NATO’s Gambit

20 November 2010


What’s an obsolete geopolitical entity to do?

The struggle for continuing relevance in a post-NATO world

As the NATO summit began in Lisbon, the BBC asked its readers “Is Nato still relevant?” The nature of the question, like many such questions floated in the mass media, was calculated for readers to express their distaste for the treaty organization. Many did so; many also defended NATO.

NATO is faced with a classic dilemma of what I have called historical viability. The original rationale for NATO — a treaty organization conceived and implemented for the purpose to addressing the threat posed by the Soviet Union and, more generally, the Warsaw Pact — no longer exists. For NATO to retain its historical viability in the wake of the absence of its raison d’être will require NATO to change. If NATO is an intelligent institution, will be able to make these changes; if it is not an intelligent institution, it will ultimately join the Warsaw Pact in oblivion.

The nation-states of the Warsaw Pact once comprised an enormous geographical area, most of which was the Soviet Union; now it is no more.

If, in accordance with what I call the principle of historical viability, namely, that, “an x fails when it fails to change as the world changes,” and its implied corollary that, “an x succeeds (better: demonstrates historical viability) when it changes as the world changes,” then NATO must change as the world changes. These changes may ultimately be profound and radical, such that in the long term future NATO becomes a political entity that is unrecognizable from the point of view of what it once was.

The NATO summit participants boiled down their strategic “concept” into a remarkably concise 11-page document, “Strategic Concept For the Defence and Security of The Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.” This document is broken down into bullet points under the headings of Core Tasks and Principles, The Security Environment, Defense and Deterrence, Security through Crisis Management, Promoting International Security through Cooperation, Open Door, Partnerships, Reform and Transformation, and, lastly, An Alliance for the 21st Century.

NATO has always been a strategically focused supra-national political entity, and the new initiative envisioned for NATO at the Lisbon summit is a sweeping strategic initiative of enormous proportions, though it appears in the “strategic concept” document as a single diminutive bullet point. Item 19 of the document reads as follows:

19. We will ensure that NATO has the full range of capabilities necessary to deter and defend against any threat to the safety and security of our populations. Therefore, we will:

And among the bullet points following, the sixth item down reads as follows:

develop the capability to defend our populations and territories against ballistic missile attack as a core element of our collective defence, which contributes to the indivisible security of the Alliance. We will actively seek cooperation on missile defence with Russia and other Euro-Atlantic partners;

A NATO-wide ballistic missile defense system would be an undertaking of enormous financial and technological proportions. It would be difficult to overstate the amount of money and technological expertise that would be absorbed by such an enterprise. And to have Russia participate in this undertaking would make it all the larger, apart from any troubling issues in regard to sharing the most advanced military technology that can be produced by the most advanced industrialized economies on the planet.

Whether such a system would work is mostly beside the point; if properly pursued, the economic and technological boost to involved economies would be significant. I don’t think that the system, once built, would be any more effective than the Maginot Line. If ballistic missiles can be shot down with any degree of reliability, then rogue regimes pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and intent upon their use, would use any means of delivery other than ballistic missiles. Given our experience on 11 September 2001 of the exaptation of commercial aircraft for military purposes, we need to take the unexpected — also known as strategic shocks — seriously. The order of magnitude of the surprise of 11 September 2001 is what we should expect. It would be simple-minded to expect something as unimaginative, and as relatively easy to counter, as a ballistic missile.

NATO’s strategic concept document is, at present, a mere “scrap of paper,” and the provision for strategic anti-ballistic missile (ABM) deterrence a mere bullet point written on this scrap of paper. For anything to come of it, member nation-states would need to get together and agree on at least the initial details of implementation, and they would need to budget for the initial stages of research and development. Moreover, once there emerges an elusive consensus among member states that R&D into the ABM system has reached a level of maturity that an actual ABM can be built, member nation-states will need to budget further funds for its construction.

In the present political climate of budget austerity, it would be much easier simply to do nothing at this point, and, as King Lear rightly said, nothing will come of nothing. However, the economies of NATO member states will eventually grow again, and funds will be available for projects such as ABM strategic deterrence if the political will is present to put this expensive and long-term project into practice. In the long term it would have substantial benefits regardless of its efficacy; in the short term it would be difficult to kick start because it is always easier to do nothing than to do something. Without some kind of external stimulus (like the Cold War stimulus to the development of military technologies), it seems unlikely that the political will to move forward with an international ABM system will overcome political inertia. Whether or not a strategic stimulus will appear must remain a known unknown for the time being.

NATO is a victim of its own success. The mission it was created to counter no longer exists because the Warsaw Pact no longer exists, and with the passing of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, a large-scale war in Western Europe taking the form of a massive armored penetration from east to west is widely understood to be unlikely. Since NATO was an institution constituted for a specific purpose and that specific purpose no longer exists, NATO is a strategic entity with no strategic purpose — in other words, its lacks its raison d’être.

We need new strategic institutions to manage current and future strategic threats — we need a clean slate. NATO should be gracefully retired (maybe with some kind of spectacular ceremony that gives closure to those who have invested their lives in the institution — but this should have been done in 1991 or thereabouts) and the Western powers should begin experimenting with novel strategic institutions in place of a retired NATO — institutions not tied to a particular history, a particular way of seeing the world, and a particular mission.

The decommissioning of NATO is unlikely to happen. This is partly due to the fact that once a bureaucracy is created, it is almost impossible to eliminate. Vested interests keep institutions in existence long after they have ceased to be viable. But this isn’t the only reason. I think that many people feel a quite genuine sentiment — an institutional patriotism, if you will — for institutions that have figured prominently in their lives. To put it bluntly, many people would be literally sad to see NATO go, feelings would be hurt (especially among those who have devoted their entire careers to the institution), and so excuses are found to keep NATO afloat.

Because it is unlikely that serious money will be made available for a NATO-wide ABM system, and because it is unlikely that the best technology that would emerge from such an undertaking would be freely shared with Russia (as was explicitly stated as a part of this initiative, presumably so that Russia would not feel threatened by it, and therefore would oppose it), and because it is at least equally as unlikely that NATO will be formally decommissioned, the most likely scenario in the near term future will be for NATO to continue its non-mission as a military bureaucracy, spending its budget on grandiose plans for an ABM deterrence that will not be built, and, if it is built, will not be effective.

Thus even our strategic aims and ambitions, which one might falsely suppose would be subject to the most brutal utilitarian calculation (and are so subject in time of war), are shaped by sentiment, nostalgia, and feeling. Perhaps we can afford this at present; perhaps we are so safe, so secure, and so affluent that we can support an optional military bureaucracy in place of one with an authentic mission based on contemporary strategic imperatives, but we cannot count on the world remaining in this happy state for long.

Supra-national political entities — like NATO, the Warsaw Pact, The League of Nations, and the Hanseatic League — have a limited record of historical viability. Perhaps the longest lived of those examples I have given, the Hanseatic League, was influential for a few hundred years, from the high middle ages into the early modern period. The influence of the Hanseatic League is felt to this day, but as a political entity today it is a non-entity, known only to historians and antiquarians. (It is interesting to hear Jonathan Meades’ exposition of the Hanseatic League in his Magnetic North television series.)

If NATO can maintain its relevance and its historical viability by transforming itself into a transnational missile defense military-industrial complex, it would defy the record of history. While this is not impossible, it is also not likely.

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NATO nation-states disproportionately comprise the most advanced industrialized economies, and thus they possess a significant technological edge, but this technological edge is vitiated by the political conditions under which NATO wages war.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “NATO’s Gambit”

  1. I agree that NATO needs to change from the inside now that the Soviet Union is no longer. There needs to be restructuring and new purpose.

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