Time to hit NATO's reset button

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt says the Ukraine crisis underlines why the long-delayed overhaul of NATO should be the next Secretary-General’s top priority.

The coming months offer NATO a much-needed chance to hit the reset button and decide its future direction. The alliance’s structures and strategic priorities should have been re-assessed years ago, but better late than never.

Revitalising NATO isn’t just about the Ukraine crisis and confrontation with Russia, although that is obviously a factor. There’s also the fact that recent years have been characterised by NATO’s slowness in adapting to hybrid conflicts and cyber warfare.

An unremitting campaign of Russian-backed cyber attacks, most notably in 2017 and 2019, cost Ukrainians tens of billions of dollars. Kyiv needs cyber defences rather than anti-tank weapons, leaving Ukrainians and many others to conclude that NATO’s methods and thinking are sadly out-dated.

Most European members are still far from meeting their 2% of GDP defence spending commitment

How the Ukraine crisis will eventually play out is anyone’s guess. Unless defused it may end in spiralling tit-for-tat sanctions that transform Europe’s post-Covid downturn into an economic depression that engulfs the world.

Over-excited media reporting of their brinkmanship has obscured the win-win aspects of the crisis for both sides. Simply by deploying troops President Putin has re-established Russia as a fearsome global power despite its weak economy and rapidly shrinking demography.

NATO has also benefited. Thanks to the crisis it has recovered reputationally from last August’s humiliating Afghanistan withdrawal when the US refused to consult other alliance governments. President Biden’s dusting off of long-forgotten Cold War playbooks to bolster his domestic fortunes has also gone some way toward reassuring Europe that America remains committed to NATO.

The catalyst for a NATO re-think, and perhaps re-birth, will be the alliance’s new secretary-general. Norway’s outgoing Jens Stoltenberg has been in the job for eight years, and although an implacable cold warrior has done little to address internal problems.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s barb two years ago that NATO is “brain dead” went to the heart of the matter. Most European members are still far from meeting their 2% of GDP defence spending commitment, and there’s been a marked absence of strategic thinking at the Brussels HQ.

NATO members large and small have begun to ask some searching questions

Until Vladimir Putin raised the spectre of a Russian military incursion into Ukraine, the question “what’s NATO for?” had become increasingly hard to answer. The alliance served as a diplomatic waiting room for countries aspiring to the EU but not yet able to meet its tougher membership requirements. A long list of countries have taken that route, the latest in 2020 being North Macedonia – Greece’s Balkan neighbour, whose chances of EU accession are as remote as are Ukraine’s to NATO.

Mr Stoltenberg will be leaving in September to become his country’s Central Banker, so the race is on to succeed him. It may be won by a true reformer, or awarded to someone who member governments can rely to resist change. The need for upheaval is, however, embarrassingly plain.

NATO’s critics say it has lost its sense of purpose internally and externally. Inside, it’s a far from happy ship. A storm of protest from NATO governments greeted Mr Stoltenberg’s call for a special pay hike for officials. The modernistic new HQ is 80% larger than the old premises across the road, and at a cost of €750 million adds substantially to the annual $2.5 billion budget. In today’s straitened post-Covid times, NATO members large and small have begun to ask some searching questions.

What Putin terms the relentless encirclement of Russia has looked to many in Europe like directionless drift. Eleven accessions in 20 years have brought NATO’s membership to 30, but with no rationale other than its founding pledge in 1949 of an ‘Open Door’ to applicants, even if not necessarily to their acceptance.

NATO’s enlargement process resolved various political challenges in Europe but created problems with Russia. “If Russia wants less NATO on its borders, it has achieved the opposite,” commented Stoltenberg recently, seemingly unaware that Putin might say the same of NATO.

The pity is that Europe’s security will depend on cooperation with Russia, not confrontation

There are already almost a dozen prospective candidates to take over at NATO, four of them women when the general mood may well favour a female leader. Two are from Baltic republics – Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid and former Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė. Both are heavy-hitters, although their countries’ antipathy to Moscow may prove more a hindrance than a help.

Belgium, which punches above its weight in NATO, is fielding former prime minister and current foreign minister Sophie Wilmès. The fourth female contender so far is Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, who before serving five years as Croatia’s president was for a time one of NATO’s assistant secretaries-general.

As with the EU’s top job, the selection process is profoundly unsatisfactory. Intergovernmental horse-trading of the darkest and most devious kind is how these key posts are settled, with little focus on the candidates’ ideas.

The pity is that Europe’s security will depend on cooperation with Russia, not confrontation. There is no casus belli, but there are Russian sensitivities at times akin to paranoia, and an unimaginative NATO at times buffeted by the cross-winds of US politics. The task for the alliance’s next secretary-general is to lower the temperature while raising its capacity to deliver in this new era of hybrid warfare and cyber conflict.

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