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NATO's Riga Summit: Big thinking but fundamental problems

Prasad P. Rane was Associate Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 28, 2006

    On November 28 and 29, NATO Heads of State and Government met in the Latvian capital for the annual summit. This was the first summit to be held in a country that had joined the alliance during its second enlargement since the end of the Cold War. The summit concentrated on three issues, which are considered to be the pillars for defining the role and status of NATO in the post-Cold War period: Political Engagement, Defence Transformation and Operations. On the basis of discussions held on these issues, an attempt was made to chalk out a path for NATO in its future endeavours. The routine Summit Declaration came out with a Comprehensive Political Guidance (CPG), which intends to provide a framework and political direction for NATO's continuing transformation in the coming 10 to 15 years. This framework will be provided keeping in mind Alliance capability issues, planning disciplines and intelligence. Given the vibrancy of the international system and a need for greater coherence, this CPG will be periodically reviewed.

    Since its formation in 1949, NATO has undergone a lot of change and is striving to change further to address the security challenges of today. These changes have seen NATO attempting to transform from a static military bloc countering the perceived Soviet threat to a more mobile coalition taking on the responsibility of addressing security challenges outside its transatlantic geographical area. The Riga Summit also saw one such attempt. This was reflected in the Summit declaration, which mentioned NATO's attempts to advance peace and security in six challenging missions from Afghanistan to the Balkans and from the Mediterranean Sea to Darfur. Discussions at the Summit sought to address each of these major challenges. A serious discussion took place on the overhauling of finances for such missions. It was observed that the Cold War era budget rules would act as a hurdle in providing sufficient amount of financial support to such missions. Since NATO decided to conduct missions beyond its geographical boundaries, it was observed that resource allocation is not matching up with the political will.

    Against this backdrop, the recurrent theme discussed during the Summit was the shortage of troops in Southern Afghanistan, which is also NATO's current primary concern. NATO is looking at Afghanistan as a test case that will highlight the problems and successes of the new NATO. Since taking command of this region, it has faced heavy resistance by the resurgent Taliban. In this grave situation NATO is falling short of troops, thus endangering its most important mission. Important partners like France have contributed around 1900 soldiers though at the same time they have also laid down certain caveats on using their troops. This was seen as a distressing fact during the Summit. However, the major Western European sates - Germany, France, Spain and Italy - agreed to send in emergency forces for the rescue of others whenever required. This has left the operations to be carried out by British, American, Canadian, Danish, Estonian and Dutch troops. Nevertheless, one also sees a conceptual gap among NATO member states over the use of force. Some like the UK advocate a policy of minimum use of military force, which contrasts with the US approach. Such a divide at the conceptual level within the Atlantic Alliance will always act as a hurdle for new missions. The only headway made during the Summit in this context was the pledge by all members to meet the minimum level of military requirement for the Afghan operations as defined by NATO authorities, and to fulfil the commitments previously made. However, they are likely to take such commitments seriously only if these do not impinge upon their national interests, thus highlighting a political divide between the bindings of the Atlantic order and an ambitious Europe.

    In sum, the Riga Summit made an attempt to lay down an ambitious plan for the coming years. The CPG comes across as an attempt to seize the opportunities provided by an unstable international order to justify the existence of NATO. But the disagreements within the alliance make this plan appear quite 'utopian'. It appears that the time has come for NATO members to re-visit their agenda. Since its first enlargement in 1999, the organisation has taken up various assignments. The initial euphoria has faded away, and member states are facing actual realities. These realities have exposed NATO's structural inabilities to address the challenges of the post-Cold War period. It has literally become impossible to maintain the cohesiveness of the alliance. The national agendas of the member states are seen to be dominant over the alliance's agenda, which was not the case during the Cold War when it faced a monolithic threat.

    The Riga Summit touched upon various aspects that would help in maintaining the cohesiveness of the Alliance. However, the attitude of member states suggests an unchanged NATO. NATO is still seen as a forum to discuss European or Trans-Atlantic security issues by most members. While it has expanded in the post-Cold War period, the real need seems to be one of restructuring and transformation. NATO will remain an entangled alliance if its agenda is not fine-tuned with global requirements, a prerequisite for which is for member states to have a global orientation. If these issues are not addressed, the new agenda prescribed at the Riga Summit will remain a distant dream sandwiched between the military will and political thinking within the alliance.