NATO’s new Strategic Concept and the system of global security

With NATO in a state of flux, Serbia should get the most out of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, whilst waiting to see how NATO develops and whether there is perhaps a new security architecture where Serbia will feel more comfortable in the medium term.

By Julian Harston

To download a copy of the publication, ‘New Serbia, new NATO – future vision for the 21st Century’, please click here.

The world we inhabit today is a complex and dangerous multifaceted threat environment. Instead of inter-state challenges, we now have non-state and asymmetric threats. NATO’s first two Strategic Concepts of the post-Cold War era attempted to handle a new threat environment that  lacked any real  threats, whilst simultaneously pushing for enlargement. The 1999 document, written during NATO’s air campaign in the Balkans, set the precedent for the expansion of NATO operations beyond mere self-defence, to account for humanitarian interventions and conflict prevention. That was certainly a change from the 1991 mission statement that, “the Alliance is purely defensive in purpose: none of its weapons will ever be used except in self-defence.” What is indisputable is that NATO is here to stay. However, given the inherently divergent core interests of its member states, the question is what underlying threat will unify NATO in the decade ahead to galvanize the Alliance into making the investments and reforms that the Strategic Concept stipulates.

First of all I should put some cards on the table.  As a diplomat working for the United Kingdom for twenty five years, I was a paid NATO supporter, which I did with some enthusiasm because of the essential elements of mutual assistance involved. I was however, always a Gaullist. I never believed that the United States would place New York or Washington in jeopardy for London or Paris……and whatever scenario I could imagine would only give the U.S. at most a couple of days to make up their minds, rather than the usual two to four years.

I have more recently served as an Assistant Secretary General in the United Nations, and watched the agonizing of founder members of that organization, also leading members of NATO, choosing when to secure the added legitimacy for their operations that the Security Council can provide, and when to ignore it.

I have served much of the last 15 years in the Balkans, and much of that in Belgrade.  I have watched Serbia move from dictatorship to democracy, and watched as it became the target for NATO bombs in the process. This was action that marked the beginning of a policy of expansion that has taken NATO where it is today – in Afghanistan. And moved NATO away from self-defence to offence, albeit for the greater good…………….or so the story goes.

In this paper, I would first like to look at the present threats to global security, take a look at the new NATO strategic concept as delivered at Lisbon in November 2010, and then make some judgements about whether that concept is appropriate to the threat, and a few words at the end on how Serbia should be planning for its place in the security architecture of the future.

Let us look at the threats to global security.  Are we racing toward global disorder? What place will there be for military alliances and their political power in the future?

We are living in a complex and dangerous multifaceted threat environment. There is what security analysts call a ‘full threat spectrum’. Instead of the  interstate challenges to which we have become used, we now have non-state threats, as well as rogue state challenges. We are faced with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology, and the other longer term global challenges with which we are now becoming so familiar: global warming, pandemics and the disappearance of fossil fuels.  Add to that the very real threat of cyber-warfare against governments and armed forces which are more and more vulnerable, and you have one of those multi-coloured cocktails, with a little umbrella, where the pretty colours stay  identifiable, but the drink is a killer nonetheless.

International terrorism and a radicalised Islam, whatever the causes, is a Big War, with home grown terrorists inspired by a broad global ideological base. So far counter terrorism and intelligence activities have prevented another 9/11, but for how long? We have to be successful every time. They have to be successful once.

The long term future of Afghanistan is, at best, uncertain. The Taliban is regrouping, but the lack of unity of purpose in those groups is perhaps a hopeful sign. All the while, the attempts to stem the drugs trade (a main raison d’être for the NATO presence in Afghanistan) is failing. NATO – when openly discussing its exit strategy – seems weak and divided.  The strategic failure in Iraq is becoming more apparent, despite the good news of the last month that a government of sorts is now being put in place.

Regional adversaries Iran, Syria, Al Quaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas are all emboldened by what they characterize as U.S. failure in Iraq and Israeli failure in Lebanon. The U.S. and Israel no longer appear invulnerable, and the Iranian nuclear and missile shield which is for certain being developed, is likely to shape the security environment significantly over the next ten years. Iranian hegemony will be aided by Iranian inspired, equipped, trained and funded Shia militias in the region. Make no mistake, Tehran believes that nuclear power is a key element for Iranian power and prestige.

The proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction is next on the agenda. It is accelerating and broadening. The twin challenges of Iran and North Korea have been much in the news recently thanks to WikiLeaks, but there is now the possibility of wildfire proliferation. Let us not forget that Saudi Arabia and Egypt both announced nuclear programmes in 2006, and that even Japan has considered a break-out from the 1968 NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons) in response to perceived threat from North Korea. Given the loopholes available in NPT, how many nuclear states will there be in 2025?  And to continue the liturgy of bad news, there is already a nexus of WMD equipped states and aspirant terrorist organizations. Biological and radiological weapons are a major short term concern. Ex-Soviet loose nukes are still out there available for sale or theft. We know of sub-state ‘railroads’ for spreading technology and know-how.  Think of Pakistan’s A.Q. Khan.

Is the uni-polar world order at an end?

Russia  is enjoying a resurgence of wealth and problems along with a dangerous self-perception of power and influence, and renewed imperial pretensions. But there is long-term resilience there which will enable energy resources to be used as a coercive weapon against neighbours and competitors as we watch the motherland slip back into authoritarianism. And what of China, already an economic super power, and Japan – as it seeks ‘normal defence power’ status in response to an increasingly challenging local security environment.

And before we leave my perception of the short to medium term threat environment, let us just add climate change, leading to resource depletion and demographic pressures in developing states.

Globalisation is eroding statehood, in ways which are both good and very, very dangerous. Not least because it is easily sold to the deprived as renewed Western imperialism and used to breed forces which mobilize popular anger.

What a relief then to realize that in its new Strategic Concept NATO has identified all these threats and would seem to offer at least a partial solution to most of them.

The document, which starts with a Mission statement of such length that even the least sceptical readers must wonder where they are being led, is a brave attempt at facing the identified threats whilst papering over the cracks in the Alliance brought about by very different perceptions of those threats among its members, whilst all the while ignoring the resource crisis that the Alliance is going through and will suffer for the foreseeable future.

NATO’s first two Strategic Concepts of the post-Cold War era, written in 1991 and 1999, attempted to handle a new threat environment that  lacked any true threats, while pushing  for enlargement. The 1999 document, written during NATO’s air war in the Balkans, set the precedent for the expansion of NATO operations beyond mere self-defence, to account for humanitarian interventions and conflict prevention. What a change from the 1991 mission statement that, “The Alliance is purely defensive in purpose: none of its weapons will ever be used except in self-defence.”

The last 10 years have seen NATO launch its largest military engagement in Afghanistan, engage in counter-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and train security forces in Iraq. The challenge for NATO was to formulate a Strategic Concept that satisfies all 28 members while navigating the engagement in Afghanistan and addressing fears among some members about Russian encroachment. It is unclear that this challenge has been, or in fact ever can be, met.

Rather than an exhaustive and exhausting look at  the nearly 4,000-word Strategic Concept,  I would only note that the concept covers everything from energy security to network security to climate change. The Central European requirement for reassurances that self-defence is still central is fulfilled, because it is mentioned first in every section. But it will take more than starting each paragraph by hinting at NATO’s self-defence to assure the Central Europeans that the Alliance is sincere about the issue.

And it is this context that I would like to concentrate on Russia as the catalyst for NATO’s success or failure, or even of its continued existence. It is perhaps the most striking of ironies that Russia still holds the most vital key to NATO’s existence, or perhaps even its descent into being a far less essential element in Europe’s defence architecture.

As NATO member states plan for the next decade, Russia is working aggressively to restore its former power at home and in the region after its postSoviet slumber. Russia today is starting to look a bit like the Soviet Union that was NATO’s raison d’etre during the Cold War.  While NATO took its eye off Russia as its main adversary, Russia was allowed time to regroup after the fall of the Soviet Union and chaos of the 1990s, while NATO’s aggressive, and – some would say – obsessive moves  toward  enlargement gave Moscow the impetus, and I believe the legitimization for resurgence.

While NATO focused more on the Islamic world, Russia militarily intervened in Georgia (resulting in a de-facto occupation of a quarter of the country), moved military bases into southern Central Asia and Armenia, united Belarus and Kazakhstan into an economic union and facilitated the election of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

Stratfor,  the U.S. based think-tank, and Madeleine Albright,  break NATO into three groups on this and other issues (with Russia as the main point of contention): the United States and its “Atlanticist” allies (such as the Netherlands, Denmark and the United Kingdom), core Europe (led by Germany and France), and the Central Europeans. Washington and its strongest NATO allies are wary of Russia and suspicious of its intentions, but they also want the Alliance’s emphasis to include issues like post-conflict operations and terrorism, not just defence against Russia. Core Europe wants to maintain its good relations with Russia and not provoke it with an alliance that is concentrating on rolling back Moscow’s control of its sphere of influence. Central Europe wants to be reassured, but Berlin and Paris do not want to give Central Europe anything but token reassurances due to their relationship with Moscow. Beyond Russia, the United States wants NATO to concentrate on the terrorist threat, increase its military spending and help in post-conflict missions. The Core Europeans are particularly wary of any further engagements and want NATO to both reaffirm the UN Security Council primacy in international affairs — so as to limit U.S. unilateralism taking the Alliance on various “adventures” — and to look more to conflict prevention, rather than post-conflict nationbuilding. The Central Europeans are also sceptical of further U.S. distractions.

Washington and Moscow seemed to step back from their aggressive stances when  President Barack Obama took office. Shifting tactics, both countries brokered an understanding that each had larger issues to focus on at the time, so the growing hostilities would be put on hold — at least temporarily. Such an understanding is naturally shaky, but both Washington and Moscow knew this going in.

The understanding between Moscow and Washington does not seem to have included a slowdown of Russia’s resurgence. When the United States pulled back from aggressively countering Russia, the countries Washington was protecting — the Central Europeans and Georgia —felt abandoned and defenceless. These states also were unable to turn to the traditional powers in Europe: Germany and France had already decided it was better to balance their relations with Russia than stand up against it — especially to protect the Central Europeans.

But there are signs that the rapprochement is paper thin. The smiling faces at the end of the Lisbon summit and understandings apparently reached there on missile defence are already coming under strain. The details of Russian participation will have to wait until June 2011 to be hashed out, but it seems that whatever Moscow’s participation is, it will not be given joint control over the BMD (Ballistic Missile Defence).  Did anyone really believe that Russia would tie itself into a serious partnership without a power of veto?

But going into the NATO summit, many Western Europeans were counting on the U.S.-Russian détente to still be in effect, allowing them to be more comfortable in negotiations with both NATO members and with Russia. However, the Central European states are relieved that the cracks in the détente are starting to show, as it will allow them to be more aggressive toward Russia. So in essence, the disintegration of U.S. – Russian relations will divide the alreadyfracturing NATO even further.

What is most troubling for the Central Europeans is that the Russian Envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, called the Strategic Concept “balanced.” A happy Rogozin means a happy Kremlin, and that means the Central Europeans did not receive guarantees from the United States and Core Europe that in any way concern Russia.

NATO will not disappear. It is here to stay, if for no other reason than inertia. It will still have a useful role to play in anti-piracy missions, post-conflict clean-ups and as a seal of approval for the few Western Balkan states which have yet to join the West. But the Europeans are already developing alternatives. The Central Europeans are  looking at bilateral agreements with the United States.

Central Europeans are having difficulty finding another Western European power, outside of Sweden, with an ear for their security concerns. They feel they need to counter Russia on their own, with limited backup. There is always Germany, which Central Europeans should theoretically be able to turn to for support. At least on paper, Berlin is an EU and NATO ally. However, specific to the Central European fears — and a reality that is rarely spoken publicly in Central Europe — is the fact that Germany is becoming unhinged from the Cold War-era institutions. Russia may be the obvious security threat, but it is Germany’s evolving role — and, crucially, its warming relations with Moscow — that troubles Warsaw and other Central European capitals, most precisely because it is unclear which way Berlin is heading.

Other European countries will form agreements among themselves. The Scandinavian countries, which are divided between NATO and non-NATO states, are already making military agreements with the Baltic States, which Sweden and Finland see as their own sphere of influence. The French are developing amphibious capabilities with the United Kingdom and Mediterranean countries on their own and have signed a defensive agreement with the United Kingdom to balance their political and economic relationship with Germany. This independent movement among NATO and non-NATO states is just more evidence that the Alliance’s continued existence alone may not save it from irrelevancy.

Given the inherently divergent core interests of its member states, the question is what underlying threat will unify NATO in the decade ahead to galvanize the Alliance into making the sort of investments and reforms that the Strategic Concept stipulates.

NATO will ensure it will remain relevant if it focuses on Europe’s strengths instead of being undermined by its lack of a credible strategy. European allies should focus on how to develop the military capabilities needed to support their security strategies within projected resource constraints. Considering their limited capacity for expeditionary operations (not more than 2 – 3% of NATO forces can be deployed and sustained outside Europe), European allies should instead enhance their capabilities in low-intensity operations such as reconstruction, cyber-security, organized crime and policing of movement within their borders. Hence, by using the finite resources available on role specialization, Europe would be better positioned to guarantee its security and become a more capable partner. Likewise, the United States would avoid military and strategic over-extension, thereby permitting it to consider new strategic relationships, with India and others, that will better address the 21st century security environment which I described earlier.

………………and now, with apologies for taking up even more of your time, a very quick look at where all this leaves Serbia.

Where does this leave Serbia?

NATO is in flux, the new Strategic concept papers over the cracks, but does little to give a really clear picture of where NATO will be in five years.

So, does anyone sensible climb onto a bus, not knowing where it is going?


But in this case, I think the answer is yes.

I know that Serbia has never been a member of a military alliance,  I know the emotional arguments based on the brutality of the NATO bombing, I know that Vuk Jeremić appears to offer a three-pillar alternative, albeit a somewhat fanciful one, but on balance I believe that Serbia has the luxury of time. Stick with the Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme, get the most out of it, reassure the U.S. in particular which continues to cast Serbia in the guise of a potential rogue state, reassure European friends of Serbia, and wait to see how NATO develops and whether there is perhaps a new security architecture, which will include NATO, where Serbia will feel more comfortable in the medium term.

Julian Harston previously served as the representative of the Secretary-General in Belgrade, Serbia, and is one of the world’s leading practitioners of peacekeeping. Julian is now an independent consultant on international peace and security matters  and lectures on a regular basis at the Belgrade Diplomatic and Security Academy. Julian is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board.

The publication, ‘New Serbia, new NATO – future vision for the 21st Century’, was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Fund for Open Society.

This publication is published as part of TransConflict Serbia’s project, ‘Facilitating Serbia’s Contribution to NATO’s New Strategic Concept’.

The Fund for an Open SocietyFund for an Open Society – Serbia



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