WASHINGTON, DC – What should an alliance do when its leading member and dominant pillar decides to shift its focus to the other side of the world? NATO leaders have been grappling with this question since US President Barack Obama’s announcement of his administration’s “pivot” to Asia last year compelled them to examine the Alliance’s global role.
NATO leaders have examined their approach to managing relations with countries, such as China and Russia, that still view NATO as a potential threat rather than as a genuine partner. And they have had to consider whether to engage in more missions beyond the North Atlantic, like that in Afghanistan, where 22 countries – including El Salvador, Malaysia, Mongolia, Singapore, and Tonga – have deployed forces under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
Since NATO’s summit in Chicago in May, its leaders have worked to make clear that the Alliance’s global security role extends beyond Afghanistan. They have reaffirmed the importance of collective defense, which underpins their ability to tackle security challenges – even in times of economic austerity – in regions outside the North Atlantic, most visibly in Africa (Libya and the Gulf of Aden).
In fact, last year, more than 150,000 NATO-controlled troops were engaged in six operations on three continents. And most of the new capabilities that NATO is acquiring are aimed at bolstering its expeditionary capabilities, rather than traditional conventional defenses.
Advocates for expanding the Alliance’s extra-regional activities stress that, while NATO is a regional alliance, it faces global threats that can be countered only by broad international cooperation. They hope to circumvent resistance to this expanding role by developing a flexible portfolio of international partners and not asserting dominance outside the North Atlantic region.
NATO is, in a way, going global, as it forges partnerships with countries as distant as Japan and Australia to engage in security activities in places as remote as Central Asia, Africa, and the Arctic. These new partnerships benefit both sides: partners make concrete, valuable contributions to the Alliance’s success, while NATO improves their security.
Despite some setbacks, NATO’s extra-regional campaigns can serve as convincing evidence that the Alliance is the only multinational security institution capable of conducting sustained, high-intensity combat operations worldwide. In Libya and the Gulf of Aden, the Alliance pooled members’ military assets and contributions from other partners. The participation of troops from Australia, South Korea, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco, among others, and the leading role of the United Nations and the Arab League in legitimizing these campaigns, demonstrated NATO’s emerging role as the hub of a global network of partnerships.
Since taking office in August 2009, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has embraced this role, arguing tirelessly that the Alliance’s key security threats stem from global challenges: failed states in developing regions, international cyber-crime, terrorist networks, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, maritime piracy, energy-supply disruptions, and climate change. Accordingly, NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted at the November 2010 Lisbon summit, calls on the Alliance to become more versatile in order to counter novel threats from geographically and technologically diverse sources.
United States officials have embraced Rasmussen’s vision, citing his logic in explaining their Asia pivot. By countering global security threats that emanate from Asia, they are protecting their North Atlantic allies.
This development has caused observers, particularly outside Europe, to speculate about the nature of future cooperation with NATO. Will the Alliance assume a leading role in collective security missions, as in Afghanistan? Will it cooperate in equal partnerships, as it has in efforts to combat Somali pirates? Or will it be prepared to perform a supporting role, as with its logistical support for the Africa Union and the Iraqi Security Forces?
Moreover, this “global NATO” has raised concerns among great powers. While NATO may count India or Brazil among its future partners, China and Russia remain concerned that the Alliance might pursue a global containment strategy against them, or seek to displace the UN as the leading global security institution.
NATO leaders responded to some of these concerns at the Chicago summit. They gave assurances that, while NATO has adopted a global approach to security, its main activities outside Europe and Afghanistan will primarily comprise dialogue with partners or, in special cases, joint defensive measures with other security institutions under a UN mandate, such as in the Gulf of Aden. NATO has explicitly acknowledged the UN’s unique role in global security and stresses its aim to collaborate with, not displace, it.
NATO cooperation with external partners might extend to issues such as managing climate change and promoting security in the Arctic and in cyberspace. The Alliance could also offer to new partners some of the tools for security-sector reform that it has applied in former Soviet countries and, more recently, in the Middle East, aimed at ensuring that regional militaries respect human rights and civilian authority.
But NATO countries have only just begun to consider which policies to pursue in tackling global challenges, which capabilities are needed to achieve their security goals, and how to collaborate with non-Western institutions and countries. Any government that hopes to benefit from NATO’s new global role, or is concerned about its implications, should be involved in shaping this process.