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NATO after 9/11

Pere Ortega
Centre DelÓs de JustÝcia i Pau
Pere Ortega

Pere Ortega

The attacks on the United States (US) of 11 September 2001 marked a change in global geostrategy. The US had been attacked on its own territory for the first time. This rocked the defence and security structures of the US and its allies. This shock also affected the Atlantic Alliance (NATO), a military organisation established to confront the USSR during the Cold War era and which had entered a period of uncertainty afterwards. The attacks of September 11 helped define a new NATO strategy.

Shortly after 9/11, the US approved a new National Security Strategy according to which the main threat is terrorism, followed by other risks such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, failed states, organised crime and energy dependence. It also defines two basic means of responding to these threats: maintaining military supremacy and the right to undertake preventive military action to defend peace and security worldwide. A crusade against terrorism began immediately, in which the US called on other NATO countries to help and for the fulfillment of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty concerning mutual defence, which states that in the event of an armed attack on a member of the alliance, the other members will assist the country under attack, providing it with support and participating militarily in its defence. Finally, however, the US did not demand invocation of the article. In October 2001, attacks began in Afghanistan with Operation Enduring Freedom, led by the US with the help of an international coalition of other countries playing a minor role. Why did the US not demand the application of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty? Because it did not trust its allies and had reserved a subsidiary role for NATO, as became apparent shortly afterwards, in January 2002, when NATO was placed in charge of ISAF, an operation authorised by the UN Security Council to help reconstruction in Afghanistan.

There are precedents for this mistrust of the US towards European countries, which can be found in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in 1995-99, when NATO intervened after Europe had failed to solve the conflict in the Balkans, and during which the European countries had restricted by been their old alliances with the various Yugoslav republics, and provided support to various parties in the conflicts. Finally, when the situation had become intolerable, first in Bosnia, and then in Kosovo, it was the US, through NATO, which took responsibility for intervention. However, the lessons that the US learned from that war were that it cannot militarily intervene with allies that want to share military command, who constantly demand explanations about possible irregularities (the bombing of the Chinese embassy and the TV tower in Belgrade), or at least, want to be kept informed of military plans.

However, despite some disagreements, NATO also adopted the new approach by the US. And at the Prague Summit of 2002, it took two important decisions: to use military force to combat terrorism and to adopt the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes to prevent possible terrorist attacks. As a result, the creation of a rapid reaction force (the NATO Response Force) was approved. This Force is capable of involvement in preventive military operations with no territorial limits, missions involving terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, peacekeeping operations and crisis management. The doctrine of preventive attacks highlights the distance between the USA's approach and the UN Charter, which only authorizes the use of force within the principle of self-defence. It was a de facto breach of international law and demolished the fragile world order that had been created after the Second World War.

The same thing happened during the Iraq War (2003). The US did not trust NATO because of the disagreement among most "old Europe" NATO countries, France and Germany, which strongly opposed the US's war against Iraq. This led to an ongoing crisis in NATO because there is no stipulation requiring unanimity in NATO´s founding Treaty. At that time, the US did not entirely trust its divided European allies and assigned a role involving post-conflict missions to NATO.

The unhappiness with the European allies became apparent in the continuous demands by the past and present US Secretaries of Defense (Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates) for an increase in European defense budgets for these countries to meet their commitments to military interventions alongside the US. As a result, Robert Gates, during his final trip to Europe before his retirement from the post of Secretary of of Defense (June 2011), predicted an uncertain future for NATO and complained about the disloyal behaviour of the European allies regarding the Alliance's budget, claiming that in the last ten years the US's share of spending on maintaining NATO has increased from 50% to 75%, while the contribution of the Europe allies has fallen to 25%. This is a further reason for the distance between the US and its European allies. The US seems reluctant to take responsibility for maintaining an organisation that is not entirely loyal to it.

Another major question involves the global geopolitical map. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has been the scenario for the great international political and economic game, first during the Cold War, when the enemy was the USSR, and afterwards, with the addition of Central and Eastern Europe to the capitalist economy. Throughout this period, it was a major geostrategic asset for the US because of economic reasons, as Western Europe was its major ally and the main market for its economy. However, this has changed in the last ten years as the world order has been reshaped, with new actors emerging and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), which have shifted the epicenter of geopolitical and economic growth to other areas. This is especially true of China, which with its steady growth has become the leading engine of the world economy. Europe is therefore beginning to lose its influence over the US's geostrategic interests.

As a result, the US feels that NATO has lost its initial significance, and despite the adoption of a new Strategic Concept that enables it to operate all over the world, some of the European allies are more of a hindrance than loyal partners. Meanwhile, NATO no longer has the political factor of its internal cohesion that it had during the Cold War. Although terrorism has taken over as the main enemy, it cannot replace the role of the former USSR. This is because NATO is a military organisation that can become involved in interventions and wars, but cannot fight an abstract enemy with no specific geographical location. Terrorism can only be fought in two dimensions; internally, using security and judicial policies, and externally, by means of cooperation measures to defuse the conflicts that give rise to the development of terrorism.

NATO is a military organisation that requires clear political objectives, which is something that the Atlantic Alliance today does not have and which suggests that its future is uncertain.