Warsaw is considered by many the most important summit since the Cold War. But little has changed.
The real purpose of NATO disappeared in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since then, the Alliance has struggled on, moving from one new strategic concept to the next without ever settling on an assignment that could properly replace its founding mission: the containment of the Warsaw Pact countries. Were NATO to find a fresh raison d’être, it might be able to revive its glowing reputation in the eyes of the public as well as with the parliaments and governments of the member states. At the moment, the members of the Alliance are all too reluctant to invest in the communal security that is assured by the North Atlantic Treaty, preferring to deploy their resources to greater effect in other sectors.
Not that NATO has become completely useless: the Alliance has retained its function as the only training ground for allied forces to cultivate combat readiness and learn how to operate as a team. Nevertheless, these days the transatlantic link has lost much of its original charm and importance. The United States is prioritizing its transpacific connections and seems to have forgotten that the only allies with whom the US shares cultural values (and not just policy lines) are in Europe, not Asia. In spite of this, the Alliance continues to represent the most obvious symbol of our American insurance policy. Growing dimmer perhaps, but still to be called upon when needed. The rest is bleakness and fog. NATO has devolved into a plethora of ideas and attempts all piled on top of each other, producing the occasional appreciable result, but never introducing the kind of radical changes that an ageing body always requires to keep up with the times – and to meet new challenges!
We have moved from managing the Balkan crisis in the ‘90s, in which an Alliance conceived as a Ferrari was used more like a utility vehicle, to the crazy Afghan adventure, backed by the idea (so dear to secretary generals, who certainly can’t hold a candle to the great personalities of earlier days, and to the NATO establishment that never leaves Brussels for a theatre of war) that the Alliance should set no limit to its scope of action, membership and the kinds of operations it might embark upon. The brilliant results now stand before us: the Afghan excursion alone has cost Italy 55 casualties, so far.
Add to this rather dismal picture a series of initiatives that have been undertaken within the Muslim world that were clearly destined to fail, either due to NATO’s obsession with trying to include Israel in a group of highly reluctant Mediterranean partners, or simply because the Alliance was unable to translate good ideas into concrete and tangible action.
There are two unavoidable steps that need to be taken in order to trigger real change within NATO, but so far both have been spurned. We have thus continued spreading our wings eastward, encompassing countries who leaped at the opportunity to join but inevitably arrived with a boatload of requirements in tow.
They went on to prove themselves quite capable of incessantly demanding and taking while showing no intention of making the kinds of sacrifices required to build our common home. And we have never made a truly earnest attempt to improve relations with Russia, a negligence or forgetfulness that we are now paying for daily on our southern front in the wake of the Syrian and Iraqi mess.
But as the story goes, there were years – many years – when we could have simply expanded the Alliance to include the only major country it had faced off against in 50 years and that, in spite of all of our selfglorification, had never been defeated. If anything, our adversary had defeated itself. Opening up to Russia would have solved many of our problems. By the same token, the relationship between NATO and the European Union has never been clearly established.
NATO’s leadership has not given the European component of the Alliance’s infrastructure a chance to grow and become one of two load-bearing pillars.
If you know what to look for when reading the bureaucratic language of the communiqués issued by both partners, you’ll note that great emphasis is always placed on the close integration between the two entities. This integration is then used to justify the absence of duplication, a dogmatic stance that prevents Europe from having its own supreme operations command, forcing it instead to turn to the Allied Command Operations in Mons and thus obtain American consent before engaging in any particular initiative. Various attempts to remedy this situation (by the French and Belgians) have been met with American hostility and the veto of Great Britain, a country that within the context of the Alliance and the EU has always played the role of the jealous janitor of Anglo-Saxon interests rather than behaved like a fully fledged member of the Union, especially where defence issues are concerned. In spite of high-minded statements and the fact that Brexit has introduced a new unknown into our security equation, we’d do well to bear in mind that the recent Alliance summit in Warsaw did unfortunately little to introduce a shift in perspective away from the recent past.
Thus Russia remains the fearsome potential enemy that could one day appear on the horizon of our newly renovated Desert of the Tartars. In order to ensure that the Russian Bear doesn’t get the wrong idea, the Alliance has increased its aerial and naval presence (which was by no means negligible before) in the northern European waters that we share with Moscow along with stationing depots and troops in four countries which border Russia. Then, for good measure, the missile shield was placed completely under NATO control, which in terms of its effect on Russia is the equivalent of waving a red flag in front of a raging bull. In retaliation, we can expect a whole sector of Kaliningrad to soon be given over to tactical missiles, graced with nuclear warheads. And evidently the Ukrainian precedent has not taught us anything because we have now offered Georgia the opportunity to initiate the procedure to join the Alliance. Taken together, these measures deny from the outset the supposed purpose of a meeting between the NATO committee and Russia which has been scheduled on the back of the summit, a worthless olive branch which only envisages the participation of ambassadors, not ministers.
One is left wondering whatever became of the good intentions shown by France and Italy, the idea of focusing our attention on a gradual normalisation of relations with our great eastern neighbour. But in Europe, the song remains the same. The only new theme that has been introduced is coming from Barack Obama, who on the eve of his last overseas visit, wants to convince the Union to let the UK retain its role as a part of the European pillar of the Alliance, despite the referendum’s result.
As for the European security and defence structure, its complementarity with NATO is constantly being reiterated in the joint communiqués with the Union, apparently to ensure that no one forgets the concept. The rest is just window dressing, a pretty picture in which there is only one issue worth noting: the listless attention paid to the southern reaches of the Alliance, which receives nothing but empty and rather vague promises that often fall by the wayside before coming to fruition.
It’s the same old story: a sickness, which is no mild sickness, is being attended to with plasters. But how long can we hope to survive if we keep applying short-term remedies? And how long will our patience hold out? How long? Quo usque tandem. (Cicero, Catiline Orations, I,1).