Point of view - The Atlantic Alliance has lost its bearings

The Great Alliance seems to be toiling to keep up with a constantly changing world, as it works on its geographical expansion without updating its military or political strategies.

So long as there was a Western and an Eastern bloc confronting each other, with two symmetrically juxtaposed political and military alliances, each of which guaranteed the preservation of a standoff that might ward off the terror that threatened our lives, NATO successfully gave us 40 years of peace by impeccably performing its institutional role. This despite the fact that, even in what might have seemed like a very straitjacketed world scenario, its path was anything but easy as its coalition of member states bounced from one crisis to another.

The first took place in 1956 when the United States intervened to put a stop to the French and the British attacks of the Suez Crisis, which the alliance resolved thanks only to the “Report of the Committee of Three on Non-Military Cooperation in NATO” that instituted compulsory collective political consultations prior to any autonomous military initiative.

Then came France’s withdrawal from NATO, which led to the immediate transfer of its headquarters from Fontainebleau to Brussels and the difficult co-existence under the allied nuclear umbrella with an atomic power whose nuclear weapons policies were managed entirely independently. That was followed by Germany’s Ostpolitik (“Eastern policy”), which envisaged both deterrence and dialogue with the East, a condition NATO accepted, however unwillingly, with the “Harmel Report”. 

Subsequently, a series of revolutions and changes distorted, or risked distorting, the political nature of some of the member states, such as Greece’s military dictatorship, the Carnation Revolution in Portugal and the concrete possibility of the Communist Party coming to power in Italy in 1976. Other watersheds include the Helsinki Accords and the attempt to introduce notions of freedom in the USSR; the euro missile debates, in which Italy played a major part; and the 1980s and Reagan’s Star Wars race.

It has been nothing short of an obstacle course, throughout which the alliance has displayed consistent and timely flexibility, adopting very important political decisions, whenever necessary, that led to the immediate revision of the military instrument at its disposal. NATO undeniably played an important part in ensuring that the Cold War ended in 1989 and that the years that followed – a series of events that began with the collapse of the Berlin Wall and ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union – marked the end of this ‘bipolar’ competition and juxtaposition of alliances and heralded a new era in world history.

However, in the face of such radical change, NATO was unable to act with the same promptness and effectiveness as before. On the one hand, the disappearance of its only enemy of equal brawn instantly raised questions about its further purpose. On the other, the immediate, selfish and totally uncoordinated attempts by all its members to claim the highest possible ‘peace dividend’ through reduced military spending weakened its specific operations by no short measure as well.

The alliance also suffered from two further shortcomings. Its treatment of Russia, an enemy that was politically defeated but not militarily vanquished, was never exactly generous. NATO has always been inclined to view the country’s liberal democratic leanings with suspicion and has never ruled out the possibility of Russia’s offensive resurgence.

Along with a number of useless humiliations inflicted upon the old adversary, this resulted in the alliance’s race towards expansion in Eastern Europe, without consulting Moscow, which was ultimately stymied by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decisive action in Georgia and Ukraine, having only granted excessive credence to the fears of NATO’s newer, formerly Communist members.

The second inadequacy has to do with the relationship between NATO and the European Union, which at least in one certain period was set to become the alliance’s socalled European pillar, yet even after endless debate no cohesive goals or actions have yet to be found. Instead of viewing the growing European Union as an opportunity to be seized, the alliance perceived it as a risk, hindering it from developing its own autonomous military capability and imposing constraints that have forced it into a position of subordination. It is hardly surprising that in these conditions, and given the alliance’s inability to come up with a coherent strategy for identifying a new mission worthy of its means and ambitions, NATO’s political and military significance has been in consistent decline.

This process was marked by events that should have made the decline all the more obvious but which were instead minimised or even portrayed as successes. France’s return to the fold was extolled, without realising that this occurred only because Paris found it had sufficient autonomy within a now weakened alliance. The US’ unilateral reaction to the 9/11 attacks was accepted despite NATO invoking Article 5 of the Treaty and offering America due collective defence. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was allowed to broaden rifts between the new and old Europe. Georgia and Ukraine were even given fanciful hopes, with disastrous results.

All of this was happening as, summit after summit, the organisation failed to produce a new strategy for establishing an appropriate role for itself. We now find ourselves in a completely absurd situation, in which our main security and defence tool keeps looking eastwards, while the gravest, most immediate and real dangers hail from the south. And with events such as the recent opening towards Montenegro, it continues to demonstrate poor timing that only exacerbates tensions with a partner whose backing is instead essential on other stages. Nor does it have the courage to tell Turkey that none of us are prepared to be dragged into controversies between Shiites and Sunnis, or worse, in diatribes designed to impose Ankara’s leadership on the area. ur defence system remains unmovable and unchanging in every respect, except its decline, while the rest of the world changes and moves on.

So what should be done at this point? Well, what better time than now to start planning a radical reform of the institution to be carried out with the ability, decisiveness and tenacity of old? 

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