The new Nato: from the Soviet Union to Iraq

Article published on Dec. 1, 2002
From the magazine
Article published on Dec. 1, 2002
Although not officially the main theme of the Prague Summit, there is little doubt that the lurking war against Iraq will be discussed between the members of the Atlantic Alliance. While the role Nato would play in such a war is unclear, Bush’s intentions are more conspicuous.

Enlargement and re-structuring of international institutions seems to be the new chic this year. Last month it was the EU that made important steps towards the integration of several Central and Eastern European states into the Union. Now it’s Nato’s turn. It’s like everybody suddenly realised that the world has changed, and therefore so too should international institutions. Nato was created more than half a century ago to curb Soviet aggression and if it wasn’t going to expand to Eastern European nations it would become completely obsolete.

Along with enlargement, the re-structuring of Nato was also inevitable. As demonstrated by the Kosovo conflict, Europeans are still lagging behind the US in terms of military capabilities. And if Europe is seriously concerned about US unilateralism, it really needs to get into shape and start fielding sufficient troops and more high-tech equipment, otherwise Nato will always be bypassed. Nato needs fewer tanks and more powerful and technically advanced equipment. Thus deployment of a multinational rapid deployment force would make Nato a more effective military organisation, better suited to modern-day conflicts, which are not necessarily confined within the borders of Europe.

Yet, apart from the realisation that Nato needs to evolve to a post-Cold War institution, it seems that the initiative to reinvent Nato had other motivations. Indeed, Bush is likely to use the Prague Summit to prod Europeans to support military action on Iraq. In fact, prior to the United Nations vote on November 8th, part of President Bush’s speech was going to focus on the need to get tough with Saddam Hussein. Although this part was subsequently scrapped from the script, Bush’s intentions for the restructuring of Nato are nonetheless unequivocal. First of all, enlargement to Eastern Europe means the inclusion in the Alliance of countries which are much more pro-American than the countries of Western Europe. This will act as a useful counterweight to less enthusiastic countries like France or Germany. Whereas in the West Bush is often pictured as an absurd, out-of-control cowboy, in the East he is well respected, as he represents the ideology of peace and freedom to which these countries are very receptive. Support for an eventual war on Iraq would thus be facilitated.

Secondly, and more practically, the Bush administration is eyeing those countries in the East which are located at a strategic position near the Middle-East. Romania and Bulgaria could be conveniently used as a stopover point by U.S. troops. Thus, although the new entrants will not bring significant military capabilities to the Alliance, their major contributions lie in their loyalty to the United States and their strategic location near Iraq.

In any case, there is little chance that Nato will have an leading role in a potential war on Iraq. Whether it should, is another question. Many analysts deplore the little involvement that Nato has had so far in the war on terrorism, and argue that Nato is the best mechanism for a U.S.-led war against Iraq. Therefore, it should be taken seriously now or else it will never recover from its lack of credibility. However, it seems that Nato’s role in a potential war against Iraq will be restricted to a post-war “picking-up-the-pieces”. This may include a Nato-led peacekeeping force to maintain internal order and stability and to democratise Iraq’s armed forces. Although peacekeeping is a crucial part of a war – albeit one very often neglected by the U.S. – this sort of operation does not seem to be the type that Nato is all geared up to perform. If the Prague Summit was all about making Nato a efficient pre-emptive military force, with a capacity to deploy troops anywhere at short notice to fight, then its confinement to peacekeeping may be frustrating. Thus, Bush’s rallying up on the war on terror at the Nato summit will not be to make the Alliance take up collective arms against Saddam. Rather, as Colin Powell told Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, the US is merely prudently considering contingencies in the event that the use of military force should be required and the United Nations declines to act.

By making it an organisation geared against terrorism and not Soviet invasion, the Prague Summit saved Nato from complete irrelevance. Its new role in Bush’s war on terrorism will be a contingency plan in the case that the United Nations fails to satisfy Bush’s ambitions. Nato now has the double advantage of having both an array of pro-American members, as well as strategically located ones, so that Bush can be confident he has alternatives to the United Nations. In the meantime it will take on the valuable responsibility of peacekeeping.