NATO in 2014

December 23, 2013

NATO in 2014: Continuity and Change

 

In many respects 2013 was a year of stark contrasts in terms of foreign policy; public support for foreign interventions in many western countries has waned significantly, whilst the US has moved to realign its interests away from the traditional European and Middle Eastern theatres, in a pivot towards the Pacific. The coming year, 2014, will mark 65 years of the NATO alliance and proposes to be a year of retrenchment and rebalancing for many nations, with domestic populations more concerned about economics than foreign policy, and an environment in which NATO will find itself transitioning from a war fighting alliance to a peace time one. This thesis will attempt to look at the coming year, identifying the various and varying areas NATO is liable to be involved in; and the ways in which 2014 will bring and result in changes to the alliance. Inevitably due to the limited nature of this thesis not all areas which NATO is likely to be involved with in 2014 will be able to be covered, nor indeed every aspect of NATO or its member states. However by focusing specifically on a small number of key areas this thesis will aim to offer a reasonably robust analysis of the key events which are liable to shape NATO in 2014 and key areas in which 2014 will bring new changes to NATO. Specifically this thesis will look at: the drawdown in Afghanistan, the conflict in Syria, and the continuing threat of Russia; in each case analysing how each situation is liable to impact upon NATO; before concluding with an evaluation of NATO soft power approaches and how 2014 will shape the relationship between both the UK and NATO. For the most part sources do not include senior politicians and NATO officials, due to time constraints, however where possible, NATO sources and publications have been used to ensure relative consistency with NATO policy. In sum although this thesis addresses each specific area individually, as an overarching argument this thesis would argue that 2014 is likely see a dichotomy between domestic policies in NATO member states, driven by weakened economies, and public opinion, which wish to minimise military expenditure and foreign interventions; contrasted starkly against foreign crisis, events and incidents which may occur throughout the year and require NATO to play an important and often leading role.

 

Afghanistan has in many respects been NATO’s most successful effort to date, at present with 49 separate countries contributing over 87,000 troops. Yet it has also been a highly controversial war and it is liable to produce a similarly controversial legacy. In many ways it has similarly been an equally controversial mission for NATO, and has highlighted the difficulty in conducting long-duration multi-national operations. With the wide variety of contributing nations, also creating a wide variety of conceptions on how the mission should be prosecuted, and a wide variety of restrictions and national caveats on the quantity and conditions under troops were contributed. Perhaps the key point the NATO mission in Afghanistan has highlighted for the alliance is the inequality in burden sharing that often arises amongst contributory nations. And that whilst the US may have the capacity to act unilaterally, as the US led Operation Enduring Freedom against Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents showed, nevertheless an unwillingness of member states to make similar contributions can cause frictions within the alliance. Whilst the controversial nature of the Afghanistan conflict has also provided a counter-incentive to domestic politicians, with those European nations shouldering the highest burdens also often facing the largest public backlash from voters. This tension between domestic politics and foreign policies is nothing new; and indeed between foreign interests and European interests as both the US and NATO discovered during Vietnam. Yet what it does highlight is that in an alliance which is attempting to develop forces which are “Expeditionary, flexible and deployable” and in which all nations are expected to respond should one be attacked, the actual strength of the alliance, and indeed its willingness to project forces externally is likely, in the future, to be far more heavily dependent on the vagaries of public opinion. As to 2014 these inconsistencies are likely to continue, with continued confusion over whether the US and NATO will even be allowed to remain in country post 2014 contrasted with contributory-nations keen to withdraw their forces and politicians eager to capitalise on the domestic political benefits bringing the troops home is liable to have.

 

Whilst Afghanistan is very much a commitment which is winding down for the US and NATO; by contrast Syria is one which is liable to occupy substantial attention from the alliance well into 2014. Although western nations, in particular the US and UK, have attempted to rule out military intervention, the nature of the conflict; with an unstable border between NATO member Turkey, and Syria, an increasingly radicalised opposition and a steadily worsening refugee problem. Not to mention an authoritarian government, backed and supported by both Russia and Iran, and with a substantial amount of domestic support. Is one in which should the proposed political settlement fail NATO intervention, in one form or another, should not be ruled out. Particularly as the costs of inaction escalate and the national instability increasingly spills over Syrian borders. While whether the Syrian regime has actually handed all its chemical arms over for destruction and the necessary response if this is not the case; could also be a potential trigger for NATO involvement. Moreover there is also the interesting question of whether the refugee crisis and the impact it is having on some NATO member economies, such as Bulgaria, could be constituted as sufficient under Article 5 to petition for NATO intervention. However much like in Afghanistan the nature of any sort of intervention will likely be shaped by domestic public opinion with the tensions over burden sharing, and national covenants; almost certainly being reawakened. Perhaps the most interesting possibility with regards to Syria, is that any future NATO intervention may not be US led, even if as in Libya it is still underwritten by the US; and may potentially not even be underwritten by the US; though the extent to which Russia would allow any intervention remains highly contentious and it is not impossible that any NATO mission would only be proposed under the auspices of the UN and with at least partial Russian support.

 

In many respects the key component for NATO in 2014 as it was for NATO in 1949 remains the non-NATO member Russia. Although these concerns may revolve more around the potential actions and policies Russia intends to take and less around the threat of outright Russian invasion. Nevertheless Russia will inevitably play a large factor in NATO thinking well into 2014, particularly as NATO retrenches from Afghanistan and re-orientates onto a more conventional footing.This is not to say that all Russian-NATO interaction is liable to be negative, whilst a difference of opinion is likely to remain regarding the Syrian issue, and over Russian actions in the Ukraine and the deployment of missiles to its border regions. In other areas such as the destruction of chemical weapons, narcotics, terrorism and piracy there is the potential for significantly closer co-operation, particularly under the auspices of the NATO-Russia council. Much will likely depend on the course of particular events in 2014; with, if the Syrian regime is found to have used chemical weapons on its own people, whether proposed US missile-interceptor basing goes ahead and the direction Iran decades to take its nuclear programme all likely to have a bearing on NATO-Russian relations. However it is not just in the traditional border areas that tension with Russia are likely to arise, as has been show with the recent Greenpeace arrests, there are considerable hydrocarbon reserves within the Arctic region, and a number of competing claims between NATO-Member states (US, Canada, Norway and Denmark) and Russia which have the potential to create zones of tension, potentially leading to conflict. What does however remain clear is that for a number of NATO-members Russia is still an ever present threat and those members will be pushing for NATO to retain a long term focus upon Russia far beyond 2014.

 

Although Afghanistan, Syria and Russia are likely to be the major priorities for NATO in 2014 this is not to say that they will be the only priorities. Current NATO missions for instance: monitoring the Mediterranean Sea and counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa are likely to continue; and, as the recent French intervention into the Central African Republic has shown, there is also the potential for increased NATO assistance in support of the African Union. However what is likely to be seen increasingly into 2014 and beyond is a growing importance in soft power alongside the traditional use of hard power. This is not only in the continued emphasis in gathering and maintaining strategic partners; both in terms of countries, and non-governmental organisations and in the continued maintenance of dialogue, both within NATO-members and its partners but also in the increased uses of “technology-enabled networks” to inform and educate populations about NATO policies and in the increased emphasis on Cyber Security, both in terms of the hard and soft power protection of infrastructure and economies. Likely as well the continued emphasis on supporting UNSC (United Nations Security Council) resolution 1325 calling for “full and equal participation of women at all levels in issues ranging from early conflict prevention to post-conflict reconstruction, peace and security” will continue into 2014 and will continue to inform, direct and influence NATO policies and campaigns. Indeed what is increasingly likely into 2014 and beyond is that NATO will begin to develop a combination of both hard and soft power to be utilised in conjunction within its operations.

 

It is into this environment of both continuity and change that the UK is due to host the 2014 NATO summit and it is against this backdrop that the UK will have to define its relationship with NATO in 2014 and beyond. Key issues are likely to remain unchanged; there is no movement for the UK to withdraw from NATO for instance. However many of the tensions which have arisen over the NATO mission in Afghanistan, specifically in terms of burden sharing and control are likely to become more contested. Explicitly for the UK this comes down to a push from within the EU for an increasingly unified military force, defence industry and defence policy, potentially under EU control. This is contrasted with a domestic antipathy within the UK for increased EU integration, and an active resistance from its current political leaders. When given the choice between an EU military and a NATO alliance the UK is likely to see far more benefit in maintaining the status quo, especially if it appears that the drive for an EU force is politically driven, in particular as an attempt to provide a form of protectionism to EU defence industries. These tensions are not just limited to between the UK and NATO, among the US, UK and NATO the issue of burden sharing remains, with the US keen for NATO members to maintain the target of 2 per cent GDP allocated to defence spending, even whilst it cuts its own defence spending and with nations like the UK maintaining a 2 per cent expenditure becoming the exception rather than the norm amongst European members. The UK is also likely to increasingly face the tension between NATO calls for progressive inter-operability and shared capabilities, for instance in terms of strategic airlift capacity, and the difficulties which arise when one partner in those shared capabilities refuses to allow their use. The best example of this can be seen with the recent disbandment of the French-German Brigade, in large part due to the German refusal to allow it to be deployed on overseas missions. In sum the UK remains and is likely to remain a strong supporter of NATO, however this does not mean that it will not have to face difficulties and potential evolutions of that relationship in 2014 and beyond.

 

In conclusion therefore 2014 is liable to be a period of both continuity and change for NATO. This thesis has noted the lessons learnt by the Alliance during its time in Afghanistan, and how its withdrawal from that theatre will change the alliance from being on a war-fighting footing to being on a peace time one; and an alliance likely far more subject to public opinion then it has been previously. The difficulties and potential operational theatre of Syria was then discussed with this thesis arguing that an intervention of some sort should not be ruled out, though given Russia’s position this would likely be only undertaken under a UN mandate, and even then only if public opinion in NATO-member countries allowed. This thesis then looked at the issue of Russia, arguing that although Russia no longer presents an invasion risk, it does nevertheless continue to pose risks to NATO-members over border issues, arctic hydrocarbon extraction and nuclear missile siting, and that whilst there is a sizable opportunity for co-opportunity with Russia, those NATO-member countries which feel under threat will continue to ensure that Russia remains high on the NATO agenda. The increasing need for, and use of, soft power by NATO was then discussed; touching upon technology enabled networks, cyber security and the enforcement of UNSCR 1325, with this thesis arguing that increasingly soft power is likely to be used alongside and in conjunction with the more traditional hard power capabilities. Finally this thesis evaluated the UK-NATO relationship and how it is likely to evolve throughout 2014, arguing that the UK is likely to be keen to maintain NATO as the primary military alliance in Europe instead of an EU based force, and that calls for increased inter-operability are likely to run into difficulties in terms of the ability for those shared resources to be deployed by other member states in the face of one contributory countries national veto. In sum although politicians and policy makers undoubtedly hope that 2014 will be a quiet year on the foreign policy front, to allow them to focus upon domestic, particularly economic issues; in reality there is a continued need and importance for NATO and every chance that it could play a leading role many times throughout the year.

 

Jonathan Boulton

December 2013

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