Eugene Lang is the BMO Visiting Fellow at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at York University’s Glendon College. Eric Morse is a former Canadian diplomat and Co-Chair of Security Studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.
Russia’s aggressive activity in Ukraine and Crimea may well have succeeded in restoring a sense of purpose and cohesion to NATO after a very unedifying twelve-year Afghanistan commitment.
In late 2002, then NATO Secretary-General George Robertson started lobbying defence and foreign ministers throughout the Alliance. He wanted to know whether they would support NATO’s taking charge of something called the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a multinational stabilization mission in Kabul, Afghanistan, cobbled together hastily by a few European countries immediately after Sept. 11.
At its founding in 1949, NATO’s original role, as its first Secretary-General Lord Ismay put it, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down:” that is, to maintain alliance cohesion in the face of an active Soviet threat to western Europe. By 2002, it had been well over a decade since the Cold War had ended. Alliances do not wear well in the absence of a discernable menace; disparate national interests begin to trump any perceived value the alliance may retain. This was also a time in which an increasing chorus of opinion was suggesting that NATO might be a relic of the East-West confrontation that could now be consigned to the dustbin of history. Mr. Robertson, an ambitious and gregarious Scot, wasn’t having it. And so began the search for a new role for NATO.
Following Mr. Robertson’s lead, Canada, Germany and a few other countries began a quiet campaign to take NATO “out of area,” into Afghanistan, the country that had posed the most significant threat to western societies in the post-Cold War period. Ultimately, NATO would not only assume control of ISAF, but would extend the breadth, depth and geographic mandate of the mission throughout all of Afghanistan.
Today, more than a decade later, the alliance is withdrawing from Afghanistan. And it is doing so leaving the future of that country in doubt and amid widespread criticism that the ISAF experience demonstrated NATO is a dysfunctional alliance that cannot execute on the ground. For the second time in a generation, doubts that NATO has any remaining value have begun to re-emerge.
You would think a potentially moribund NATO would be music to the ears of a neo-imperialist Russian leadership. You would think the Kremlin would do nothing to deter the possible demise or at least incapacitation of NATO by natural causes. Yet within a very few weeks, Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea, and his less-than-veiled appetite for more territory in Ukraine and other former parts of the Soviet Union, has changed everything.
Afghanistan does seem to have demonstrated that alliances formed for a specific strategic (and defensive) purpose do not adapt well to a more pro-active operation not only “out of area,” but in an area whose culture is fundamentally alien to the culture of the alliance. It also demonstrated that any attempt to do this was going to be met by widespread disagreement over war aims and rules of engagement. An optional war out of area simply begs for friction, and friction is what happened. A renewed perception of threat in-area is another kettle of fish.
For years NATO headquarters in Brussels has been browbeating member states to spend more on defence, specifically to get their defence budgets up to an agreed target level of 2 per cent of GDP. The browbeating has had precisely zero effect. Canada’s defence budget, for example, which has increased by about 50 per cent in the past ten years, still sits around 1 per cent of GDP, and that number is falling. And many members of the Alliance have been aggressively cutting defence budgets in recent years. This too may now end in face of Putin’s aggressive agenda. Since the beginning of 2014 attitudes have hardened and have gone from quiet talk about a moribund NATO to serious expressions that the Alliance has a major role in standing up to Russia.
Not surprisingly, the so-called Visegrad Group of Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary, all of them former Soviet satellites and new members of NATO, were first off the mark with a strong denunciation of the Russian actions in Crimea. Romania is also involved. The older NATO members have been slower to respond but the extremely active leadership of Polish prime minister Donald Tusk has encouraged both France and Germany to stiffen their positions. Lithuania and Latvia have invoked the rarely-used Article 4 of the NATO treaty, allowing mutual consultations if any partner feels its security, territorial integrity or independence are under threat. The lines between NATO and the European Union are somewhat blurred in all of this, but NATO has the military toolkit the EU lacks and cannot help but be involved in whatever political response emerges to something that now looks very much like a military crisis.
However the crisis evolves, NATO may have found new vitality and purpose. If so, it has Vladimir Putin to thank.