June 1, 2010  

Essay: NATO’s essential modern role

The alliance can and must meet today’s global security challenges

Once again, international headlines question the future utility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Now is high time to remind the world of how the historical role of the alliance informs the missions it has to accomplish today.

The alliance has always operated in a changing security environment. The first decade of the 21st century reaffirms a truth in the international security domain that has applied from antiquity to modern time: Change is constant and the unexpected prevails. For those who might doubt the permanent volatility of the international environment, witness the spread of global extremism and the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Georgia. Moreover, observe the gamut of newly emerging nonlethal threats, combined with what might be called the first great crisis of globalization, the global financial meltdown of 2007 to the present.

We design and build security structures to carry us through change. As history teaches us, change may not necessarily bring more peace and stability to the world. It is worth noting that military force and its global projection will remain one of the fundamental pillars of the world’s security architecture in the next decades. NATO, with all its strengths and weaknesses, has plunged into a new security reality and must do more than simply adapt to it.

First, we should starkly underline that there is still much room for potential improvement in NATO’s efficiency and visibility. Although NATO is a historic accomplishment and a success story, its past should not overshadow the raison d’être of the trans-Atlantic community of today. In fact, the events of the first decade of this millennium might be the last clarion call for NATO to commence the crucial shift to a multipolar vision. NATO must assume the role of an international creative force ready to address the newest global challenges and threats. The path to achieve that goal encompasses the effective fulfillment of two current challenges: the Afghan mission and NATO’s new strategic concept.

There are several myths distorting the debate about the allied strategy in Afghanistan. The most corrosive and counterproductive myth assumes eventual failure of the ISAF mission, which will lead to alliance humiliation and collapse. There is no doubt that the Afghan operation is crucial for trans-Atlantic identity. Nevertheless, the allied presence in Afghanistan does not constitute a test, but rather a task for NATO, which will remain the most influential military alliance in the world. In addition, many people are asking whether the Afghan conflict is worth the effort. However, the entire NATO community should recommit itself to make tough decisions to achieve the aims of the entire “shape, clear, hold and build” strategy. In the end, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, stabilization, reconstruction and state-building in Afghanistan are all strands of the same rope. There are no quick-fix or silver-bullet solutions to these problems. This job cannot be accomplished on the cheap. What NATO needs is an unparalleled level of commitment of all the member states that should not be willing to find a substitute for victory.

Poland, by taking over responsibility for security and development as well as future prosperity of the Ghazni province in 2008, emphasized that the allied effort in Afghanistan should remain the top priority of the whole alliance. The Polish strategy in the region, devoid of any national caveats restricting deployment, has proven that NATO can be back on a successful path. Poland has just enlarged its contingent to 2,600 troops — an unprecedented level in Polish post-World War II history — thus remaining the seventh-largest troop-contributing nation in the operation. By striving to control the terrain, a condition for progress, the Polish contingent has started to guarantee a higher level of security in Ghazni province, which is commonly called “Afghanistan in miniature” because of its complex ethnic makeup, similar to that of the nation’s.

The new strategic concept of NATO will have to address several issues with indisputable clarity. First, NATO should never forget that out-of-area crisis response operations can transfer allied security to a higher level only when the founding prerequisites have been guaranteed. Therefore, the alliance should attempt to balance its strengths for all eventualities while still focusing on the greatest common priority of the collective defense.

Second, the founding principles, with Article 5 — which stipulates that an attack upon one will be treated as an attack upon all — as a cornerstone to the whole alliance, cannot be discarded. NATO has to remain strong and united in safeguarding the indivisibility of all the member states irrespective of the military and political efforts. Furthermore, the new strategic concept, in order not to espouse any partial solutions, should lead to the institutionalization of Article 5, thus avoiding the temptation of diluting this linchpin.

NATO needs concrete and stark measures that support the practical implementation of the collective defense.

NATO finds itself at the crossroads where only one path leads to victory and success. The member states do not need a talk-shop, even if it is full of clairvoyant promises. What NATO has always aspired to is an effective collective defense organization committed to the strengthening of the trans-Atlantic community. NATO, being the alliance of hope for all the 900 million people in the member states, must pursue the necessary reforms, bearing in mind that its founding values are still an indisputable source of its strength. AFJ

GEN. FRANCISZEK GAGOR, chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, wrote this article a few days before his death on April 10 in an aircraft crash in Smolensk, Russia. Gagor was traveling as a member of President Lech Kaczynski’s delegation.