NATO’s Choice Remains “Out of Area or Out of Business”

by Daniel Pitcairn

At NATO’s summit in Wales this week, the transatlantic military alliance has an opportunity to chart its strategic trajectory for the 21st century. The war in Afghanistan dominated proceedings for the past few summits, but this time NATO’s post-Afghanistan organizing principles will take center stage. Many, including former Supreme Allied Commander Europe James Stavridis, have suggested that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine provides a ‘back to basics’ raison d’etre for the Cold War creation, but a renewed emphasis on Russia as an adversary is short-sighted.  Russian actions warrant greater support for Eastern European allies and a reassessment of NATO-Russia relations, but defending Europe against Moscow does not suffice as NATO’s long-term role. NATO leaders at the Summit should instead affirm the Alliance’s mission to build global security as its primary 21st century endeavor.

The debate over NATO’s post-Cold War role is now more than 20 years old, but the fundamental choice remains the same – the Alliance must, as Senator Richard Lugar put it in 1993, go “out of area or out of business.” NATO has not been seriously under threat since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the European Union, which shares most of the same European member states, has developed a nascent defense force of its own.  But as the world’s most effective military alliance, and one made up of democracies committed to upholding the liberal international order, NATO can play a significant role in building security around the world. Specifically, NATO should further develop and expand its institutionalized partnerships with countries outside the 28-member Alliance.

But as the world’s most effective military alliance, and one made up of democracies committed to upholding the liberal international order, NATO can play a significant role in building security around the world.

Over the last two decades, NATO has cultivated a network of formal partnerships with countries around the world in order to help enhance security in different regions and generate support and legitimacy for the Alliance’s global operations. The Alliance’s 2010 Strategic Concept provides the underlying logic for this approach to “cooperative security,” arguing that Euro-Atlantic defense is best assured when NATO has a healthy network of partners capable of serving as security providers in their regions. This network now numbers 41 partners and is organized into 5 regional groups incorporating countries from the former Soviet Union, North Africa, the Gulf, and elsewhere.  Areas of practical cooperation include political consultations on security issues, contributions to NATO-led missions, military and defense reforms, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation of WMDs, addressing emerging common security challenges (e.g., cybersecurity, energy security), and civil emergency planning. As of this year, partners jointly contribute 4,000 troops to various NATO operations.

The potential value of these partnerships was perhaps best exemplified during NATO’s air campaign against the Qaddafi regime in Libya in 2011. Concerns over the long-term implications of the intervention aside, the episode demonstrates NATO partners’ ability to confer considerable legitimacy on NATO operations in their regions. After the Alliance suddenly took responsibility for conducting airstrikes in Libya, three Arabic NATO partners (Jordan, Qatar, and the UAE) formally partnered with NATO in conducting the operation, contributing both personnel and aircraft.

No other international organization or single country has both the capability and legitimacy NATO maintains for executing military operations around the world. The closest alternative, the U.N. Security Council, is indefinitely hand-tied by political differences between permanent members. Herein lies NATO’s 21st century raison de’etre. And key to strengthening its international legitimacy, and thereby enshrining global, cooperative security as its predominant mission, are partnerships. NATO leaders should take the opportunity presented by this week’s summit to deepen and expand NATO’s partnership program.

Daniel Pitcairn is a Charged Affairs contributing editor.