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NATO AFTER ENLARGEMENT

Council on Christian Approaches to Defence and Disarmament

20th March 2003

Dr Paul Cornish

Director, Centre for Defence Studies, King’s College, London

020 7848 1433/paul.cornish@kcl.ac.uk

 

Introduction: ‘NATO after Iraq’?

On 10th September 2001, it was still common, if somewhat unimaginative, to speak of ‘the post-Cold War world’. This has been replaced by ‘the post-11th September world’, and it remains to be seen how long the new shorthand will remain the point of departure for analysis of international security and defence. As far as NATO and the EU are concerned (and even, of course, the UN Security Council), we now have another watershed in the making: the Iraq conflict. How will these organisations be reconstructed after the hugely divisive Iraq conflict, and how will they interrelate? It is far too early to say whether and when these divisions will be bridged, and impossible therefore to predict how post-enlargement NATO will develop over the next 6 or 12 months. Consequently, the best use for this paper is to establish benchmarks, to review the evolution of NATO and the European Union, and the relationship between them, during 2002. My intention, in other words, is to show what could be at stake, in terms of European security institutions, if the current disagreements over Iraq are not resolved.

 

US-European relations

The year did not begin well for the transatlantic security relationship. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President George Bush broadened the US campaign against al Qaeda and international terrorism into an assault on the ‘axis of evil’ – terrorist-sponsoring and weapon-proliferating states such as Iran, Iraq and North Korea. For many critics in Europe, Bush’s language was exaggerated, simplistic and inflammatory, and was condemned as pandering to a domestic political agenda, which was at best uninformed and at worst xenophobic. European critics saw the US administration becoming increasingly unilateralist, in its policies on the Kyoto protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and in its backing for Israel, as well as alarmingly hegemonic, in its calls for ‘regime change’ in Iraq. On the other hand, there were those in the Bush administration who were losing patience with, and interest in the United States’ European allies. Seen from Washington, European allies steadfastly refused to commit more resources to defence to keep pace with the US effort – the $48 billion increase in US defence spending dwarfed any European defence budget – and remained inward-looking and obsessed with the fine detail of institutional arrangements in Brussels.

 

North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

In spite, or perhaps because of US-European tensions and disagreements, NATO set out in 2002 to meet its Secretary General George Robertson’s challenge of ‘modernisation or marginalisation’. NATO’s ‘transformation’ agenda would touch upon all aspects of the Alliance: its membership; its relations with Russia; its functional and geographical role and competences; and its operational capabilities.

 

Having decided in 1999 that its next enlargement would be decided no later than 2002, NATO found itself with a shortlist of ten applicants, the so-called ‘Vilnius Group’ of Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. All ten had participated in NATO’s five-part Membership Action Plan, designed after the 1999 enlargement both to correct the impression that the ‘open door’ had slammed shut, and to assist new candidates in their pre-accession preparatory work. But some candidates were always far more likely than others to gain admission. And so the challenge to NATO – as it had been in 1997-99 – was to select the candidates it really wanted, or needed, without discouraging the failures and without showing Article 10 of NATO’s Washington Treaty to be hollow rhetoric.

 

The altered international security environment gave the application and selection process some sense of purpose. Familiar questions could be revisited and discussed more candidly. Why did the candidates want NATO membership? Fear of Russian aggression now seemed exaggerated. Wishing to join the western ‘club’ of nations was flattering, but hardly urgent, and in any case the European Union could probably offer better accommodation. The clever candidates exploited the chink in NATO’s armour; the general presumption was for enlargement, so it was more a problem for NATO to rationalise rejection, than for the candidates to prove their case for admission. What, then, could each of the candidates bring to NATO’s pool of military capability? Some, such as the three Baltic republics, could bring very little, but what they had was NATO- and intervention-oriented (having built their national forces from scratch). Others, such as Bulgaria and Romania, brought very large armed forces still undergoing post-Cold War restructuring, and certainly too much for NATO to digest in their current form. Slovakia had similar problems militarily, but was generally more affluent and economically stable than Bulgaria and Romania. Slovenia, with its small armed forces, could present few problems if admitted. Albania was still considered politically eccentric and an economic liability, and Croatia and Macedonia geopolitically too unpredictable.

 

The ‘9/11’ attacks and their aftermath generated a new criterion for selection; what could the applicants bring to NATO’s support for the United States in the ‘war against terrorism’? In this respect, Bulgaria and Romania became beneficiaries of the September 2001 crisis. Admission of these two could give NATO a coherent and geostrategically significant ‘southern dimension’, connecting Hungary through the Balkans to Greece and Turkey. Not often in agreement on matters of national and regional security, Greece and Turkey shared the view that Bulgaria and Romania should be admitted. Seizing the moment, and exploiting the high level of public support for NATO membership, Romania was energetic in making its military infrastructure useful: two military airports were made available for transit use by friendly foreign expeditionary forces; and the Black Sea port of Constanta was made available as a staging point for US troops en route to operations in Kosovo.

 

All was decided at NATO’s November summit meeting in Prague. Albania, Croatia and Macedonia were turned down, remaining among the dozen or so European countries outside NATO. But the other seven candidates – the three Baltic republics (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania); Slovakia and Slovenia (the ‘Slo-Slo Duo’); Bulgaria and Romania – were all invited to join, in the Alliance’s biggest ever single enlargement. Only a few years earlier, the accession of several of these countries would have been unthinkable. But for many commentators, the real significance of the latest enlargement was the effect it would have on the functioning of the Alliance. By May 2004, when the current accession process is expected to be complete, NATO’s membership will stand at 26, with several applications pending. In political, bureaucratic and military terms, could a NATO of 26 members really be efficient and effective? And might enlargement simply exacerbate long-standing and unresolved tensions within NATO? For example, would enlargement make it more or less likely that European NATO members – however many – could keep pace with their US ally in defence spending and military capability? Would the purpose of NATO be made any clearer by enlargement? Several new members viewed NATO in unreconstructed Cold War terms, as a guarantee of collective self-defence, perhaps against a resurgent Russia. But given NATO’s improving relations with Russia, some observers found this line of thinking anachronistic, arguing instead that the new NATO could only be rationalised politically, rather than militarily. For them, enlargement was a sufficient demonstration of NATO’s vitality, as a union of free-market democracies observing the rule of international law and enjoying peaceful relations with each other. Other commentators tried to occupy the middle ground, seeing in NATO a loosely co-operative political union, but with the capacity for decisive military action when required. That enlargement proceeded without these questions being answered, or indeed even addressed meaningfully, prompted speculation as to why the process had been so straightforward. In short, was the Prague enlargement really testimony to NATO’s vitality and relevance, or proof that it no longer mattered much? For some, a decisive shift in the international security landscape had taken place. A new relationship now operated between the US and Russia, one that was no longer fixated on Europe, and one in which NATO could no longer play a leading role. By this argument, the United States had progressively been losing faith in its European allies as collective military partners, and was now willing to see NATO slip into military obsolescence.

 

The improved relationship with Russia was high on NATO’s transformation agenda during 2002. In large part a reward to Russia’s President Putin for his support of the Bush administration’s military operations in Afghanistan and the broader campaign against terrorism, the long-awaited NATO-Russia Council was inaugurated in May at the NATO foreign ministers meeting in Reykjavik. Superseding the flaccid 1997 Permanent Joint Council, the new body offered Russia an executive, rather than merely consultative role in NATO’s deliberations, and was described by Robertson as ‘historic and even revolutionary’. Although not a member of the Alliance, and therefore not in a position to influence NATO’s core business – its Article 5 mutual defence pact – Russia would henceforth be involved in the development of joint policy in many areas, including counter-terrorism, arms control and non-proliferation, missile defence, crisis management and peacekeeping, and search and rescue operations.

 

As well as the high politics of enlargement, and the complex diplomatic relationship with Russia, the definition of a clear strategic mission, with the operational capabilities to match, was a major preoccupation for NATO in 2002. NATO had been sidelined by the United States in Afghanistan, largely because the Alliance did not have sufficient medium-scale, integrated and deployable forces available at short notice. At Prague, NATO’s leaders responded by establishing a new NATO Response Force (NRF). Following George Bush’s visit to Europe in May 2002, when he spoke of the case for NATO to have a central role in the ‘war against terrorism’, NATO also began to examine and improve its capacity for counter-terrorism. And late in the year, the US Administration’s request to NATO for help in the event of military operations against Iraq, seemed finally to lay the ghost of the US lack of interest in NATO in the days immediately following 11th September 2001. The Prague summit also, finally, gave a boost to the ambitious and by now flagging NATO Defence Capabilities Initiative launched in 1999. At Prague it was agreed to focus on fewer, but strategically critical capabilities: defence against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear attack; superiority in command, control, communications and intelligence; and improvements in the interoperability, deployability and sustainment of combat forces.

 

European Security and Defence Policy

For the European Union, 2002 was an opportunity to develop the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). The 1999 Helsinki European Council had agreed to establish an ESDP bureaucratic infrastructure in Brussels, and to work towards the goal of a 60,000 troop deployable force by the end of 2003. This ‘European Rapid Reaction Force’ would be expected to conduct, simultaneously, a ‘heavy’ operation such as the prevention of a conflict or the separation of belligerent forces, and a ‘light’ operation such as the evacuation in a crisis of an embassy’s civilian staff. An extraordinary meeting of the European Council on 21st September 2001 had also sought to involve the EU in the global fight against terrorism, although it remained unclear late into 2002 as to how best the EU should contribute.

 

In order for the EU force to be effective in any situation – ‘heavy’, ‘light’, or counter-terrorism – it had long been recognised that deficiencies in critical military equipments would have to be addressed: suppression of enemy air defences; precision-guided weapons; un-manned aerial vehicles; reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance and target acquisition; combat search and rescue; air-to-air refuelling; and strategic transport. These equipment deficiencies were all too familiar, most of them having been identified in NATO’s Defence Capabilities Initiative, and subsequently at the Helsinki European Council. In an effort to invigorate the development of these key capabilities, the EU established its own initiative – the European Capabilities Action Plan (ECAP) – in late 2001. Rather than produce an ambitious and overwhelming list of capability deficiencies, ECAP took a more subtle approach; seeking to identify ‘bottom-up’, multinational projects which had a reasonable prospect of being delivered. ECAP development panels were established, but for some sceptics the initiative made too little progress during 2002.

 

As well as capabilities, another scarce commodity was practical experience of crisis management and decision-making. Addressing this deficiency, the EU organised its first crisis management exercise in May 2002, testing political-military structures and procedures at an early stage of a crisis. Another important step was taken at the Seville European Council in June, when it was agreed that the EU’s first crisis management operation would begin in January 2003, in the form of the deployment of a 500-strong EU Police Mission to Bosnia. It was ironic that after so much ambitious talk of a large and deployable military capability, the EU’s first mission would be a small policing operation. Furthermore, from NATO’s perspective it was feared that whatever the political significance for the EU, in practical terms the EU mission would be less helpful than it appeared; the 500-strong EU contingent would replace the 1,500-strong International Police Task Force in Bosnia, thereby increasing the workload for NATO’s military forces in Bosnia.

 

The EU’s lack of practical experience was felt most keenly in the deployment of military forces on peace support and conflict prevention operations. According to the Helsinki timetable, the European Rapid Reaction Force would become progressively more capable and deployable, reaching its full operational capability by the end of 2003. But late in 2001, a controversial analysis by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office suggested that it might be another decade before the ERRF was ready for peacekeeping and similar operations. In March, leaked documents emphasised the UK’s scepticism regarding the capacity of the EU to undertake a major military operation. Undaunted, the March 2002 Barcelona European Council insisted that the EU was indeed ready to take over from NATO’s 700-strong ‘Task Force Fox’ in Macedonia, when that commitment concluded in October 2002. It was acknowledged, however, that the EU operation could not take place without agreement with NATO on sharing military and planning assets. Within months, EU planning for the Macedonia commitment (to be renamed ‘Operation Allied Harmony’) was blocked by a dispute between Greece and Turkey over EU access to NATO equipment and planning procedures. This long-standing disagreement appeared to have been resolved in December 2001, when the so-called ‘Ankara text’ – worked out between Turkey, the United States and the United Kingdom – made concessions to Turkey in return for its endorsement of the December 2000 Nice provisions giving EU the access it needed to NATO planning and military assets. But when Greece assumed the European Council Presidency for ESDP matters in July 2002, it objected to what it saw as Turkish oversight on EU operations. Although some commentators despaired of resolving the disagreement while Greece held the presidency, the dispute was finally settled in mid-December 2002 with the long-awaited ‘Berlin-Plus’ arrangement, hailed by George Robertson as the completion of the ‘great jigsaw’ of European defence. ‘Berlin-Plus’ gave the EU ‘assured access’ to NATO planning capabilities, and provided for NATO support to EU-led operations in which the Atlantic Alliance as a whole was not engaged militarily.

 

The scarcity of deployable military capability in Europe severely limited the practical capacity of ESDP, encouraging the argument that the best prospects for the EU project lay in areas of so-called ‘soft security’ such as post-conflict judicial reconstruction, policing and general conflict prevention. Hence, settlement of the ‘Berlin-Plus’ arrangement was an extremely significant milestone in the development of the ESDP; without a close, practical relationship with NATO, the Helsinki project could never amount to much. Other achievements in 2002 included the first ever, formal meeting of EU defence ministers on 13th May, and broad agreement on the financing of EU missions. With all these agreements, 2002 was undoubtedly a good year for ESDP. It was all the more surprising, therefore, to see old divisions re-emerge in the course of the year. The UK had long resisted the idea of ‘reinforced co-operation’ in the context of ESDP, arguing that NATO was the most suitable organisation for military responses to armed attacks or threats against a member state. When the Spanish government and others argued that the ERRF should be directed explicitly at counter-terrorism, the UK and some Nordic countries extended the earlier argument, claiming that such operations would best be undertaken by NATO. Conflicting expectations of the ESDP were exposed most clearly in the last weeks of the year. A report by the defence working group of the Convention on the Future of Europe discussed, inter alia, the establishment of a joint military college, the expansion of the EU’s operational agenda to include combating terrorism, the creation of a new defence industrial co-operation organisation, and even the inclusion of something close to a collective defence clause in the 2004 revision of the EU treaty. The last two proposals, in particular, were anathema to the British government, which argued again that defence industrial and procurement matters should not come under EU legal jurisdiction, and was adamant that defence guarantees should remain the preserve of NATO, which was the only organisation able to meet such guarantees.

 

Prospects by end 2002/early 2003

After many years of often rather circular argument there were encouraging signs in 2002 that the United States and its European allies had at last found a way both to promote NATO’s transformation and to encourage the development of the EU’s ESDP. For over a decade, the contest between the main European security and defence organisations had been a self-fuelling combustion process, with increasingly hot exhaust driving increasingly extravagant ambitions, none of which were met in practice. In 2002 however, both organisations showed the potential to respond organisationally and operationally to the evolving international security agenda. The most optimistic assessment of the events of 2002 – and even as late as mid-March 2003 – was that these two ambitious projects were at last developing in tandem, enabling the US-European security relationship better to confront the threats and challenges of ‘the post-11th September world’. But the spat over the scope of the European Convention warned of underlying disagreements which might require resolution before substantial progress could be made in either organisation. And so far, neither ‘new NATO’ nor the ESDP had yet been tested politically or militarily.