Will NATO Look East?
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Will NATO Look East?

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All eyes will be on Chicago this weekend, as the city hosts NATO’s annual summit – a meeting that will be attended by key world leaders including Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Hamid Karzai.

Although Afghanistan isn’t a NATO member, the organization’s interests there are obvious, and the country is set to top the agenda as the leaders of dozens of nations converge on Chicago, which is the first city in the United States outside Washington to host the summit.

The past year has seen the notable success of Muammar Gaddafi being removed from power, with NATO and its member countries managing to facilitate his overthrow without the loss of life of a single one of their serviceman (although questions have been raised this past week by Human Rights Watch about the deaths of civilians).

But a number of events the past several months have highlighted the big question NATO faces in the coming years – namely, can it stay relevant? With the United States indicating it’s shifting its focus more towards Asia, with China’s rise (and associated territorial spats in the South China Sea), North Korean belligerence and the continued downward spiral of Pakistan, an alliance essentially based around the notion of security and stability in Europe could look a little dated. Indeed, with the economic crisis there continuing this past week with Greece’s failure to form a coalition government, sparking renewed talk about the future of the euro, the gravest threat to Europe’s stability now appears to have economic, not military roots.

So, how can NATO remain relevant? A few ideas come with a roundup of analysis from the Council on Foreign Relations today.

Xenia Dormandy of Chatham House suggests that NATO needs to “move away from a position where in all its members need to contribute equally, and toward one that recognizes the competitive advantages of each and builds on these, and where external parties and their capabilities are embraced.”

Memduh Karakullukçu, vice chairman of the Global Relations Forum, suggests that NATO may have to expand its horizons to protecting the global commons, “the preemption of global threats, and the management of global calamities. This agenda will serve both internal cohesiveness and the nurturing of trust with non-members.”

This certainly addresses the point about the global security gaze shifting from Europe to Asia, but it’s also difficult to imagine a rising China taking kindly to NATO involving itself in ventures closer to its shores, whatever its intentions. Karakullukçu is right to note that the “difficulty is likely to arise in credibly signaling that NATO's intent is protecting the global commons rather than controlling the global commons.” But doing this will be much, much easier said than done.

Oded Eran, a researcher at the Institute of National Security Studies, has perhaps the most interesting take. It may not quite be an Asian NATO as UNESCO Peace Chair and Diplomat contributor Madhav Nalapat has outlined in the past, but Eran argues:

“There is a group of nations that is willing to cooperate and coordinate with NATO, as they all face similar threats and concerns. Among them are Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore, India, the Gulf Cooperation Council members, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and several states in central Asia and Latin America. NATO should become the security and defense agora for these nations in their search for new ideas, methods, and tools for their defense and for the implementation of actions mandated by the international community.”

This doesn’t, of course, resolve the China issue I mentioned. Indeed, if a country like Japan is involved, it risks exacerbating the problem. But it’s a reflection of the changing realities that NATO faces in reinventing itself for the rest of the century.

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