NATO in Newport: A Double Agenda

Seth Thomas says the NATO summit in Newport is set to be a milestone in the organisation’s history

The Newport summit takes place against a backdrop of Russian tanks moving into the Ukraine, renewed crises in the Middle East, while NATO faces spending cuts in member states and an urgent need to restructure.

Thirty years ago NATO pursued a clear aim: to maintain a credible deterrence in nuclear and conventional forces in orderto ensure that there would be no Soviet attack upon its member states.  In other words, it was a collective defence pact.  The magnitude of losses in any such war betweenNATO and the Warsaw Pact was huge, a threat to the future ofthe human race.  Yet the probability of such a war was – arguably – less likely.  Today we face a reversal of those positions: smaller-scale security problems or conflictinvolving NATO members or neighbours, which occur more frequently.

NATO has been through a difficult quarter-century since the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded a collapse of the old certainties.  With successful American leadership during the1990-91 Gulf War the very need for NATO itself was questioned – to paraphrase Dean Acheson, it was an organisation in search of a role.  Today 60% of member-statepublics don’t understand what NATO does – and there is a generation of politicians who only see NATO in historic terms.

Yet underlying regional political and security instabilities,previously held in check by the then-superpowers, have become more apparent since the mid-1990s.  Russia’s transition to a stable democracy was left to wither on the vine, and increased global linkages mean that security problems inmost areas of the world impacts societies far distant regardingtheir security, economy or politics.  Despite the evidence of the past decade, few people want to foist death and destruction on others, but the modern world is not for those who would draw the curtains and hope things would go away.

So while sometimes uncertain, NATO has not been moribund.  It has expanded its operational remit from collective defence to supporting wider international stability.  For example, itwas in action in the Balkans in the decade following 1992; provided logistical support for African Union peace-keeping operations in Darfur 2005-07; counter-piracy forces off the Horn of Africa from 2008; and carried out air and naval operations in Libya on behalf of the UN in 2011.  It iscurrently in the midst of withdrawing operational forces from Afghanistan.

At the last NATO summit – Chicago in 2012 – at the top of the agenda was the Afghan disengagement and the response tounrest in North Africa.  Then, military interventionismappeared to be going out of fashion.  Two years on,Afghanistan and ensuring adequate local security forces will remain on the agenda, particularly so in the light of Iraq’s issues after the departure of American combat forces.

However in Newport, a great deal of the summit’s focus will be on the immediate threats to world stability – many of whichare interlinked problems.

Russia’s large-scale support for separatists in East Ukraine following the accession of the Crimea – is an obvious issue to confront.  The response to Ukraine – (itself earning a paragraph in the 2012 Chicago Declaration) – is linked to the Middle East. Syria was a client-state of the Soviet Union and still comes under the Russian sphere of influence which means the US treads with care.  So while the West has been hamstrung in its attempts to develop a clear strategy for Syria, the continued civil war there has proved an opportunity for Isis to straddle the Syrian and Iraq border territories.  Post-World War One boundaries set up by non-believers from vanished empires are meaningless to this self-proclaimedreligious state which aims to dominate the Middle East.

Adding to the complexity is that the pieces of the puzzle keep moving.  Only months ago, Iran was – in public at least – apariah state with Israel threatening to bomb Iran’s developing nuclear facilities.  Now Israel is once more engaged in the Hamas-dominated Gaza territory while the main Western powers engage in dialogue with the Iranian regime to stabilisethe Kurdish part of Iraq.

All of the UN Security Council permanent members – the US, Russia, the UK, France and China – have political ties and significant economic interests in the region.  One of NATO’s members – Turkey – borders the region and faces a direct security threat.

And this is before factoring in other significant challenges with a security dimension: weapons proliferation; climate change; water supply; resource & energy security; cyber threats; migration & changing demographics; religious fundamentalism; piracy; and of course the potential for pandemics.

It calls for Kissinger-level strategy involving co-ordination ofpolitical, military, economic, and media levers of power and influence.  NATO, with its existing international military infrastructure, will certainly form a central part of a concerted response by the West.  How NATO does so in the short-term – likely deploying permanent standing NATO forces in newbases in Eastern Europe, and beefing up its rapid reaction capability – should form a headline part of the ‘Summit Declaration’.

However, apart from these immediate issues, a second item on the official agenda, longer-term in outlook, will be pursued at Newport.  It will centre on how NATO needs to significantlyre-organise and fund itself to cope with these problems.  NATO is primarily a military organisation, yet the opponents its faces practice ‘hybrid’ warfare – a combination of asymmetric military forces, use of proxy forces and a disinformation campaign.  None of this is new to any of NATO’s main members, yet the alliance has been on the back-foot always seeming reactive to problems which develop quickly.

Chatham House – a leading international affairs think-tankbased in London – has stated that any NATO restructure needs to make the organisation more flexible and readier to respond to changing threats.  In a July report, it suggested that NATO needed to improve crisis management capabilities, intelligence-gathering, and the overall resilience of member states to threats.  It also recommended that more public diplomacy was required to rebuild domestic understanding for the alliance.   In particular, defence spending will either need to increase or existing budgets will need to be spent more intelligently.  Only four of the organisation’s twenty-eight members actually spend more than 2% of GDP on defence – the US, UK, Greece and Estonia. This is a hugely problematic political issue for governments which are engaged in cutting public spending.

The discussions and preparation for any international summitis immense, and the meetings themselves usually operate on two levels.  Firstly, there is the official agenda – which focuses on the summit’s stated aims; and secondly there is always an unofficial series of discussion, which take advantage of leaders in physical proximity to each other,providing the ability to hold informal bi-lateral conversations. The NATO summit is likely to run along these lines.

During the summit, both at the formal sessions and behind the closed doors in Celtic Manor’s hotel rooms, the willingness ofthe key NATO members – the US, UK, France and Germany – to lead from the front will be critical to the success of the gathering.

Today, the volume of security issues faced by the West is considerable.  Issues which have been allowed to fester orhave been studiously ignored in public debate are now sadlyclear.  The need for regional and global stability is a challenge to which the summit must now rise.  The NATO summit in Newport – Wales, could be one of the defining moments for NATO and Western security co-operation.  The eyes of the world will be upon Newport.

Seth Thomas was a member of the Governing Council of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (“Chatham House”), 2007-13. He writes this in a personal capacity.

5 thoughts on “NATO in Newport: A Double Agenda

  1. Thanks for this history of NATO. I think the issues of energy supply, security, and control, must also be discussed at the Newport summit.

  2. Some of us spent a fair chunk of the 80s defending NATO against CND types. The basis of our argument was that NATO was strictly a defensive alliance, which indeed it was, and as such it was successful. It was therefore one of the great ironies that some of those very same CND types, as part of Mr Blair’s ‘New Labour’ Government, helped turn NATO into an offensive weapon in what can only be described as a war of aggression against Serbia in 1999.

    NATO has been struggling to find a role since it helped win the Cold War. Its conduct over Kosovo was somewhere between an embarrassment and a war crime. It proved something of a blunt instrument in Libya and Afghanistan, where more precise tools were required. It is worrying that it currently seems intent on treating the complex historical problems of the Ukraine as if it they were a straightforward ‘White Hat versus Black Hat’ Cold War situation.

    All that having been said, we should welcome the NATO Summit to South Wales. It offers us a unique opportunity to showcase the transformation of our region to the world and demonstrate that its old image as a post-industrial wasteland is increasingly a thing of the past.

    Everyone, please be nice to our guests, so that they take away with them only pleasant memories of genuine Welsh hospitality.

  3. The western part of Europe has much to thank NATO for,and the Foreign Secretary at time of its creation i.e Mr. Ernie Bevin was a political giant who seems to have ignored/forgotten by many people. The western/democratic world is going to face very great challenges in future years,however the USA is now self sufficient in energy due to fracking of gas and oil so if it reduces its expenditure on the military/industrial complex where does that leave the European states who want to spend on social programmes??. The priorities must be to a)make us as self sufficient as possible in the energy sector,b)re-arm in the short term,c)deal with muslim fundamentalism within our own borders.Who said that ‘history is dead’!!.

  4. NATO’s ‘problems’ are independent from Newport! But why isn’t anybody talking about the cost to local businesses of this huge vanity event? If there’s one thing we can pretty much guarantee in Wales it’s that the political class and the public sector generally has little of no understanding, and probably cares even less, about the ‘little people’ who actually pay their salaries.

    Why do we need to read about the losses local businesses are suffering on Breitbart London instead of being plastered all over the Welsh media?

    When the NATO circus has moved on, how many businesses in Newport and Cardiff will hit the buffers as a result of the losses they have incurred while the circus was in town?

  5. Breitbart? You’ld get more news reading The Hobbit. Breitbart is to feed the prejudices of right-wing populist nutters not to tell you what’s going on. Just read the comments – often certifiable.

    That said, I agree with Mr Richards. Nato has outlived its original function ans has been causing at least as much trouble as it alleviates in recent years.

Comments are closed.

Also within Politics and Policy