NATO is in crisis today. In an interview with the St Andrews Foreign Affairs Review conducted at Sciences Po, Paris, on Aril 12, Olivier Kempf states his views on the role of NATO in the twenty-first century. Dr Kempf teaches both at the College Universitaire and at the graduate level at Sciences Po, and he is the author of numerous volumes on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. He has formerly served in NATO, both in the Combined Joint Task Force (CJTF) and at the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Command in Europe (SHAPE).

Image courtesy of  DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison, © 2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of DOD photo by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Status Quo in Flux

NATO is in crisis, but so are many states, international organisations, and the international system; so says Dr Kempf. Yet NATO has succeeded in surmounting numerous crises before and it has responded to them by transforming itself. It integrated former Warsaw Pact countries, it reacted to the split of Former Yugoslavia, and became an organisation of “employment” or action, rather than of dissuasion. In other words, it adapted by undertaking out-of-area missions and non-article five missions.

Today, NATO is in a crisis because it faces an environment in which threats and issues are difficult to define. Nuclear proliferation, terrorism, climate change, energy scarceness, rogue and failed states, are all threats. The real threat, however, stems from the fact that the international system does not work very well.

The international system used to be based on the polarity that existed between two superpowers. Today, according to Dr Kempf, there is not even one superpower left anymore. Power is changing and not in the sense where it would establish a new balance. The United States are more or less in decline. Europe is more or less in decline. There are emerging states, but they do not really coordinate themselves.

We find ourselves in an environment pervaded by risk and the tools we formerly had no longer fit this environment. It is an environment that is unbalanced, evolving, disintegrating. It is practically impossible to establish priorities, formulate plans, designate assets, and assess capabilities in such an environment.

Two Questions of Cohesion

Against this backdrop, NATO faces two questions of cohesion. The first is transatlantic: do the United States and Europe still share a common interest? The United States still entertains global ambitions and is increasingly pivoting towards Asia. Europe, on the other hand, has given up all claims to be a global power and is increasingly pre-occupied with itself.

This leads directly to the second question, concerning European internal cohesion. Europe is fragile. It continues to suffer from the economic crisis. It is witnessing a number of unconventional political movements, such as Germany’s Pirate Party and Italy’s Five Star Movement. Further, it continues to see secessionist tendencies on the rise. Scotland is such a case and Belgium presents such a dilemma.

All of these developments represent risks, not threats. The question is whether the responses to these threats are national or multinational. This diagnostic has not yet been made.

On top of this, Europe is not isolated from the rest of the world. It is seeing an emerging and ambitious China, a tense situation in Far East Asia, and on-going difficulties in Southern Asia, between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is seeing a blocked, yet unstable series of developments in the Middle East with regards to the Arab Revolts. Lastly, it is seeing Africa, a continent on which there are countries that are falling apart and others that are developing significantly.

There is no fixed picture. Optimistic and pessimistic scenarios coexist in today’s security environment and it is exceptionally difficult to formulate a strategy based on that.

NATO and Its Mission

This leads us to the big question – does NATO’s original mission still apply?

Lord Ismay, the first Secretary General of NATO, summarised NATO’s original mission concisely: “Keep the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out.”

Today, two of these are no longer valid. So why does NATO still exist?

The main reason why NATO continues to exist is because of the contract between the two shores of the Atlantic. The contract is the following: The Europeans want the American security guarantee. In return, they allow the United States to lead the organisation. This contract is mutually beneficial, because it maintains peace in Europe.

Peace in Europe is not a consequence of developments on the European continent. It is a consequence of the American guarantee. This is also why so many European countries do not want to invest in defense. They feel no great threats to their security and they rely on the American guarantee. This is the contract of the alliance. As long as this contract holds, the alliance will survive.

But then what is the use of the organisation? NATO is two things, the alliance and the organization. The organisation is the body beneath the alliance. It has served as a tool to re-unify Europe and to answer the Balkan question over the course of the past two decades.

The question now is how to maintain this toolbox in the short-term and in the medium-term. The organisation is a toolbox of “in-case-of”. Maintaining it poses a dilemma between the alliance and the organisation which makes it effective.

Yes, NATO will survive. But how will it survive? This remains uncertain, because of the changing nature of our environment.

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