In my opinion, one of the most interesting developments in the international politics scenario will be a massive change in the role, the identity and the purposes of NATO. Moreover, as the need for a new strategic plan becomes clearer, I suggest that this development will be both welcomed and inevitable, especially for the reasons I outlined below.
I make a case for this on three different, but at the same time interconnected and overlapping, grounds. First of all, the world has changed over the last sixty years, and consequently countries’ needs and attitudes, alliances methods and threats typologies have also changed.
Secondly, after the collapse of the USSR, geopolitical issues and opportunities have been broadened and boundaries to act have been expanded raising different controversies on membership and merging different level of action and analysis, both territorial and political.
Finally, the so-called “rise of the rest” is forcing the Euro-Atlantic community to urgently re-assess and renew itself by implementing new strategies and partnerships worldwide, while at the same time not altering the political and military equilibrium in areas on the edge of stability.
Causes of change
Many countries, if not all, have been challenged by ongoing globalizing tendencies, which affected not only the economic sphere, but many others, especially the political, the military, human rights spheres. In order to face such challenges, governments have modified their economic paths and their political frameworks, which in turn have yielded room for action to international organizations, multilateral institutions and TNAs (transnational actors). Through these developments, governments recognize and accept that nowadays military security is not anymore their primary concern, but just one of the many equally important concerns including achieving economic stability, effective politics, affordable and sustainable development and good policies for attracting investments.
Countries now seek to focus their efforts on economic cooperation rather than in mutual military assistance. Alliances are meant to be “commercial”, “soft-powered” and “economically inclusive” instead of hard-powered and hawkish. Therefore, if NATO wants to maintain its role as the “western security umbrella” it has to adapt to these radical changes within the global practice of governing, or it will be inevitably overwhelmed by them. Furthermore, globalization is modifying the nature of threats in comparison to those experienced during the Cold War. Current menaces and dangers are more de-radicalized, de-statalized, de-territorialized. If we think of physical menaces today, we seldom hear of armies deployed, but on the contrary we hear about “trans-national terrorism”, “warlords”, “pirates” or religious guerrillas.
We are also witnessing more non-physical dangers such as humanitarian crises, droughts, lack of food, natural disaster and so on. Of course these problems already existed during the Cold War era, but they were in a way contained ad monitored inside the two blocks. Now that such issues have been spread trans-nationally and trans-politically, it’s time for the biggest alliance in the world to adapt by employing a new, stable and multifaceted approach.
Since 1989, the number of nations worldwide has increased especially in two regions: the South and the East. Countries are not being included in blocs anymore, but they build their future on their own sovereignty, flourishing and failing, gaining power or becoming subjugated.
This territorial enlargement yields advantage and good perspectives to NATO: many countries, which were formerly members of dictatorships or illiberal political entities, are now bent on joining the alliance, looking at it not only in term of collective security and protection, but also in terms of political and economic liberalization. In their eyes, a hypothetical membership in NATO would boost their social and political confidence, while modernizing and strengthening society.
To be included in post-war reconstruction projects, in peace-building and peace-keeping situations and post-conflicts organizational issues would be not only a benefit for these new countries in term of self-consideration, but also in terms of internal institutional progress and confidence with problems on both a local and regional basis, creating awareness of the importance of security issues in a globalized world.
Moreover, NATO is likely to attract in its sphere of action those countries that share boundaries with potentially dangerous areas and/or considerably strong countries, in order to deter possible crises and to emanate a small but constant perception of positive presence always respecting, however, the ray of action of non-member countries and other actors, insofar they are peaceful and non-intrusive.
For a long time now Ukraine and Georgia have been considered prospective members of the Alliance and, against fears of a possible negative reaction by the Russian Federation, scholars like Kupchan have suggested an even bigger step: to include the Grey Bear in NATO. This, in my opinion, should not be considered as “fantapolitics” but a likely, and positive, development in international relations.
Finally, another factor has to be considered in relation to this potential future development: the so-called “rise of the rest”. The four BRIC countries (namely Brazil, Russia, India and China) and other African ready-to-raise States such as Nigeria and Angola are going to play a significant role in future international relations, holding important seats in international organizations and shaping the course of events with their policies and strategies.
Although this doesn’t necessarily mean that these countries will have a hostile attitude towards the West, they will question the Euro-Atlantic predominance on many grounds, primarily economic and commercial, military in the long run. It seems clear then that western countries and NATO members should re-plan and re-consider their future political, economic and strategic development in the light of these structural changes. In Brzezinski’s words, what is most evident during these years is the changing distribution of global power and the eastward shift in its center of gravity.
Substantial foreseeable modifications
How will all this be developed? It is likely that three important changes will happen over the next few years, and each of them will be closely influenced by the issues considered above.
First, strategic shifts: if NATO is meant not only as an alliance, but also as a wider system of values and beliefs, in order to preserve itself and its functioning a change in its strategic dimension is very likely to happen. As discussed above, in today’s world the sole military component is not sufficient anymore. NATO will probably become more inclusive and looser, and will pay more attention on the cooperative and functional instruments, especially in respect of the economic crisis which will impose on member States a thoughtful re-allocation of their expenditures on the military budget.
A closer institutional cooperation with the EU and other international regimes is expected to happen, as William Drozdiak pointed out, especially regarding post-conflict strategies and social reconstruction. A wider inclusive plan of preventing worldwide menaces is also likely to be implemented, improving the role of administrative personnel and the importance of political and strategic analysis. Finally, there will probably be developments in its military assets: it’s important to remember that what’s been said so far doesn’t imply the hard core of the alliance: as the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated, NATO’s military equipment should be updated in order to offset the ongoing new kind of menaces, such as Iran’s efforts on short-and-medium-range missiles.
Second, functional expansion: as the number of sovereign States has increased and many of them are willing to enter the Euro-Atlantic dimension, NATO is likely to spread its influence in order to play a key role for regionalizing and varying its security action. Although it’s not always true that “bigger is better”, more members or external partners would allow for a diversification of duties.
In fact, small and new co-operators, if not members, may be better able to tackle contingent problems such as separatism and drug trafficking, leaving the heavy military task on the US’s shoulders and the economic and social one on EU’s. A functional expansion would be likely also to provide members with an awareness of acting in a complex web of affairs without, however, altering delicate geopolitical balances, at least in the short run.
Third, increased interoperability: NATO will probably start both formal and informal dialogues with some non-member States, especially with those strategically situated in fermenting zones. Ukraine and Georgia are examples of countries with which dialogue needs to take place. But is also strongly possible that NATO will engage with CSTO and SCO members.
Such partnerships would let NATO decrease its financial and military burdens while maintaining its central role as a strategically negotiating actor, define the spheres in which security is needed more clearly and dampen the suspicious perceptions of Russia, China and India.
To conclude, I think part of the most interesting developments in international politics in the future will concern NATO’s structure and role: in an interdependent world, today’s leaders cannot afford to confine security and its means. On the contrary, security should be entwined with strategic dynamism and expeditionary political attraction. If these developments don’t take place, countries would act as new actors but think as Cold War ones, and this would mean just chaos, conflicts and dangerous mystifications.
Filippo Costa Buranelli