Special Reports




Clive Lindley


NATO: Where is it Going?

In June 2006 Newnations published: “What Is Nato For?”  This essay asking essentially the same question, is intended to follow on, to see if the intermediate five years have in any way clarified or obscured an answer.

At the time of our earlier article, relationships with post-USSR Russia had settled down, if not quite normalised, but it was obvious that they were no longer a power seeking to control the world by military means. As to China, although they had made remarkable progress in every sphere of activity, their military expenditure had been at about one sixth that of the USA, (but in PPP terms is currently about two thirds of the US figure). Its economic advance largely based on selling its manufactures to the western world, is nothing short of prodigious and greatly enhances its world status.

In a study concerning only European security - Nato’s original role, that would have little bearing on asking the question of where is Nato going? But the geographical mould is broken. Afghanistan is half a world away from the North Atlantic in distant south central Asia.

What Nato actually now is, does not need much explanation. Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s suggested term: ‘America’s Foreign Legion,’ is close to the mark. Before 2001 the fact could hardly have been foreseen that elements of the US’s Nato allies would now have been fighting in the shadow of the Pamirs for ten years, after the rush to support the USA following 9/11 - a fight long distant from the North Atlantic area of its naissance.

But after 9/11,‘the Three Musketeers’ pledge of Article Five in response, was invoked. This was not requested by the USA, the aggrieved state, who settled then for a raincheck on the allies offer, but unanimously by all of the other members meeting in Brussels within a day or so of the outrage, activating Article Five (for the first and so far, only time in its history).

However the rather shambolic, third-world nation that is Afghanistan, had not attacked the USA, in fact it was engaged in a civil war of its own. The concept of Nato’s rubric,“an attack on one is an attack on all,” was surely on the level of nation states, rather than terrorist organisations like al Qaeda. President Bush forthrightly declared ‘a war on terror,’ yet it cannot be denied that it is Afghanistan and its hapless people, that have suffered the collateral effects of ten years of warfare.

It seems to us that measuring major successes since 9/11 against al Qaeda - the object being to pursue them to the point where they are no longer a threat, have been brought about not by armies, but by small scale operations employing the extremely effective allied special forces, plus a new generation of highly sophisticated robot weapons; smart intelligence and police work (including that of Pakistan). There is no way of knowing for sure, but in any future terrorist threat originating out of a third world country, shouldn’t this ‘small solution’ lesson be paramount in how to respond, at least until the necessity of a full scale military invasion becomes obvious?

The ground war against the Taleban, which has been devastating for all concerned, is to some extent a stand-off. It has not worked out as originally planned. No doubt if Nato members had jibbed at joining this fight, as was the case in the adventure of invading Iraq, then the US would have gone in alone anyway, and have looked again for support to ‘coalitions of the willing.’ But ten years ago, in the heat and shared collective outrage at the unprovoked attacks on New York and Washington DC, Nato members, conscious of decades of pivotal US support in Europe, genuinely wanted to close ranks and pay something back.

In searching for an answer to what is Nato for, now - if it is not to be for clear cut cases of mutual self-defence, or intervening, as in the Balkan wars, to stop armies in Europe engaging in ethnic cleansing, then in any new military enterprise there is always going to be, or should be, the ethical question of whether Nato members should be involved.

There are have been many similar ethnic cleansing outrages going on in Africa, but neither the North Americans nor the Europeans are anxious to get into that arena, and seldom do, unless they have large investments that need protection, or a client state that needs rescuing. So far UK, France and Belgium, who all had African empires, have intervened in ex-colonies, but for limited objectives. China that now is pre-eminent in investing in ‘black Africa,’ may find they have to make a military response if ever their investments are threatened. That may never happen, but if the exercise was undertaken to spot future areas of conflict, as the military planners of several governments must do, then the question of a response by whom, and with what side effects, would become the key factor as to what extent intervention is appropriate. Nato as presently constituted, once out of defending its North Atlantic region, can hardly be the entity to make the appropriate response.

That is what the UN was founded for and of which it has some experience. But we should never forget that the UN project and command in Bosnia was demonstrably inadequate, which led to the massacre at Srebrenica. There a single unsupported UN infantry battalion, vastly outnumbered, faced with Serbian artillery and tanks, was charged with defending this city that the UN had declared to be a guaranteed ‘safe area’. Yet ‘on the day’ the local commander was unable to get the urgently requested air support – it was rejected by the UN military commanders led by their countries politicians, on the grounds that it would have heightened tensions! So the UN mission disgracefully failed and was utterly humiliated, the city fell and the next day seven to eight thousand Bosniak men and boys were executed ‘in cold blood,’ by the Bosnian Serb army - as the international court at the Hague is currently hearing.

Militarily, Nato is the ideal vehicle for such UN missions. In fact it did intervene immediately after this UN disaster with ten divisions of Nato troops, and swiftly brought the Bosnian war to a close. It has every kind of resource, but perhaps most importantly it has the ‘readiness’ brought about by a permanent professional military staff, seconded by its member states, the lack of which has been a major shortcoming in the ad hoc UN military campaigns. It’s organisational structure, its clear chain of command and the fact that Nato’s commander is always a senior US general appointed by the US Secretary for War, would guarantee that nervous national politicians would not fail, as happened at Srebrenica, to support their front line troops.

Should Nato be seconded ‘ad hoc’ to the UN, to put into effect where necessary, the resolutions passed there by the Security Council? ‘Ad hoc’ because the Nato member nations providing the troops, obviously see their top priority in defending against any military crisis affecting their individual homelands.

That would put Nato into the role of a world gendarmerie. The UN in using armed force would need to convince its member states of the ethical rightness of a particular course, much as it needs to do now at Security Council level, which could be expected to be reflected with massive coverage by the news organisations of all the nations involved, yet ‘there’s the rub.’

The UN is an everyday target for the more rabid US politicians and is regularly rubbished by the right-wing media, primarily because whilst the US are the largest UN funder, they don’t control it. It is not exactly their vehicle, as was made clear to them before the invasion of Iraq. Yet there are many years of experience, where if the UN didn’t exist, it would have had to have been invented. The dreadful Korean war soon after WWII, was fought under the aegis of the UN, which brought in several other nations to support the major US forces under General Douglas MacArthur. But now it would be unrealistic to suppose that any time soon, there would be a major change of the dismissive indeed hostile attitude towards the UN, amongst Fox TV/ ‘Talk radio’ biddable US people and politicians.

However, the political job is already done. Nato in 1999, two years before 9/11, produced a paper approved by all, on ‘Nato’s Strategic Concept’. One key addition to the Nato job description was agreed - to go out of the North Atlantic region under appropriate circumstances, (which gets them to the Pamirs).
“To stand ready, case by case and by concensus…to contribute to effective conflict prevention and to engage actively in crisis management...”
It continues, “…Alliance security must also take account of the global context.”
(That kind of provision would keep them safely away from intervening in any such dispute as the independence of Tibet)!
And here is the key section for this argument:
– “Nato ..(offers)…to support operations under the authority of the UN Security Council, or the responsibility of the OSCE.”

If Nato were to move on to become the world’s gendarmerie, then its political institutions would need to be of a suitable seniority. The Nato Council has an ambassador from every member state but if the UN requested military support, then the decisions would clearly be at national government level, probably expressed at the UN Security Council, able to make rapid ethical and political judgements as well as military decisions, brought about by an unforeseen emergency. This was the case with 9/11, which has involved some members having committed troops for the past ten years - and counting.

There is also the question as to how the forces of other, non-Nato members, might become involved. It was interesting and politically important in the case of Libya, that the Arab League condemned the Qaddafi regime, and that the small state of Qatar actively joined the Nato campaign. Also ISAF in Afghanistan includes contributions from such exotic countries as Mongolia; FYR Macedonia and Tonga, bringing nearly fifty nations together, only twenty eight of which are members of Nato. ISAF or a similar grouping (in Bosnia it was IFOR), would be the way to go.

Currently Nato nations are in Afghanistan as ISAF (International Security Assistance Force), with a UN remit. Also and more controversially, in 2011 it is in Libya - or strictly not ‘in’- as on the ground, but in the skies above. This time not under the command of a US General, but that of a Canadian Lt.General, with the US contingent having a barely visible but essential role in staff work, target acquisition, intelligence, transport and more, plus contributing some high-sci robotic devices. The US being overstretched with its recent war in Iraq and the continuing one in Afghanistan, with a population back home, weary of foreign wars, was pleased to be taking a less prominent role, even without the Republicans in the US Congress looking for any way or means to pull Obama down.

It was an entirely reasonable calculation that the European plus Canadian members of NATO could do the necessary, in a low risk, limited engagement like Libya, although fears might have been evoked from the seriously inadequate UN experience in Bosnia during the Balkans wars. The current Nato intervention, that of 2011 in the Libyan struggle, is within sight of completion, and the engaged NATO members can take pride in having done a workmanlike job. But ethically it’s not so simple.

The UN remit to Nato was to protect Libyan civilians, effectively by destroying the Libyan airforce and perhaps heavy weaponry, but in reality they have created something other than a level playing field. In the event, they served as the rebel airforce, aiding the ground forces of the Libyan rebels, against the then President Qadaffi and family, his regular forces and supporters. No doubt the politicians would say that the best practical way of protecting civilians was to bring the fighting to a close, soonest. That well may be, but given the terms of the UN remit it is still questionable.

All other nations’ military capacity is dwarfed by the USA, but since our 2006 report, China has projected military power more significantly on the world stage, at least in the southern hemisphere, as has India. Russia remains more than a regional power, but has looked much less combative, an exception being a short and sharp beating-up of its ex-colony Georgia, who foolishly initiated the fight by trying to seize through a surprise attack, its reluctant former provinces, Abkhazia –an ethnically Moslem Black Sea region and South Ossetia, a mainly slav community. Both were already ‘de facto’ independent – no-go areas for Georgians, and had been from soon after the collapse and disintegration of the USSR. Both of these territories historically and legally, by edict of the then Soviet government had been provinces grouped, probably for administrative convenience, into the Georgian SSR. Any faint chance the Georgians might have had of Nato membership was scuppered there and then, despite the current British PM and French President both going there and making supportive and angry anti-Russian speeches. Wiser councils prevailed (not Georgian ones). The timing being what it was, had Georgia already have been admitted into Nato with the protection of Article Five, there would have been a potential WWIII face-off with Moscow, who rushed militarily to the support of the two (client) republics under attack from Tbilisi.

What conflicts may be just over the horizon?
US politicians of the two big parties agree on few matters, but keeping hold of the most powerful armed forces in the world, seems to be one of them. NATO had been configured as a defensive alliance, yet certainly with offensive capability, against ‘the eastern menace’. What was not clearly understood through much of the post-WWII period, was that Russia too was throughout concerned about their eastern menace, unsurprising now when one considers Russia’s vulnerability in the vast area of Siberia –about 1/3d of the world’s landmass. There the federated Russian population is about 30 million, whilst to the south of the then 4000 miles of frontier with China, there were a billion plus Chinese, with many in bulging northern China looking to expand their living space. That uncomfortable fact is considered by some to be the primary reason the Soviets found it so urgent in the late 1940’s to develop their own nuclear force, rather than to counter the US nuclear weapon - although they clearly wanted that too.

There was also the knowledge, and national guilt perhaps, that in the 19th century, some 400,000 sq miles of Siberia, formerly Chinese, had been seized by Tsarist Russia, forcing a weak imperial China to cede it to them in one of the infamous ‘unequal treaties’ that Peking was forced into signing. Payback (amicable enough) for such as these, has already taken place with Portugal over Macao; and the UK because of Hong Kong; but the Tsar’s bullying of Peking to acquire territory in the 19thC remains an historical fact, not on any international agenda (unless the PRC wants to put it there). Yet there is no obvious rancour of the kind that leads to war.

Russia with its near-abroad is, to say the least, on reasonable terms with many of the former SSR’s but as we saw in Georgia, given cause as Tbilisi foolishly did, could bring down a substantial military machine on any cocky former colony.

Russia with its vast nuclear arsenal must be proof against invasion, so a China-Russia military conflict must be at the outer reaches of possibility. But what of China’s apparent need to be recognised by its Asian neighbours as THE regional power, as once Japan was so regarded? Does that equate with imperialism, modern-style? Already Vietnam is nervous, as are several small South East Asian states about China’s attitude to the South China Sea. Vietnam, as our reports indicate, must be one of the most spiky nations on earth, so that is a potential area of conflict. As is the perpetual facing off of North and South Korea, in East Asia. Any reader of our monthly North Korea reports can see that uncertainty has long been a key factor in North Korea. Even China, the nearest thing they have to a superpower patron, appears to be unable to control them.

Insofar as one can speculate about where conflict might occur, it would seem to be as it is now in North Africa and the Middle-East, where leaving aside civil wars or uprisings against tyranny, there is always the additional danger of wars of religion, six hundred years after those in Europe, but here between different Moslem sects, the Shia championed by Iran, and the Sunni whose patron is Saudi Arabia, and who are the majority in many Islamic states. Iran is a further complication in that Israel, in many ways an American satellite, is perhaps in terms, not of manpower but firepower, the most powerful nation militarily in the middle-east. The only rivals to them are Turkey which has shown minimal belligerence towards them or its neighbours (whilst their relationship with Israel is currently at a low ebb). Then there is Iran, a well armed large nation with a substantial army, which being the champion of Shi’ism is the patron of religious affiliates throughout the Moslem world. Israel and Iran are mutually hostile. Israel however has a nuclear armoury whilst Iran presently has not, but is believed (they deny it), to be working towards that goal.

In South Asia, both India and Pakistan that have already fought three wars since achieving independence, have both now joined the nuclear weapons ‘club’. There is quite a degree of hostility but it is ‘nuclear checkmate,’ so conflict through occasional skirmishes should logically mark the limit, but this is to assume that the current weak, indeed failing government in Pakistan, does not get taken over by Islamic fanatics. They are certainly about in Pakistan in substantial numbers. If ever they got control (if Pakistan’s army allowed it), of the nuclear arsenal, then all bets are off about continuing peace in the sub-continent.

It is predictable that if at some future time, Israel and/or the US decided to ‘take out’ Iran’s nuclear capacity, that as in the case of Iraq, most of the rest of the Nato world might decline to join in. It is so grotesque that Israel has built up a formidable nuclear arsenal, yet the US pretend not to know this, when the thrust of their complaint against Iran is that the Iranians might be trying to get some of their own.

So the world, whilst it could not be said to be at peace, actually is at peace in the great majority of nations. But there are inevitably criminal states, many dictatorships- central Asia is outstanding in this; many incipient freedom struggles, particularly in Africa, where democracy has made only small inroads. Our companion publication “World Audit” finds that out of forty five members of the African Union with populations exceeding one million, only two nations, Mauritius and Ghana, currently qualify as democratic, in terms of human rights, political rights, state corruption and freedom of the media. Eight more can be said to be progressing in the right direction, but thirty five of the forty five are categorised as ‘Division 4’ (not even close to being democratic).

Assuming that Africa is marginally more likely to see strife than other parts of the world, there could be a moral as well as a political problem in joining in on one side or the other, in what could well be the attempted overthrow of what in the west we would regard as an undemocratic government. There is no “one size fits all” solution to such a situation, particularly as there is the further problem of major powers and client states, but any UN use of Nato as suggested here, should not precede the African Union itself in dealing with intervention, as they do to some extent already. It would certainly need the checks and balances of the UN Security Council, to get that difficult equation right.

Nato has been brilliantly successful defensively, in over forty cold war years in maintaining the peace in Europe. In the wake of the cold war they were indispensable in the former Yugoslavia in preventing ethnic cleansing, which could only have been worse without them. Their long haul in Afghanistan has been hard and unrewarding, but the profession of arms is often like that. It has been described as an honourable profession and subject as it is to democratic governance, many would so regard it.

They have established themselves as an efficient military machine in those terms. They are subject to democratic forms as to their performance. It is as well for the world that they are there, to do a necessary job that no one else can do, as they showed for example in dealing with brigandage in the Balkans. So this question as to where the Nato alliance is going, concludes in seeking to promote the concept that they take on, with all the checks and balances of the United Nations, the essential role of being the policing arm of the UN, when military intervention is seen as the essential, or sometimes the only way forward.