Derek H. Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. from 1989 to 1993. Fen Osler Hampson is a distinguished fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. They are the authors of Brave New Canada: Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is desperately in search of new purpose and resolve. When alliance leaders meet in Wales this week, the escalating incursions by Russia in Ukraine and the Islamic State’s barbaric antics in Iraq and Syria provide the immediate challenges. What is urgently needed is leadership from the United States, a semblance of strategy and tangible commitments from the disparate allies to confront these major threats to global order. Fine words and carefully crafted statements will not suffice.
Thus far, NATO’s expansion to 28 members has added more jumble and mumble than commitment. NATO has become flabby and increasingly irrelevant. Repeated calls to increase defence spending, including most recently by a new group of policy experts in their June report to the secretary-general, have largely fallen on deaf years.
For the past decade, NATO summits have been dull or meaningless, more posturing than purpose. The U.S. penchant to “lead from behind” has not inspired. Nor has President Barack Obama’s refrain about not “doing stupid stuff.”
The alliance’s record in Afghanistan and Libya is mixed at best. With a botched presidential election and no immediate resolution of Afghanistan’s leadership crisis in sight, a more certain U.S.-ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) commitment may be needed to prevent an implosion.
The 2011 campaign to topple Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and avert a major humanitarian disaster drew no support from Germany and NATO’s Eastern European members. Libya’s recent descent into tribal and sectarian warfare is a stunning indictment of a job half-done and a failure to calculate the consequences and what was needed to avert chaos after Mr. Gadhafi’s removal.
Despite all the rhetoric that sanctions against Russia are working, President Vladimir Putin is still on a roll. Calling bluntly for a “New Russia” and “statehood” for Eastern Ukraine as he brazenly increases overt military action, Mr. Putin is banking on a tepid alliance response. The EU’s weekend decision to kick the sanctions can down the road yet again is not likely to change his assumption or his behaviour. This is the gravest crisis confronting NATO. As two U.S. elder statesmen, George Shultz and William Perry, contended recently in The Wall Street Journal, either NATO must collectively act with training and military assistance to Ukraine, or the U.S. should act alone to help the Ukrainians defend their own country.
In Central Europe, NATO should make precise commitments to the new entrants, providing troops on the ground, new military bases and anti-ballistic missile defence. Canada needs to strengthen ties too, explicitly with Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, with whom we have common interests, while supporting efforts to inspire a lead U.S. role and concrete support for Ukraine.
The Middle East is trickier. Sporadic air strikes may have slowed the momentum of the Islamic State’s territorial gains, but there is little evidence of a strategy to eradicate the “cancer.” This is not a fight for NATO and the West alone. More is needed from regional players, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are not immune to the threat, and Qatar, which has played a major role in financing the Islamic State and Hamas.
A full-scale assault on the Islamic State’s funding sources should be a collective priority, as should be concrete actions against those who preach in support of these radicals from the comfort of mosques in “liberal” democracies. Cutting off oil and other purchases from supporters will help.
The moderate voices of Islam should take a clearer stand before revulsion against the depravity of the Islamic State turns against the faith itself. Saying that this battle is not really about religion is false comfort to those being persecuted and slaughtered in the name of religion.
Because many Western citizens have joined forces literally with the Islamists, collective action should be taken to revise and tighten immigration procedures, giving much more prominence to well-founded concerns about the direct, lethal threat such individuals pose to our security.
Long gone are the days of the NATO summitry of the 1970s, when secretary of state Henry Kissinger provided masterful beginnings to the discussions and the U.S. led from out front. There was no doubt then about unity, resolve or leadership. The U.S. must lead again now by putting down some tangible markers against new, existential threats and seeing who responds. Those who do should get a say and those who do not should rest on the sidelines. It is time for deeds, not pulpy communiqués.