Monday, March 30, 2009

Snap Seminar - NATO in the 21st Century

(report by Catarina Falcão, originally published in portuguese, on the blog of the Portuguese ATA/YATA)

On March 11th, students from several courses of the School of Social and Political Sciences of the Technical University of Lisbon gathered to discuss “NATO in the 21st Century”. In a session open to everyone and where individual opinions were the starting point for a broader debate, several essential questions to the Alliance were discussed.

Firstly, Professor Marcos Farias Ferreira talked about the importance of NATO in a post-Berlin Wall world. Should the end of the bipolar international system and the soviet threat also justify the end of the Atlantic Alliance?

Several opinions emerged. Many students were of the opinion that the cooperation with the United States of America, crucial for the European economic recovery after the Second World War, had allowed for the European political and economic unification, leaving the security issues for NATO. Other students, agreeing on the importance of NATO existence, mentioned the Alliance constitutes a basis for cooperation and integration in several levels, way beyond the military initiatives. Others mentioned NATO no longer made sense in the world we live in. They think the organization is too aggressive, preventing further cooperation with countries like Russia, and gave examples such as the anti-missile shield and the approximation of NATO to Eastern Europe countries.

Then it was discussed if Russia was a direct successor of the Soviet Union as a threat to the West. Its importance as an emerging power was recognized, especially if one takes into consideration Russia’s richness in natural resources and its considerable military power. Putin and he’s provocative position were also discussed, as well as certain actions such as the war with Georgia and the gas crisis in Ukraine, which serve the purpose of projecting Russian power. The western distrust regarding Russia was also a theme of discussion, as well as the new agreements forged and NATO’s role in those.

In this sense, should the approximation to Eastern Europe countries be seen as a direct threat to Russia? It is clear Eastern Europe countries aim to reinforce their sovereignty and development in several international organizations, for example, through the European Union, but they also aim for security, which they find in NATO. The enlargement of NATO to these countries has also generated issues among the Alliance, because countries like France or Germany do not intend to enter in direct conflict with Russia, something which is also related with the enlargement of the Alliance to Georgia and Ukraine.    

After that, some students raised a point on the instrumentalization of the Alliance by the U.S.. It was clarified that NATO only acts with international mandates and that except for the intervention in Yugoslavia, in what regards war theatres, NATO only operates in peacekeeping and peacemaking operations. Yet, all students agreed that the domain of the U.S. (in terms of costs, equipment and human resources), harms the Alliance image, narrowing it down to an American hard-power instrument. Thus, students praised President Obama’s idea to share the responsibilities and costs of the Alliance.

In order to adapt itself to the new realities, NATO also diversified its range of operations, intervening in humanitarian missions and supporting military coordination efforts with other entities like the African Union. 

But there are several challenges to the Alliance. Some the students pointed out were macro-terrorism, energetic security, Russian distrust, the difficulty to reach consensus in some issues, and the most recent one, the diminishing of funds and military resources due to the economic crisis.

Before the debate was over, there was still time to discuss the importance of NATO to Portugal. As a founding member, Portugal has been a beneficiary of the possibilities that arise from being part of NATO. Not only does it reinforce its relations with countries such as the U.S., as it also has the opportunity to keep its armed forces updated and in several operation theatres. Portugal is important for NATO due to its geographical position, especially the Azores islands. NATO can also help Portugal and Europe to fight narcotraffic and illegal immigration in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

In the end, it was concluded that NATO is an alliance of values, an organization which aims at perpetuating peace and democracy in the world, without leaving aside the virtues inherent to this mission.

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