NATO: Raising the Titanic or Lowering the Atlantic?

Each time I enter NATO’s sprawling complex I cannot help but think of doomed British film producer Lord Grade. Having staked his future on one of Hollywood’s great flops, “Raise the Titanic”, he lamented afterwards that it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic than raise the Titanic. The eclipsing of the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept by the Eurozone crisis and the pending failure in Afghanistan (for that is what it is) will once again bring sharp focus upon NATO’s now eternal question; what is it for?

In fact given Europe’s strategic retreat/pretense the only outstanding issue is the relevance of Europeans to America’s grand strategy. If none then both NATO and indeed Europe’s future defense will fail. Last week in Poland I was struck by the self-delusion of many Europeans with regard to this most fundamental of strategic questions. There was much talk of Europe’s strategic autonomy even as cuts of up to 30% to European defense budgets mean Europe will be more not less reliant on the US for its defense. Implicit in that reality is another question that Europeans seem almost psychotically determined to avoid; what price an over-stretched America will demand to guarantee the future defense of Europe?

The crux of the matter is essentially simple. If France in particular, aided and abetted inadvertently by the likes of Greece and Turkey, continue to block NATO’s true transformation into a strategic alliance nothing is more certain to guarantee the formation of an Anglosphere beyond the Alliance and with it the demise of the key Franco-British strategic defense partnership. Indeed, the vain hope by some (it is thankfully only some) in Paris that by stymieing NATO somehow an autonomous strategic Europe will be fashioned from the wreckage is profoundly misguided (with genuine respect Paris).

The North Atlantic Council has been reduced by this impasse to little more than marking the card of Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis and his team rather than acting as the font of strategic guidance. This narrowing of the NAC’s role has not only killed the Strategic Concept but made it impossible for Allied Command Transformation to do its job; transform Alliance militaries.

Much will depend on who is appointed the next NATO Secretary-General. Anders Fogh Rasmussen has brought both strengths and weaknesses to the job. As a former prime minister he has certainly given the post more influence amongst erstwhile peers but too often he has overplayed his hand and coming from a small country with little influence in the EU his job has been made that much harder. Possible candidates include Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, and it is certainly time for a central or eastern European to lead the Alliance. However, whilst he can be brilliant Sikorski’s ego too often gets in the way of the greater good and he has proven himself no friend of either the US or UK of late. A Sikorski NATO would be too much about Sikorski and not enough about NATO.

Italy’s foreign minister the impressive Franco Frattini is also in the running but making a Rome insider NATO Sec-Gen would hardly instil strategic confidence especially given that the Italians withdrew from operations over Libya because it was costing too much. In any case Mario Draghi is already at the European Central Bank. A radical choice would be to appoint someone from the Baltic states who truly understand the meaning of NATO and who is respected on both sides of the Atlantic and in the EU. Former Latvian defense minister Imants Liegis would be my choice. In reality given the strategic challenges faced by the Alliance NATO needs a big political beast from a big European country and that means a Robert Schumann, Manfred Woerner or George Robertson.

Quite simply whoever takes NATO’s helm will need to radically reform an Alliance that is fast becoming a kind of latter day Maginot Line. Rather, it must become the strategic hub at the heart of a complex web of regional and global partnerships able both to add value to the US and act ‘independently’ (90% of all operations over Libya were US-enabled) when called upon to do so. NATO sits at the nexus between alliance and coalition in this age or it sits nowhere. That will mean real defense transformation which for smaller members will mean real defense integration.

If NATO is to be finally prepared for its post-Afghanistan, post 911 future it is vital the Alliance as a whole lifts its ‘vision’ from the parochial trench it has dug for itself. That means a NATO that again raises the Atlantic, the transatlantic, in a century that will be full of icebergs.

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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