‘The Cold War as ancient history’, ran a headline in the International Herald Tribune Feb. 4, above an article on how teenagers in the former East Berlin know little about communism.
Ironically, however, the same issue of the newspaper had a front-page story indicating that the ghosts of the Cold War still haunt Europe in this new century. It stated that governments belonging to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would be more wary about sharing sensitive information now that a Hungarian trained by the Soviet Union’s secret service, the KGB, has become chairman of the alliance’s committee on intelligence.
This controversial appointment comes at a time of intense debate about what role NATO, a body formed in 1949, should assume today.
Whereas NATO was originally based on a commitment by Western European and North American allies to defend each other if any one of them came under attack, it has taken something of a new direction since the 1990s.
At the time of its 50th anniversary in 1999, it was fighting a war against then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, even though he had never directly attacked any country belonging to the alliance. More recently, it has accepted as members a number of states that neighbour its old historical foe Russia.
It has provided logistical assistance to African Union troops tasked with trying to bring peace to Darfur in Sudan. And it is leading a 43,000-strong force that, according to many analysts, is struggling to build stability in Afghanistan.
In January, a number of retired generals, including NATO’s one time supreme allied commander in Europe John Shalikashvili, warned in a report that the alliance is “in danger of losing its credibility” unless it adapts to changing circumstances.
Although their report, ‘Towards a Grand Strategy for an Uncertain World’ advocated that the alliance should develop non-military capabilities, they advocated that NATO’s reliance on nuclear weapons should continue. “The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction, in order to avoid truly existential dangers,” they said.
This statement contrasted markedly with one made by a group of U.S. statesmen almost exactly a year earlier. Writing for The Wall Street Journal, two former U.S. secretaries of state — Henry Kissinger and George Shultz — called on all states who have nuclear weapons to substantially reduce the size of their arsenals. The notion that such missiles can deter attacks is “becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective,” they said.
Under the EU’s new Lisbon treaty, the Union’s governments have committed themselves to contributing towards renewing NATO. This has been interpreted by some peace activists as an attempt to bolster Europe’s military capabilities.
At 825 billion dollars per year, NATO accounts for roughly 75 percent of the global arms expenditure. Its most powerful government, the U.S., foots much of this bill. In a budget announced this week, the Pentagon is seeking 515 billion dollars for 2009. If rubber-stamped by Congress, this would be the highest level of military spending by the U.S. since World War II.
Paul Ingram from the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), a research organisation, says that European countries would be wrong to ape the U.S.
He believes that it can often be more fruitful if efforts to bring stability to volatile lands are made through ‘soft power’ civilian instruments such as diplomacy and development aid rather than purely military means.
“The problem I see is that pressure for higher European defence spending is coming from the ‘warrior’ nations — the UK, France, the U.S.,” he told IPS. “They say to others: ‘you have to start pulling your weight’. They are focusing on military capability, rather than security.”
Tensions over how much weight should be attached to military measures are especially acute in the debate over NATO’s operation in Afghanistan. Germany recently rejected a call by the U.S. for it to send additional troops to the Afghan south. With more than 6,500 killings, last year was the bloodiest in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.
A recent study by James Jones, the top U.S. soldier in Europe from 2003 to 2006, concluded that Afghanistan is an risk of becoming a failed state due to deteriorating international support. But NATO’s spokesman James Appathurai claimed that the alliance has enjoyed “an enormous amount of success” there. The NATO-led ‘security assistance’ mission in Afghanistan has risen from 6,000 to 43,000 troops, he pointed out.
The International Institute for Strategic Studies in London predicts that the divergences between NATO members will be a core issue over the coming 12 months.
“If in the past it was the technological and doctrinal gap between the U.S. and its NATO allies that was the centre of anxious transatlantic debate, now it is the willpower and capacity gap that is striking,” said John Chipman, the institute’s director-general.
“Next April’s NATO summit (in Bucharest) is thus likely to be preoccupied not only with the now perennial issue of what the Alliance is for, but with the question of whether the Alliance can muster the military forces and political commitments to match its expansive strategic vision.”
Martin Butcher from the London-based Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy has suggested, however, that NATO needs to choose between a doctrine influenced by the Cold War or a more enlightened one.
“The truth is that NATO faces no threats, nuclear or otherwise, that are either immediate or existential,” he said. “NATO can be a global security provider, promoting human rights and giving humanitarian assistance, or it can be a nuclear-armed defence body threatening to attack potential enemies. It cannot do both.” IPS