Will Australia Embrace NATO?
Image Credit: European Commission

Will Australia Embrace NATO?


Brendan Nelson, Australian ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, the European Union and NATO, speaks with Daryl Morini about NATO’s Afghan mission and its future in the Asia-Pacific.


During NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s visit to Australia this month, Australia and the alliance released a joint political declaration. What does Australia expect, or hope to achieve, through its new partnership with NATO?

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Historically, we built our foreign policy after World War II – our alliance with the United States, our foundational membership of the United Nations and a very slow, at first, ambivalent engagement with East Asia. But, having said that, we had really nothing to do with NATO.

In fact, in 2006, when I was defense minister, I actually said to the chief of defense that perhaps we should come to Brussels and talk to NATO. I remember I met SACEUR, a number of the military officials at SHAPE [Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe]. When I went back to Australia, I recommended to our government that we should become a contact country with NATO.

By 2008, we were becoming extremely angry with NATO. We had more troops in Afghanistan than more than half of the NATO members. We had skin in the game. We were in the south. NATO was making decisions about what we would do. They would tell us what those decisions were.

And then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was excluded from a leaders’ summit meeting, which made us extremely angry. When I spoke to the partners’ conference in Oberammergau, in January 2011, I said that we were very frustrated with NATO. In fact, it was one of the reasons why Rudd, as prime minister, asked me if I would consider taking this diplomatic posting. He said, perhaps the most diplomatic way I can put it, is that I should do whatever I can to open the doors at NATO.

So, in terms of this high-level political declaration, in 2010, when the Strategic Concept was being shaped at NATO, I recommended to our government that we should seek a long-term relationship with NATO that would take us well beyond Afghanistan.

How long is the Australian government willing to stay in Afghanistan?

We are committed to being in Afghanistan at least until the end of this decade, in one form or another. To do otherwise would do a great injustice to those Australian soldiers who have lost their lives, and their families, and those who have been wounded. It would also send exactly the wrong messages to the Afghans themselves, to the neighbors, particularly Pakistan. It’s also important that insurgents and the Taliban understand that there’s a long-term commitment. For us, we are committed to this.

Do you consider Libya to have been a successful example of the Responsibility to Protect in action?

I certainly do, and I think Gareth Evans deserves a lot of credit for the work he put into intellectually developing the concept of R2P, and then working tirelessly to see that it was actually adopted as an international norm for intervention. But I think it was an excellent model. Anyone who doubts that…just has to look at the carcasses of those tanks on the road to Benghazi, only kilometers from the perimeter of the city. There’s no question that a massacre was averted by the NATO intervention, having the backing of a Security Council resolution to do so.

Today, the international community is facing two crises – one ongoing in Syria and the second, latent but not far behind, involving Iran and the threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. First, how much faith do you have in non-coercive attempts to prevent the Iranian dispute from escalating to the use of force?

We do have confidence in non-coercive approaches. Everything that possibly can be done, other than a military operation, must be done and should be done to dissuade the Iranian leadership from continuing in this nuclear enrichment program and the path towards having a nuclear weapon. Every single thing. And we do have confidence in all of those measures that we’re undertaking. 

Second, if it comes to the use of force, do you agree with Anthony Bubalo from the Lowy Institute that this would directly imply significant Australian interests, and would bring into question Australia’s potential commitments?

The only thing I would say about a military option is that it shouldn’t be taken off the table. The other thing to be said is that, yes, the Strait of Hormuz and Iran is a long way from Australia. But our interests are directly and indirectly affected by it. The world has a very big stake in a peaceful resolution of this.

Moving closer to home, how relevant would you say that NATO is to Australia’s own sense of security and perception thereof in the Asia-Pacific?

I think it’s relatively early days, as far as NATO turning its attention to the Asia-Pacific. The first thing I would emphasize is that we aren’t expecting at any stage in the future that NATO is going to be doing some kind of operation in the Asia-Pacific. That’s not what this is about.

What we have said to NATO is that the currents of political and economic power, that have been shifting for the last fifteen to twenty years, have been rapidly accelerated by the global financial crisis. We are moving increasingly to a multipolar world. So Europe itself, and the alliance, must have an interest in what is happening.

From NATO’s perspective, its biggest and most important member, the United States – which provides at least three-quarters of NATO’s funding – has nominated the Asia-Pacific as its number one priority for this century, and already has announced removing two brigade combat teams from Europe and changing its disposition in the Asia-Pacific and increasing its presence, which we very much welcome. What I’ve said to the NATO leadership is:

“What NATO cannot afford, for example, is that some kind of issue emerges in the Asia-Pacific – and I don’t want to nominate any particular issue, but we have got well known issues such as the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Strait – if the U.S. suddenly finds itself having to be very actively interested in an issue in the region, that will have consequences for the alliance. If disputes escalate and are not adequately resolved, in some of the maritime approaches within the region, that will have consequences for Europe and, indeed, Euro-Atlantic security.”

As I said, from our point of view, it’s not that we want nor expect that NATO will be doing any kind of operation in the region. Whatever happens in the future, and we don’t know what the future will hold, it’s in our interest to see that NATO has an understanding of our region and the emergent and potentially emergent threats to its security.

Have you met any resistance in Brussels to the U.S. pivot to Asia and the idea of NATO focusing on Asia?

Yes, there are some countries in the alliance that are, shall I say, not enthusiastic about it. But, generally speaking, there’s a recognition that this needs to be done. One of the consequences of the financial crisis, and one of the risks, is that Europe is more introspective than it traditionally has been.

On the U.S.-China relationship, there’s a strong cautiously pessimistic current in Australian strategic thinking. Do you follow the thinking of Professor Hugh White, or perhaps Kevin Rudd, and their concerns over Australia’s difficult strategic choices in the future?

Whether it be a very small country, like Nauru, or a very large country, like China, the United States, India – it doesn’t matter where you are in terms of size and affluence – one of the most important things is that we all live in a rules-based world. We get into trouble when countries don’t comply with rules of one sort or another. Having a rules-based order that is understood and respected by the international community is extremely important. And so, too, is it in our region.

Did you read the public statement, when Barack Obama visited Australia, from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suggesting that countries in the region ought to be careful about their strategic choices in a time of economic uncertainty and recovery? Do you see economic inter-dependence as potentially being a tool of coercion, or at least pressure in the region?

No, I don’t. I understand why some would be tempted to think that. But the more interdependent, say, China becomes with the rest of the world, the less likely it is that some of those things will be happen – an economic lever pulled here in order to achieve a diplomatic outcome there. The thing we need most is one another. I appreciate the statement; I saw it myself. But I don’t think it will change what we are doing.

Daryl Morini is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, specializing in preventive diplomacy. He is also Deputy Editor of e-International Relations at

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