Features | Security | South Asia

Is the Global NATO Dream Over?

NATO has rightly resisted the temptation to press for a bigger global security role. Asian governments will likely be relieved.

Many Asian security analysts and policymakers will have breathed a deep sigh of relief over the weekend.

Heading into the NATO heads of state summit held this weekend in Lisbon, it had looked possible that the alliance would try to build on its Afghan precedent by pushing for a global security role that would have extended military activities into Asia and other areas outside the North Atlantic region.

The push to do so had been coming from the very top of the organization, with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen pressing Alliance leaders to expand their horizons beyond NATO’s traditional focus on the North Atlantic area. Since he took up the role last August, Rasmussen has frequently argued that NATO’s main security threats now emanate from global challenges—failed states, threats to international cyber networks, terrorists with global reach and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

And the Obama administration and other NATO governments were, for their part, open to this line of thinking. The US Ambassador to NATO Iva Daalder, for example, co-authored a prominent article in 2006 advocating that any democratic state, regardless of location, should be allowed to join NATO if it wanted to do so. Meanwhile, those responsible for updating NATO’s Strategic Concept—which defines the alliance’s purpose, nature and fundamental security tasks—also adopted this expanded approach. Indeed, the committee responsible for providing guidance for the new draft this weekend had already stressed the need for Allied leaders to take a global perspective regarding NATO’s security interests. Their May 2010 report, ‘NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement,’ called on the Alliance to become more versatile to counter novel dangers ‘from sources that are geographically and technologically diverse.’

Such talk has unsettled leaders of several Asian countries, especially Russia and China, who have expressed unease about NATO’s efforts to establish a major presence in their backyard. The Russian Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, captured the concerns of many when he warned that ‘Russia can’t be happy with NATO's transformation into a world policeman’ or ‘something like Orwell's Big Brother.’ 

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Political commentator Andrei Fedyashin chimed in that while the Alliance is seeking global partners to address common threats, ‘any potential partnership will clearly be tilted toward NATO leadership.’ He argued that talk of the Alliance asserting a global role was an attempt to keep NATO relevant despite the transformation of the European security environment since the end of the Cold War. Fedyashin also complained that the new non-traditional challenges NATO leaders were identifying as within their remit—ensuring energy security, preventing global warming and protecting natural resources—didn’t ‘sound like the objectives of a military alliance.’  

Unsurprisingly, Chinese commentators were equally unenthusiastic about NATO’s interest in expanding its non-European role. As far back as September 2006, an editorial in the semi-official People’s Daily decried alleged US plans to transform the Alliance into a ‘Global NATO’ by endowing it with a large rapid response force capable of worldwide operations. And, in an indirect expression of Chinese government concerns, the paper said the Alliance’s ‘interference in the affairs of major “hot spot” regions’—such as Afghanistan and Iraq—had already ‘drawn extensive concern of people worldwide.’

Although NATO-China relations have since improved, there’s still lingering Chinese distrust of potential NATO involvement in other countries in the region. This concern is evident over Afghanistan, where despite their public support for the Afghan government, Chinese leaders have sought to distance the country from NATO-led counterinsurgency campaigns, and have also refrained from endorsing any extended Western military presence in the region. Chinese commentators worry that NATO activities in Afghanistan, and efforts to deliver supplies to the Alliance’s military contingents through Chinese territory, are actually a tactic for containing and weakening China by inflaming tensions between their country and Islamist militants already riled by Beijing’s policies toward Chinese Muslims in Xinjiang.

The reality is that many Asian governments see the United Nations as uniquely capable of conferring legitimacy on collective military action and they oppose efforts by regional security organizations to try to displace the world body. Specifically, critics in Russia and China have indicated that they want to avoid any more episodes like the 1999 Kosovo War or the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when NATO countries waged war at their own discretion after failing to gain explicit Security Council authorization.

The moves made at the weekend, though, should meet such concerns. Although the formal declarations and concepts adopted reflect a global perspective, they make clear that the Alliance’s main activities beyond Europe and Afghanistan will consist largely of dialogue or, as in the special case of the Gulf of Aden, joint defensive measures with other security institutions under a UN mandate.

In addition, NATO explicitly acknowledged the unique role of the United Nations and stressed that the Alliance wants to partner with that and other international institutions rather than displace them. NATO’s New Strategic Concept, for instance, ‘offers our partners around the globe more political engagement with the Alliance, and a substantial role in shaping the NATO-led operations to which they contribute.’

This is sensible. Managing the Afghanistan conflict is a much better focus for the Alliance’s out-of-area activities than using NATO to try to resolve countless global security problems. NATO should concentrate on the important coordination role it’s playing among the many countries and institutions involved there and indeed it has already made a good start by partnering with more than a dozen non-NATO members including Asian powers such as Australia, Japan and South Korea through the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

This point was underscored by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who attended the Lisbon gathering, and stressed the importance of UN and NATO collaboration in tackling Afghan security problems.

‘I welcome the Lisbon Declaration and the NATO-Afghanistan Partnership Agreement,’ he said. ‘We are all united in wanting to help Afghanistan to become a self-sustaining state capable of ensuring the fundamental rights of its people and enabling them to fulfill their basic needs.’

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So far the great Asian powers that remain outside of both NATO and ISAF—Russia, China and India—have supported Alliance efforts to prevent the Taliban or al-Qaeda from re-establishing a major presence in Afghanistan. If NATO wants to build on this and ensure the coalition’s ultimate success it would be far better for it to work on practical ways for overcoming the integration problems that persist among institutional and national efforts, rather than looking to grand but distracting visions of being a global security body.