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Reforming NATO at the Lisbon Summit

Commentary, 19 November 2010
Americas, International Institutions, Europe
The NATO Lisbon Summit is heaped with expectation, but it is unlikely to deliver radical reforms. Although escalating tensions in Afghanistan and rapprochement with Russia is high on the agenda, ‘Getting NATO’s house in Order’ would be the greatest headline for this summit.

The NATO Lisbon Summit is heaped with expectation, but it is unlikely to deliver radical reforms. Although escalating tensions in Afghanistan and rapprochement with Russia is high on the agenda, 'Getting NATO's house in Order' would be the greatest headline for this summit.

By Alastair Cameron, Head, European Security Programme, for

Lisbon Summit II

There is an expectation that the Lisbon Summit will produce the most radical changes to NATO's command structure and missile defence agreement seen in years. However, the Summit is likely to miss several important opportunities and the conclusions within the Strategic Concept will correspond to what was widely anticipated. Its achievements in terms of NATO reform have no alternative other than to fall short. These reforms are still to be bourn-out by the actual readiness of allies to cut-out redundant ‑ yet participative ‑ structures. Moreover, the cumulative expectations of such summits are often higher than the final outcome.

In light of these hopes, the Summit will inevitably constitute a damp squib when compared to the necessity of the tasks confronting NATO. Analysts, no doubt, will point out that the Allies missed an important chance of renewing the bonds of transatlantic leadership that bring the organisation together. Such a view would be a far cry from the truth, yet as the leaders of twenty-eight Allied nations head-off to Lisbon, they should be mindful of the wide scope of challenges which still face the organisation.

Most of the expectations currently built into the Lisbon Summit stem from the much-hyped launch of NATO's new Strategic Concept. Organised by the then incoming Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the review conducted by the Group of Experts raised a good number of priorities and challenges that may be channelled into the newest document.

Entitled 'NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement' the report was the product of an extensive series of seminars and consultations with academics and officials, civilian and military alike, both from within and outside the Alliance. A very well written report in its own right, it highlights the considerations Alliance leaders should take into account when signing on the dotted line in Lisbon. If the leaders stay true to the report, without equivocation or expedient compromise, the Lisbon Summit's communiqué can be judged a success. Yet already, there is much that can be discounted from the conclusions they will reach.

The Potential and Pitfalls of Rapprochement with Russia

Throughout 2009 there were palpable tensions between Eastern and Western members of the Alliance after the Georgia-Russian war. The principle contention was the extent to which Russia continued to represent a 'threat' to the political independence of those NATO members closest to its borders.

Several members subsequently argued that the new Strategic Concept should help define what would today constitute a modern-day Article V scenario ‑ making explicit hostile actions that would elicit collective action. No doubt, a statement in the Strategic Concept regarding Article V will go some way towards reaffirming its centrality as a key tenet of the Alliance. But this is unlikely to fundamentally address those concerns expressed by certain members regarding NATO's actual capacity to deploy and undertake such obligations.

Whilst harsh rhetoric from Russia on missile defence or energy issues has, for the most part, recently diminished as a result of the US 'reset strategy' pursued by President Obama; the NATO Summit must avoid giving the overall impression that reconciliation with Russia is being pursued above the heads of its Eastern-most allies. A better NATO-Russia relationship will no doubt be highlighted by political leaders as a key achievement of the Summit. However, it is important to remember that the NATO-Russia Council has yet to agree on much of the fine print of the final arrangement. Good intentions based on hollow agreements can only go so far.

Approving new responsibilities for NATO in the field of missile defence or cyber security should not be considered particularly groundbreaking either. Formalising NATO's responsibility in meeting such threats is only to be expected from a defensive organisation facing today's wide gambit of military concerns. Already, a good number of NATO member states' armed forces have adopted, through recent national defence reviews, policies to meet such challenges.

Form or Substance: Can the Strategic Concept Deliver both?

Keeping the Strategic Concept document short stems in part from the desire to produce a text that can resume the essence of NATO's modern role to several core principles. Another reason also derives from a certain misdirected obsession in public diplomacy terms to reach out to the public. The answer they are looking for is from the question: 'What does NATO mean for you?'  

Beyond positive PR, this misses the point that NATO is the product of its nations and their military capabilities, their government's willingness to employ force when necessary and, ultimately, their ability to win battles. The Lisbon Summit, neither in the adoption of a new Strategic Concept, nor in the reorganisation of its structures will help answer such a question. At a time of significant defence budget cuts across the Alliance ‑ chief amongst which are in Europe ‑ to what extent the summit will lead to a concerted effort to identify, on a multi-lateral basis, where gaps might emerge as a result of these cuts is a more pertinent question.

Rebuilding the Momentum Surrounding French Reintegration

France's return to NATO's integrated military command structure in April 2009 during the Alliance's Sixtieth Anniversary celebrations in Strasbourg-Kiel similarly represented a grand occasion. The move represented a substantial shift in France's transatlantic agenda and brought about new thinking in Paris over the importance of a stronger relationship with NATO. President Sarkozy's initiative thereby gave early consideration to the importance of seeking transatlantic renewal within the Alliance.

Since the 2009 Strasbourg-Kiel Summit the process ‑ initiated by President Sarkozy to anchor French re-integration to NATO within a wider modernisation of the Alliance - has, however, lost some impetus due to the effects of the global economic downturn, coupled with political lethargy across much of continental Europe towards ISAF efforts in Afghanistan. Now, the 2010 Lisbon Summit must attempt to rebuild this momentum surrounding French reintegration, in part by ensuring that agreements reached in Lisbon give new impulse to NATO reform.

French successes in its re-engagement with NATO ‑ such as France securing the appointment of French General Stéphane Abrial at the helm of Allied Command Transformation ‑ must also today be fastened around ongoing efforts to help produce a meaningful NATO reform agenda to significantly improve EU-NATO relations. In what ways will allied nations, therefore, initiate meaningful process of NATO reform during the Summit? For instance, in the International Staff Headquarters, where political reforms are needed beyond the current façade of reduction in political committees.

In view of the fact that NATO military structures are not employed in the most part to run the most pressing of NATO operations ‑ Afghanistan being a case in point ‑ how should the Alliance operate yet another streamlining of its current command structures?

Finally, having given-up the role of Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, France has recently secured the role of ASG for Defence Investment, a position held until now by US official Peter Flory. His replacement is Mr Patrick Auroy, former Deputy Director General of the DGA (Direction Générale de l'Armement), the armaments branch of the French MoD. It remains to be seen how this will help strengthen the Alliance's defence investment and capabilities activities and whether France's increased participation in this field will help deliver greater results.

Lisbon Precedents

Whether it be the European Council's Lisbon Process set-up in 2000 or the EU Lisbon Treaty signed in December 2007, an unfortunate fatalism may unwittingly be associated with initiatives that are agreed in the Portuguese capital. Symbolic here by virtue of being a port-city on Europe's Atlantic coast, there appears no-less to be an ill-fated predetermination with agreements that stem from Lisbon.

This is remarkable if one considers for instance that the Lisbon Process was due to 'make Europe, by 2010, the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world' ‑ a position that the European Union can only aspire to today as the centre of economic gravity shifts eastwards, only precipitated by the effects of a financial and monetary crisis that continues to stifle the EU. The Lisbon Treaty, meanwhile, led to two year's worth of wrangling within individual Member States to get the agreement fully-ratified, only to discover in early 2010, once this had been achieved, that many of its key provisions had been left un-stipulated and that the changes which it introduced would lead to yet more power struggles among EU institutions and the Member States. The potential use of such initiatives as 'Permanent Structured Co-operation' in the defence field or the construct of the European External Action Service in terms of foreign affairs is still debatable.

Will the NATO Lisbon Summit suffer a similar fate to that of its predecessors? With NATO fighting tooth and nail for political and military success in Afghanistan and as the allies prepare to accept a redraft of the NATO Strategic Concept, there is of course much for NATO Heads of Government to discuss in Lisbon. Meeting some progress in individual areas such as missile defence or co-operation with Russia will certainly give some succour to those concerned with NATO's immediate future. But at a time where challenges are increasingly global, it is also important not to forget those which are closer to home. Helping to put the NATO house in order is thus the greatest headline NATO leaders could hope for from the Summit.

*The views expressed in this article are not the views of the Royal United Services Institute, but are the views of the author*

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