The utility of Nato

By Ivan Debono

Heads of government will be gathering in Chicago tomorrow and Monday for a Nato summit hosted by Barack Obama.

The meeting comes at a crucial moment for Nato. Originally founded in 1949 as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in Europe, it found itself battling Islamist terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan 60 years later.

The summit’s concern is the question of a future strategy for Nato. It has become something of a cliché to say that the geopolitical landscape has changed beyond recognition. For military planners, the difficulty lies in developing new paradigms for the use of military force in the 21st century.

On one hand, the military arsenal in the hands of actual or potential enemies and hostile nations has never been so powerful. So the catching-up game continues.

On the other hand, the deontology of war has evolved. It is no longer politically possible for Western nations to wage all-out war. Non-state actors, such as Al Qaeda, know this and have used it to their advantage.

The question, in the words of General Sir Rupert Smith, is “the utility of force”. The summit’s focus is the no less important question of the utility of Nato.

There are three major issues.

Firstly, Nato’s role in the defence of Europe.

Times have changed since 1949. As the US Department of Defence’s 2012 Strategic Guidance document succinctly states, “most European countries are now producers of security rather than consumers of it”. During the Libyan conflict, the United States, for the first time since Suez, took the back seat in an operation involving European powers. It sent a clear message to us Europeans that we will henceforth have to deal with problems in our own backyard ourselves.

This is linked to the second question of a strategy for the “arc of instability”, which has been the US’s military focus since 1990. Initially, it was a continuation of the Eisenhower doctrine of protecting the US’s primary energy supply in the Middle East. After 9/11, the mission brief was widened when Islamist militancy threatened the primacy of the western politico-cultural model.

The Arab revolutions have introduced an unknown quantity into the equation. Should Nato intervene? If so, which way? With its hands full in Afghanistan, Nato is hardly in a position to shape the strategic outcome of North Africa and the Middle East.

Which brings us to the third question and the foremost issue of the summit: a road map for the final phases of the Afghan mission. Nato planners will have their work cut out for them.

With François Hollande in power, France has accelerated the timetable for the withdrawal of its troops and has disrupted everyone else’s plans, as Angela Merkel made clear in a recent speech. In any case, everyone else is under pressure to leave.

An old military dictum says that amateurs discuss strategy while experts worry about logistics. The problem of disengagement in Afghanistan is a logistical one. Nato and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have accumulated an enormous amount of matériel in Afghanistan in these 11 years.

The Pakistani route is extremely risky. Afghanistan is landlocked and Nato has no strategic airlift capability to speak of, which leaves only one option: the northern route, through the Uzbek-Tajik corridor. In any case, Nato will once again need Russian transport aircraft. In the end, some of the equipment may well be left behind and handed over to the Afghan National Army.

Beyond these issues is the larger question of the new US strategic posture. The Defence Strategic Guideline clearly indicates that America’s focus will now be China and the Pacific rim. This strategic realignment was underscored by the recent deployment of 2,000 US marines to Darwin, Australia. This is not just an issue for the US, for Nato must now deal with the new geopolitical landscape as the US gradually closes its bases in Europe.

Strategic interests now transcend national boundaries. The wars of the future will not be about territory but about resources, from oil to water to rare earth metals, and about informational and cultural dominance, prosperity and employment. Nato was founded to defend the strategic interests of the US and Europe. If it is to maintain its relevance into the 21st century, it too must evolve. But this issue will require more than a two-day summit.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on May 19, 2012