Monday, March 30, 2009

NATO in the 21st Century

(article by Samuel de Paiva Pires, orginally published in portuguese in the Journal of the International Relations Student's Union (School of Social and Political Sciences of Lisbon Technical University), and also on the blog of the Portuguese ATA/YATA)

As we approach the beginning of April, efforts are intensified by the diplomatic representatives of the several member states of NATO. At the Strasbourg/Kehl Summit it will be celebrated the Alliance’s 60th anniversary. This Summit’s agenda is filled with several issues that require a strategic reflection in order to project the Atlantic Alliance as an ever important actor in the international relations system.

As F. Stephen Larrabee, from Rand Corporation, said in an interview to the Council on Foreign Relations, the most critical issue on the agenda is, undoubtedly, Afghanistan. It is crucial to find solutions to stabilize the country, in an operation that is directly related with NATO’s reputation. As far as one can tell, Barack Obama’s Administration is already aware of the need to act according to a strategic calculation that weights the diverse variables, something that implies a regional approach trough the approximation and consensus building with countries like India, Pakistan, China, Russia, and probably even Iran.

Joe Biden, U.S. Vice-president, in a meeting at the North Atlantic Council on March 10th, discussed with the allies the current situation in Afghanistan. In that meeting of preparation for the Summit, particular emphasis was given to the regional approach, the support to local afghan communities, as well as the need for a greater civilian effort and support to state building. 

Another issue that marks NATO’s agenda is the reentry of France in the military command. Over 40 years after General De Gaulle’s decision, the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, reaffirmed in the past March 11th, the intention to approach and reintegrate French forces in the military command of the organization, a decision to be officialized by the French Parliament. This is an attitude that can only please all members of the Alliance that now sees its military capability reinforced, especially in what concerns the relative importance of European forces in the organization.

On the other side, one of the main issues that NATO faces today is the relation with Russia. This is also connected with the broader dimension of the enlargement, especially in what concerns Georgia and Ukraine. In the 90’s, after the Berlin Wall fell, with the collapse of the communist system and the apparent Russian tendency of opening to the western liberalism, several countries from Central and Eastern Europe became members of the Alliance. This was made possible with Russia’s agreement, also because Moscow had no alternative. Nowadays, Russia’s attitude is in a diametrically opposed point.   

Just like Robert Kagan alerts in The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Hegel’s utopist dream and, more recently, Francis Fukuyama’s, on the so called End of History, concept related with the alleged natural expansion of liberal democracy to the rest of states, seems to be giving its place to the emergence of autocracies in opposition to democracies. Those autocracies have a strong sense of national pride. That is the case of Russia that with Vladimir Putin recovered the logic of a great power, acting in a determinant way in the pos-soviet space, thus setting itself apart of the image created in the 90’s.

Russia faces NATO and the West as strange forces, not wanting them to interfere in its traditional sphere of geopolitical influence. Two symbolic cases of this are the anti-missile shield issue, which the Russians even suggested was placed in other countries, Italy for example, especially because it does not want to see one of its former satellite states, Poland, acquire such capacity; and even more representative, the Georgian conflict which occurred last summer. By sending forces into Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Russia sent a message to the world and NATO: it will not tolerate any interference in the countries of its near-abroad. 

This is one of the main issues NATO will face in the 21st century. How is it possible to compatibilize NATO’s enlargement to countries like Georgia and Ukraine, with Russia clearly ascending as a traditional power of a political nature opposed to the Western one? Although the Alliance has decided to normalize relations with Russia by resuming meetings at the NATO-Russia Council, how is it possible to compatibilize those relations with the anti-russian rhetoric of countries from Central and Eastern Europe?  

NATO’s relations with Russia are of extreme importance, because they have a natural implication on the enlargement of the Alliance, on its capabilities transformation, in defining new threats and in the elaboration of a new strategic concept. In accordance to the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, NATO has been restructuring and limiting its capabilities on the military level, aiming to become an organization that acts as a stability and security provider, intervening also in humanitarian crisis scenarios, and redirecting its strategic concept to fight new threats like terrorism. But it is necessary to diminish the strong anti-russian rhetoric from some member states. Even though it is comprehensible from an historical point of view, it is counterproductive, even because those states are already protected under the Alliance, and could have some more benefits from gradually approaching and cooperating with Moscow. 

NATO will have to deal with its own internal transformation in what regards the adequate capabilities to cope with new threats, while the relations with Russia will assume a central place in the Alliance’s agenda throughout this century. According to Kagan, the world is not ready to return to a Cold War logic, so, it is up to NATO to act proactively in order for the 21st century to be reminded for the best reasons.

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