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Mainstream, VOL L, No 24, June 2, 2012

NATO’s Legitimacy Crisis

Friday 8 June 2012, by Ninan Koshy


Every NATO Summit is an exercise in its quest for legitimacy. The Chicago Summit was no exception except that the legitimacy crisis has deepened with the debacle in Afghanistan. It was the biggest meeting of the alliance ever organised, with more than sixty countries and organisations represented there. Staged in the home town of President Obama, it was meant to declare the exit from Afghanistan—as if it were an achievement—and to boost the Presi-dent’s geopolitical leadership, both messages to the US public, as the country moves towards its Presidential elections.
NATO put on a brave face at the Chicago Summit but the reality is that it has been weak-ened by the euro-zone economic crisis and there are uncomfortable questions about what its role will be once it ends the intervention in Afgha-nistan in 2014. The stakes were high at Chicago. The capitals of all NATO member-states are wrestling with unprecedented economic chall-enges—fiscal crises that have forced austerity measures and declining defence budgets. The question before the Chicago meet was whether or not NATO has the resources and commitment to fulfil the New Strategic Concept and how NATO can survive the economic crisis. In his attempt to frame an agenda for debate at the Summit, NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen had already stated in September last year: “The backdrop to our NATO Summit in Chicago is the global economic crisis. And there is no con-tradiction between being concerned about the economy and being concerned about security.” Addressing the European and US elites, he conceded that NATO faced a crisis and observed that the “alliance that brings Europe and North America together requires an equitable sharing of bur-dens” and that “downward trends in European defence budgets” raise “undeniable concerns”. He also warned that “at the current pace of cuts, it is hard to see how Europe could maintain enough military capabilities to sustain similar (Libyan war) operations in the future”. He didn’t say that its dubious military triumph in Libya only exposed the vast disparity between US and European military technologies.

The economic dimension extends to the USA too. The Pentagon has been forced to announce plans to cut its anticipated spending increases by $ 487 billion over the next decade. With prio-rity being given to the military build-up for the ‘pivot’ in Asia and the Pacific—mainly with a view to managing China’s rise—this means that 6000 to 7000 US troops are slated to be repat-riated from Europe and that there will be some consolidation of the US military bases and installations. However, the US leaders made it “absolutely clear that Washington would not abandon its European allies even as it cut spen-ding and turned its focus more towards the Asia-Pacific region”. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta reiterated that Europe remains the United States’ “security partner of choice for military operations and diplomacy around the world” and promised that, even with the Penta-gon’s new strategic guidance and ‘pivot’ towards Asia, “our military footprint in Europe will remain larger than in any other part of the world”. But he gave a warning. Panetta insisted that Europe “stop cutting its own military budgets” and “get its own economic house in order to keep the NATO alliance strong”.

NATO has reinvented itself several times. Originally a mutual defence pact that bound North America and Western Europe together during the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union eliminated NATO’s Cold War raison d’etre. It became a military alliance groping for a cause, an Army in search of an enemy. When it met for its 50th anniversary in 1999 it rein-vented itself with a new ‘strategic concept’ ascribing to itself the right to intervene militarily in any part of the world.

Afghanistan was NATO’s first mission outside its traditional area of operation and its most ambitious. NATO is leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which is battling the Taliban. The decade-old war in Afghanistan had been des-cribed by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as illegal. Last year with the US taking a low profile, but providing critical capabilities and supplies, Britain and France led a NATO air operation in Libya on the side of the rebels to topple Gaddafi, claiming it to be a key milestone in the Arab Spring but actually creating a chaotic situation in that country. NATO’s intervention was a clear violation of the UN mandate, further delegitimising NATO

The Chicago Summit had to recognise that countries traditionally active in NATO opera-tions, such as Poland and the Netherlands, chose not to take part in the Libyan air strike, reflecting the growing unpopularity in many countries of NATO’s foreign expeditions. This led Czech Defence Minister Alexandr Vondra to argue that the crucial issue for the alliance now was not enlargement or ‘out-of-area operations’ but the common defence of its members. NATO’s Article 5 commitment to mutual defence was the bedrock that justified it in the eyes of the people of its member-states. British Prime Minister Cameron disagreed that NATO should ‘lower its ambition’ and ‘look inward’; “I argued and the summit agreed that NATO should actually do the opposite. We should look outward, reassert NATO’s relevance and make sure it is ready and capable to tackle the threats that may lie outside its territory but nonetheless are very real threats to us at home,” he said. The debate highlighted NATO’s identity problem. Within its territory it has no real threat and therefore no role. Outside its territory it has no legitimacy.

NATO leaders sealed a landmark agreement to hand control of Afghanistan over to its own security forces by the end of 2014 putting the Western alliance on an irreversible course out of the unpopular war. This was consequent to an agreement between President Obama and President Karzai in Kabul on a very special occasion—the first anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

The declaration of the US’ exit from Afghanis-tan will not change much of what is happening on the ground. It will not end the US’ war in Afghanistan nor will it give Karzai control over the hated night raids in the Pashtun areas of the country. In fact it is an open question how long Karzai will survive as the President of Afghanistan. The decisions on how many US troops will remain in Afghanistan and beyond and what their mission will be are to be made only in a Bilateral Security Agreement, still to be negotiated and expected to be concluded within one year. That means Obama does not have to announce any decisions about stationing of the US forces in Afghanistan before the 2012 Presidential elections allowing him to emphasise that he is getting out of Afghanistan and side-lining the question of a long-term commitment of troops in Afghanistan. Although Obama is touting a policy of ending the war in Afghanis-tan, the US military and Pentagon have publicly said they expect to maintain thousands of troops in Afghanistan for many years after 2014. Obama had hoped to persuade the Taliban leadership to engage in serious peace talks that would make it easier to sell the idea that he is getting out of Afghanistan, while continuing the war. But the Taliban has not cooperated. Obama must assume that the Taliban understands what the American public does not and will play the game of negotiations accordingly. The centrepiece of the US strategy is the establishment of mili-tary bases in Afghanistan and everything else is built around it or integrated into it at various stages between now and the end of 2014.

At the meeting there was a lot of talk about ‘transition’, Afghan self-reliance and growing security, but it could not conceal the fact that the USA and NATO failed militarily and poli-tically in Afghanistan. What, after all, will be the ‘transition’, a Taliban-dominated government, civil war, balkanisation or all taken together? The imperial US project was to turn Afghanistan into a protectorate providing bases close to the Caspian Basin oil and to block China. It was this project that failed.
While the Chicago Summit adopted as its own the agreement made by the USA with Afghanistan, it was not all smooth sailing. The new French President Francois Hollande made a surprise visit to Afghanistan within days after the Chicago Summit and announced that the French mission to Afghanistan would be over this year. In fact he had already told the Summit that France would pull its troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year, two years ahead of the 2014 deadline agreed by NATO and the US for withdrawal. Hollande was fulfilling an election pledge. Many NATO leaders were upset because others may follow suit violating the dictum, “in together, out together”.

But the really big problem for NATO in its pursuit of its Afghan strategy is Pakistan. For months, in the wake of the deadly US air strikes on a Pakistan border outpost in November last year which killed 24 Pakistani soldiers, Pakistan has refused to allow NATO supply routes to Afghanistan to operate. President Zardari managed to get an invitation to attend the Summit but he was totally ignored by Obama who had hoped that there would be an agreement on the supply routes. Pakistan continues to insist on an apology and an end to US drone strikes, demands the US refuses to comply with. The studied omission of Pakistan by President Obama in his opening remarks from the list of countries “that continue to provide critical transit for International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)” and that in the presence of President Zardari and his Foreign Minister Hina Rabbni Khar was a message which was all too clear. The slump in US-Pakistan relations clouded the Summit in Chicago, which broke off without a deal on the Afghan supply routes. The Pakistani problem in the Afghan strategy of the USA is complicated by the fact that Pakistan views both the US negotiations with the Taliban and the Obama-Karzai agreement as detrimental to its interests.

That NATO has become the military wing of the US Empire is without question. Zbiginiew Brzezinski, the National Security Adviser to President Carter, wrote a primer for his students and acolytes that described the foundations of the US ‘imperial project’. The title of the book was The Grand Chessboard (1998). Embracing traditional geostrategic thinking, he explained that the prize required for global mastery is dominance over the Eurasian heartland. NATO, Brzezinski added, has long provided the vehicle for ensuring “the United States is a key participant even in inter-European affairs”.

He went on to explain that as a distant island power, the US requires footholds on Eurasia’s western, southern and eastern frontiers if it is to maintain its imperial influence. Brzezinski defined the North Atlantic alliance as part of an integrated, comprehensive and long-term strategy for all of Eurasia in which the NATO would eventually reach Asia where another military alliance could connect the Pacific and Southeastern nations.

Dr Ninan Koshy, formerly a Visiting Fellow, Harvard Law School, USA, is the author of The War on Terror—Reordering the World and Under the Empire—India’s New Foreign Policy.

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