with the most likely threats to our security — the things that happen every day: terrorist attacks, cyber attacks, energy disruption, consequences of failed states, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," a senior U.S. official said.

Talk to Eastern European members such as Poland and they will invariably point to energy security as a central issue, often referring to Russia’s brief war with Georgia last year and its row with Ukraine over gas supplies.

Several analysts said NATO had no role in energy security, which is a matter of supply and demand, occasionally interrupted by diplomatic spats.

Asked for a specific task NATO could take on to protect energy security, officials mention guarding pipelines. But European pipelines do not seem, in general, to be under threat.

For many Eastern Europeans, however, energy security is crucial as it feeds into concerns over a more assertive Russia.

"There is a discussion about the possibility of NATO dealing with climate change, but not about real problems," Witold Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, told Reuters.

"In Western Europe, a number of countries prefer to discuss the attacks in Mumbai and have a tendency to forget about other issues, for example Russia and Georgia."


Others view thawing relations between U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, as a chance to address issues that were neglected in recent years.

In this context, Ukraine’s and Georgia’s ambitions to join NATO, which have angered Russia, are likely to move into the background, marking the end of a period when former U.S. President George W. Bush focused mainly on NATO enlargement.

"The discussion over Ukraine and Georgia has dominated the agenda, to the detriment of a debate over what NATO’s tasks are, what the potential threats are, and under what circumstances other organisations may be better placed to deal with those threats," a German diplomat told Reuters.

He named nuclear disarmament as one area in which NATO could make a difference.

"NATO should be actively promoting disarmament. We believe that with the new U.S. administration and Medvedev in Russia there is room for progress in this area," the diplomat said.

While diplomats are putting forward their wish-lists for NATO’s strategic review, most are aware the war in Afghanistan has dampened the appetite for excursions and global experiments.

Not all out-of-area operations have been controversial. NATO’s mission protecting ships in the waters off Somalia from pirates, for example, has been broadly accepted.

But with the United States admitting it is not winning the war in Afghanistan, and Europe reluctant to send more troops for fear of angering voters, NATO may find the challenge is not just to find a new strategy, but to make it credible. (Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Brussels; editing by Robert Woodward)

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