The Change Agenda

NATO has been history's most successful alliance.Led by the United States which contributed most of the personnel,money and strategy,NATO has delivered sixty years of unprecedented peacetime collaboration among Western democracies, providing a trusted means for its members to discuss security issues affecting one or more of them and developing effective responses when required.Given this record,NATO clearly ought to be the instrument of choice for defending and promoting the security interests of democratic states in the years ahead.

Not everyone believes this. Some have characterized NATO as a relic. It served its purpose during the Cold War, but it is now an obstacle to progress and should be closed down. If there were no NATO, it is argued, there would still be a transatlantic dialogue, just not in the institutionalized form of today. Others believe NATO could remain useful in the short term by continuing to provide stability in Europe while the European Union builds up its defence capabilities. But if it is to have any value in the longer term,they believe NATO needs to be transformed into a global collective security organization, possibly including Russia, China and other states. Still others are resigned to NATO continuing in much the same form as exists today, but they doubt its ability to adapt to the new security environment.

In fact, NATO has demonstrated an admirable ability to adapt:

  1. from twelve original members,the Alliance has grown to twenty-eight with still more states expressing a desire to join. NATO also has partnership arrangements with twenty-two other countries and an active security dialogue with seven states in the Middle East and North Africa;
  2. just twenty-five years ago, the Alliance devoted its efforts entirely to preparing to defend against a 37 high-intensity attack from the Warsaw Pact, relying on hundreds of thousands of military personnel and materiel to be available on short notice, on many hundreds of military bases, and on long-developed infrastructure, logistics and communications systems. It has since shed great numbers of personnel, closed bases, and decommissioned thousands of pieces of unneeded equipment,while increasing the deployability of its forces and upgrading its equipment.

Throughout the Cold War, the Alliance's defence effort was focused exclusively on Europe and the North Atlantic; NATO conducted no operations or exercises outside the Euro-Atlantic area. Today, it is conducting operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo, training Iraqi security forces, monitoring the Mediterranean for terrorists and illegal arms shipments, supporting the African Union peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Sudan,and combating piracy off the Horn of Africa.NATO has also provided assistance to natural disaster relief operations in Pakistan and the Philippines.

It is incontestable that the Alliance was created to counter the threat of Soviet communism and that its members face an entirely different set of challenges now. But if the threat has changed,NATO's mission to protect the security and territorial integrity of its members remains the same—and its continued existence remains essential. No other organization binds together the North American and European democracies, presents the common front that deters aggression, marshals the resources to respond to threats effectively, and provides the means for nations great and small to participate in decisions affecting their vital interests.

But the very fact the Alliance finds itself deeply involved in a war in Afghanistan described as an “out-of-area” operation is testimony to the obsolescence of NATO's current Strategic Concept. Afghanistan exemplifies all that is good in NATO—the noble intentions of its governments, the professionalism of its soldiers, the “ itself deeply involved in a war in Afghanistan described as an ‘out-of-area’ operation is testimony to the obsolescence of NATO's current Strategic Concept.” The very fact the Alliance finds concern for the civilian population, the spirit of sacrifice.But it also tells the story of the further changes NATO must make to respond to the new security realities. Afghanistan represents a transformative challenge for the Alliance.

If NATO is to endure with an altered mission, a whole series of questions arise relating to its members' commitment to a common cause, their decision-making process,the resources they are prepared to devote,their willingness to share burdens evenly, how they manage operations, and their responsiveness to crises. Merely refining procedures created to counter a totally different threat could leave NATO in a weak position when strength and nimbleness will be critical. In brief, the organization needs a major overhaul.

(a) The obligations of alliance

Democratic states share interests and values that reflect their “common heritage and civilization.” Seldom, however,do they all agree on the precise character of the security problems they face or the dangers these pose. Part of the reason is that states almost never face the same threats in the same way at the same time. Additionally, disagreement and debate are embedded in the DNA of democratic societies: opinion ranges across the political spectrum from left to right, which in turn informs how individuals view the world and how they respond to events.

NATO has experienced much dissension, but rarely have members pushed disputes to the point of damaging the security interests of fellow allies. NATO endured for sixty years not just because its members shared common interests and values they were prepared to defend together, but also because they recognized that the things about which they agreed needed to constrain the intensity and duration of their disputes over the things self “ created to counter a totally different threat could leave NATO in a weak position when strength and nimbleness will be c r i t i c a l . I n b r i e f , t h e organization needs a major overhaul. ” Merely refining procedures about which they disagreed. In due course, changes of government helped to bury old quarrels and repair relationships.

Most agree today that what unites allies continues to dwarf what divides them. But it is not clear that governments always care enough about what unites them to forego the gratification of pursuing national interests that may undermine the security of others.Such,arguably, was the case in respect of Suez in 1956 and Iraq in 2003. The latter dispute was all the more surprising for having occurred barely eighteen months after 9/11 when NATO allies were never more united. “Today, they are all Americans,” wrote the editor of Le Monde.

What the Iraq dispute demonstrated is how circumscribed can be NATO members' understanding of the role of respect, deference and compromise in sustaining viable partnerships over the long term: the obligation to consult has long been recognized, but the broader obligations of alliance remain to be defined. Tempers have cooled since 2003, new leaders and political parties are in power in most of the countries involved in the Iraq dispute and the opportunity should be seized to define the principles that ought to guide Alliance membership.A reaffirmation of the obligations allies assume toward each other and NATO on entering the Alliance would undoubtedly benefit NATO's common effort in Afghanistan.Absent greater respect for these obligations,the predictions of NATO's demise may one day finally be realized.

(b) Decision-making

In contrast to the United Nations, NATO has been described as the place where the serious people gather to discuss international security problems and decide on the appropriate action. As a forum for dialogue on security and defence matters, it is unmatched. NATO provides member governments great and small with enhanced access to information on international “ obligations allies assume towa rd e a ch othe r, the predictions of NATO’s demise may one day be finally realized.” Absent greater respect for the developments and exposure to the policies, programs, activities and intentions of fellow members of the Alliance. And when NATO makes a decision, action follows.

For all that,NATO must improve how it makes decisions. Decision-making today is too often argumentative and ponderous, as representatives in Brussels debate principles and precedents while national capitals proceed cautiously in approving action that may be laden with cost and political controversy at home. As NATO's attention has shifted increasingly to peace support operations outside the Euro-Atlantic region, there needs to be a corresponding shift in how NATO makes decisions and manages crises. Four dimensions of decision-making require attention:

The consensus principle

The first is the Alliance's longstanding tradition of making decisions by consensus.At the United Nations, majority rules—and often misrules. In NATO, out of respect for the sovereignty of member-states and their determination to reserve to themselves decisions on such consequential matters as war and peace, the principle is that decisions require the unanimous approval of all the members. It is a formula that has served the Alliance well if not without controversy for a long time. NATO has achieved greater unity of purpose over a longer period of time than any other security-mandated organization ever established, and the consensus principle has helped ensure that when allies agree, especially on contentious issues,the course of action they decide on can be sustained over an extended period of time.

Securing all-nation agreement can be a challenge even when an issue is not contentious. It is often a timeconsuming process and it sometimes requires allies to settle for a decision that satisfies almost no one.But over “Decision-making today is too often argumentative and ponderous... ” time nations have taken a nuanced approach to decisionmaking by which members most affected by a problem assume the lead in fashioning the solution and lessaffected members “join the consensus” or remain silent even in cases where they may have reservations about the action proposed. From time to time, individual members have blocked consensus for spurious reasons in order to extract a concession on an unrelated matter or to give vent to disputes between governments. In the final analysis,however,consensus works.

Some modification of the consensus principle may nonetheless be warranted in light of the expeditionary tasks the Alliance has been taking on in recent years.As long as NATO was focused on the defence of territory, planning and management were not much hindered by the requirement for unanimity.But deployment of forces on operational missions is another matter. Clearly, consensus must prevail when the North Atlantic Council approves a mission, sets its strategic objectives and agrees on rules of engagement.But once these steps have been taken, it is not always clear that unanimity is either necessary or desirable. It would seem self-evident that the Alliance as a whole suffers when the requirement for consensus serves to stifle debate below the levels of the Council or the Military Committee,prevents valuable information or views from informing their deliberations, a l lows only lowest common denomina tor recommendations to go forward, and slows action in theatre. When and how the principle of consensus ought to be waived requires study.

There is an intangible quality to consensus that serves as glue for collaboration that must not be jettisoned too freely. Whenever NATO decides, allies retain an interest in the outcome regardless of subsequent involvement. But when the stakes are higher for some than others,the views of those with the most to gain or “ consensus principle may be warranted in light of the expeditionary tasks the Alliance has been taking on. ” Some modification of the lose deserve greater weight. Conversely, members with little at stake ought not to be able to block consensus or delay progress through obstructive action in the lowprofile committees of the Alliance where the critical work of mission planning takes place.At the very least, they should be held to account and required to defend their positions at the highest levels of the organization

The UN syndrome

A second dimension of NATO decision-making requiring review is the practice of governments approving operations without committing the resources necessary to achieve their objectives. Too often, the Alliance has been afflicted by the so-called “UN syndrome”: crises have driven the North Atlantic Council to authorize action by the Secretary General and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe without also ensuring that the military, civilian and financial resources required to execute the operational plan were available.While the onus should have remained on governments, NATO authorities have found themselves in the unenviable position of begging for the resources they needed to do what was asked of them. When political imperative overrides military advice and compels military action to proceed without the minimum resources needed, the Alliance risks both lives and the achievement of its objectives. In relatively benign peace support operations, when members limit their contributions of low-level tactical resources and commit them incrementally over time, the risks are low. In high-intensity combat operations, they are anything but. Too often, “NATO” successes have come to depend on the near unilateral infusion of US (particularly theatre-level) assets. In an international organization such as NATO, it is to be expected that member-states will insist on constraints being applied to the action the Alliance proposes to take, to the kind of resources individual allies will make available, and to the use to which those resources will be put. But the disconnect that too often has prevailed “Too often, NATO successes have come to depend on the near unilateral infusion of US assets. ” between ends and means has not only undermined the pursuit of operational objectives, it has also given rise to disputes between allies that have done damage to the Alliance itself. A study about joining ends and means, allocating resources before deployment and not after, and agreeing on norms, rules and processes, would appear to be in order.