NATO’s identity crisis

13 Sep 2015


NATO has, over the past ten years or so, been burying its head from an impending problem; an identity crisis. Over the last decade, the role of NATO in transnational crises has become increasingly unclear. NATO has a broad variety of functions that, whilst occasionally successful, have left the aging organisation without a coherent sense of purpose. As those of us who study the political, the strategic and the economic trends of global affairs try to predict what future geopolitical strategic environments will look like, the blurry role and function of NATO within that theatre is becoming a growing concern.


When NATO was initially founded, it crafted an articulate and coherent agenda of defensive military alliance, mutual security based on cooperation between members' armed forces, and a political opposition to the growing Soviet power in the East (later in the form of the Warsaw Pact). However, 60 years on, NATO’s agenda is anything but articulate. The organisation defines itself in relation to the clumsy and sweepingly broad statement of being a ‘political and military alliance’. In addition, this message has become worryingly incoherent as the organisation switches between ‘promoting democratic values’, ‘preventing conflict’ and ‘resolving disputes’. The language utilised by NATO's leaders is usually vague, and whilst it pays homage to the aims of the original treaty, it consistently stoops short of committing itself to a single achievable role for fear of becoming irrelevant.


This, it should be made clear, is an observation rather than a criticism. It would, admittedly, be difficult for NATO to plump for one of its original goals in an increasingly technologically-sophisticated and digitised geostrategic environment. Backing solely old armed forces and mutual defence strategies in an era dominated by less conventional forces and ever-increasing uses of non-man based technologies would be an early suicide note. Equally, opting to focus on political opposition to 'the East', say Russia or (more rationally though significantly less likely) China, would be an economic death wish in a hyper-alert globalised marketplace. NATO's neoliberal power bloc, consisting of the USA, UK and the EU render most mass political goals unrealistic and fiscally dangerous. Instead, NATO has been left in the lurch with a series of conflict involvements that draw attention to its obvious uncertainly.


Over the last decade, NATO's intervention in international crises has eminently demonstrated the need to reflect on the nature and function of the organisation before it hits a precipice. Following a downsize of its military command in 1997, NATO has flitted between providing conflict resolution, a space for military cooperation, and global policing. The 2004 launch of the Baltic Air Policing lent itself to a Cold War mentality still unshaken. This was undermined by the 2006 Riga Summit during which energy security suddenly became part of the agenda: NATO had shifted its focus from conventional military goals to environmental activism. Add into the mix the training programme for Iraqi security, an anti-piracy programme, air strikes in Libya, and lack of intervention in the Syrian Civil War, it has become clear that NATO is wading vaguely between policing, defence, intelligence, military and political functions. It is, in effect, struggling to take into account the variety of considerations of the modern geostrategic environment because it has failed to narrowly defined its own role.


Consequently, then, speculating on a successful future for NATO is relatively simple; if NATO does not reflect very carefully on its own function it will lose relevance and credibility. If it doesn’t reflect, the organisation will fade into obscurity alongside the League of Nations or the Warsaw Pact. Thus, NATO must instead focus on growing trends. What set NATO apart initially was an ability to seek out global trends and adapt to them. It ought to learn that lesson from its own past and apply it to the modern context. NATO’s future will involve a movement of resources and funding from conventional armed forces to security services, it will involve more frequent intelligence operations, it will involve much more sophisticated technologies and skills preferably along the lines of cybersecurity and drone technology, and it will involve a clear remit of digitised, technology-based security solutions for members to share and lean-upon. NATO must up its game and, at the very least, admit to its own identity crisis, in order to remain relevant in the future.

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