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The NATO Summit: The Day After

“An historic encounter; a turning point in the history of the organization” was how some of the NATO leaders assessed the summit in Lisbon (November 19-20, 2010). The focus of the summit was approval of the new strategic concept that will underlie the organization’s activities in the coming years. Other issues on the agenda were a plan of action for Afghanistan and relations with Russia. Like the other documents arrived at by consensus, the approved document embodies the broadest common denominator. Differences of opinion between the twenty-eight member states on all issues were not included in the document, yet these will continue to preoccupy the organization.

nato_flagThe approval of the “Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation” concluded two years of discussions intended to provide a rationale for the continued existence of the organization. The need for the document stemmed from the significant changes that have taken place on the international arena since the approval of the last strategic concept in 1999. There was a sense that the organization, in light of the new threats that have emerged, needed updated guidelines, and consequently also needed to acquire new capabilities, adjust its organizational and military structures, and create new partnerships to help tackle the new threats, some of which emerge far from the European continent.

After an introduction and itemization of the principles and tasks that form the basis for the Alliance’s activity (collective defense, crisis management, and collective security), the document details the new security environment stemming from the new threats that, unless tackled, are liable to harm and destabilize the continent. Although the conventional threat has not disappeared, the current primary threats are: the proliferation of ballistic missiles, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and their launch vehicles, terrorism (in combination with non-conventional capabilities), cyber attacks, and the security of main transport and transit routes for the provision of energy and raw materials.

Two primary means were emphasized in context of the organization’s planning for these threats – nuclear weapons and the establishment of an anti-ballistic missile defense system.

Side by side with lip-service to advancing the conditions for a non-nuclear world, the document states more than once that “as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world, NATO will remain a nuclear Alliance.” The Alliance’s nuclear deterrence relies on American capabilities, while the “independent” nuclear capabilities – those of Britain and France –contribute their share. Alongside the trend that has continued since the end of the Cold War to reduce tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe, the document makes clear that any further reductions will have to take into consideration the short range Russian nuclear weapons stockpiles that outnumber weapons on NATO soil. Herein were differences of opinion between Germany, Belgium, and Holland, which would prefer to accelerate the rate of Europe's nuclear disarmament, and France and Britain, which have no intention of contributing to nuclear weapons reductions any time soon. Moreover, the Baltic and central European states attribute importance to the continued American nuclear presence on the continent.

The decision to deploy anti-ballistic missile defense systems was presented as one of the important achievements of the summit. However, this stands in inverse ratio to the downplayed issue in the concluding document, which speaks of the need to develop the capability of defending populations and territories against ballistic missiles. The decision followed discussions highlighting the differences of opinion between NATO members given their different threat perceptions. Although it is clear that Iran fosters the urgency of the threat, Turkey's opposition precluded that Iran be mentioned by name. Its opposition on this point, as well as other difficulties Turkey raised on the way to approving the defense system, reflects its growing assertiveness.

Reservations of a different kind came from Germany, which sympathizes with Russia’s opposition to the deployment of the systems and would like to at the very least find a way to ease its concerns. President Medvedev’s agreeing to discuss the possibility of cooperation on the issue of anti-missile defense and to hold a joint threat assessment matches Germany’s interests.

The achievement of an agreement on a timetable and working plan for Afghanistan together with the Afghani president and the other nations contributing forces to military and civilian efforts there is considered a success. The conclusions are seen as anchoring decisions and understandings about starting the process of troop withdrawal (2011), which is set to end with the transfer of overall responsibility for the security of Afghanistan to the Afghani government and its security forces in 2014. More than it reflects current and future reality, this timetable expresses the growing opposition of the public in NATO countries to the continued military presence, which is taking a human and financial toll at a time of budgetary constraints. Outgoing NATO Secretary General Robertson declared that the future of NATO will be determined in Afghanistan. If that is the case, NATO is in for a rough haul.

The announcement at the end of the meeting between the Russian president and NATO member nations expresses a mutual desire to expand the dialogue, seen as a NATO strategic interest. This willingness should be viewed in the context of the American administration’s reset policy. Given that the current Russian president – unlike his predecessor, Putin – is seen as someone interested in strengthening his nation’s orientation towards the West, there is a desire among some NATO nations to help him in his struggle against large parts of the Russian military and civilian establishment, which see NATO as a threat. Despite the optimism and common interests (preventing the nuclearization of Iran and stabilizing Afghanistan), it is impossible to ignore Russia’s conflict with NATO on a string of fundamental issues (the deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system, eastwards expansion, the organization’s opposition to a new security architecture for the continent that is liable to render NATO redundant) that will likely not be solved soon.

The Mediterranean dialogue (begun in 1994, involving Israel and six Arab nations as partners) received cursory mention on the commitment to deepen the dialogue. A committee of experts, headed by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, noted merely that the progress in the dialogue was modest. The crisis in Israeli-Turkish relations will make it difficult to deepen and expand the fields of cooperation with the organization. The experts were much more explicit in their reference to the extreme violence in the Middle East, the Arab-Israeli conflict (including the willingness to assist with the implementation of any arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians, subject to the sides’ demands and Security Council approval), Iran’s policy on the nuclear question and on missiles, and Iran’s flouting of the Security Council resolutions as issues that affect the security of the Alliance.

Formulation of a new strategic concept document was a necessity, considering the dramatic events that have taken place on the international arena since the formulation of the previous one. Transformation and modernization are the key words in the organization’s attempt to adjust itself to changing circumstances. Nonetheless, the strategic document and the display of seeming harmony during the two-day summit are not enough to determine whether there is any justification for continuing to maintain the organization in its present format. The question is amplified by the organization’s lack of success in Afghanistan, the decreasing support of a public that does not see itself as threatened and prefers to invest its dwindling resources in socioeconomic welfare rather than in defense budgets, and the devaluation of NATO in the eyes of the United States as a tool to promote its influence at a time when it is shifting its primary focus to East and South Asia. Institutional coordination between NATO and the European Union as well as the development of European military capabilities that will make it easier for the United States to bear the brunt of the military burden in tackling various threats are likely to bolster those who argue that the organization should continue to exist.

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

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