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Despite operations in Afghanistan, the NATO Secretary General confirmed to a RUSI audience that the alliance has no ambition to become a global policeman. Events in the Caucasus have helped put this fact into perspective.
By Alexis Crow, International Security Studies, RUSI
The August crisis in the Caucasus has once again brought into question NATO’s role in an uncertain strategic environment. As Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer cautioned, the conflict between Russia, Georgia and the West regarding the breakaway Georgian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia does not mean that ‘a second Cold War is in the offing’. Yet many scholars, policymakers and journalists continue to debate whether Russia’s military incursion into a sovereign territory of a future NATO member signifies a need for the Alliance to return home to Europe and fortify its regional security stance, in contrast to a ‘global NATO’ which seeks out foreign expeditions. NATO, some would argue, has gone too far in recent years, and Russia’s aggressive stance in Georgia demonstrates the need for the Alliance to come home.
Yet as Mr De Hoop Scheffer affirmed, NATO does not have the ambition to become a ‘global policeman’. Why? Primarily, the Secretary General pointed to a lack of material resources. The Alliance does not have the troops and the manpower to become a gendarme du monde or a global ‘league of democracies’ as suggested by US Senator John McCain. Indeed, Mr De Hoop Scheffer pointed to his own challenge of continually garnering financial support for ISAF, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan. If it is so difficult to raise funds from allies already committed to the operation, it would be an even greater obstacle to request members to contribute to yet another theatre. More importantly, the Secretary General was adamant in his claim that NATO should not have a ‘global ambition’. The Alliance should remain modest about what it can do in foreign territories where its values are not welcome. Thus, the current strategic context demands a certain recognition from NATO members – and those eager to ‘export’ democracy – that they live in a world with people who do not share their values.
Yet what of Afghanistan? If NATO is indeed not a ‘global’ alliance, then ISAF is an exception to the rule, rather than an exception which defines the rule. As Mr De Hoop Scheffer maintained, Afghanistan is ‘about our response to the global phenomenon of international terrorism’. NATO is in Afghanistan to defeat Taliban insurgents and in so doing provide the conditions for stability and rule of law in the country. That the United States was attacked by members of an international terrorist group who found a safe haven in the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan only reaffirms NATO’s commitment to Article V of the Washington Treaty. NATO’s mission does not define its transformation in terms of out-of-area operations and put forth a new global agenda: on the contrary, it illustrates the solidarity principle of its allies.
However, what remains to be seen is whether NATO’s perceived failure to appropriately respond to the crisis in the Caucasus will result in a loss of faith in Euro-Atlanticism by former Warsaw Pact states. According to the Secretary General, ‘Russia has demonstrated a disregard for the sovereignty of a small neighbour, and for international law.’ Surely the more recent NATO members who have a shared historical experience of Russian military aggression will be concerned about the validity of NATO’s security guarantee. As Georgia received only declarations of support as opposed to a material show of force, can other states in Eastern Europe remain convinced of Euro-Atlantic solidarity?
As Mr De Hoop Scheffer rightly pointed out, ‘Article V already exists; we don’t have to reinvent it…Neither does upholding Article V require us to return to a Cold War military posture in Europe.’ The August crisis in the Caucasus neither catalysed a new Cold War, nor indicated the invalidity of the Washington Treaty. However, what it did do was place NATO in a catch-22 position. On the one hand, the Secretary General clearly stated that the Alliance was ‘not in the business of closing doors and slamming doors’ with regard to its policy toward Russia. ‘Yes,’ Mr. De Hoop Scheffer claimed, ‘the West really does need Russia.’ NATO members such as Germany and Italy are dependent upon Russia’s supplies of oil and natural gas; moreover, Russia co-operates with NATO in Afghanistan. Yet conversely, how are these Western needs perceived in the former Soviet bloc? States such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary are overly eager to contribute to NATO’s missions; however, these same countries draw parallels of Russia’s actions in Georgia to their own historical experience during the Cold War. When Mr De Hoop Scheffer says that NATO will not return to ‘business as usual’ with Russia, is this enough to quell the fears of its newer members? As NATO ministers gather in London in the aftermath of this crisis, one thing is clear: the Alliance is once again forced to question ‘the role that Russia wants to play in the new international system.’ If – and when – this becomes evident, let us hope NATO will provide an appropriate response.
The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.