It was, as Tony Blair has recently reminded us, a Labour government that signed the North Atlantic Treaty exactly 50 years ago next week. For four decades the organisation that grew out of that signature prepared for a war that never came. And when the Berlin Wall came down, Nato was written off by some as a cold war irrelevance. But in the past four years the organisation has seen more action than in all its previous history: launching its first offensive operations, its first active military deployments and now its first bombing of a sovereign state. And Kosovo is not a one-off; Kosovo is just the beginning.
At an anniversary bash in Washington next month Nato’s 16 established members, three new Eastern European entrants and 25 “partners for peace” will enjoy a long weekend of dinners, celebratory speeches and congratulations. They’ll also approve a new “strategic concept” for the alliance, with a remit to intervene militarily across Europe and Asia in defence of common transatlantic interests, often without UN approval. That’s not hyperbole. Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state, warned Nato’s governing body last December: “The threats we face today come from a number of different sources, including from areas beyond Nato’s immediate borders . . . Nato must be better equipped to respond to [non-self-defence] crises . . . it is sometimes better to deal with instability when it is still at arm’s length.”
And on a visit to London earlier this month Walter Slocombe, the US under-secretary of defence, told me that Nato “doesn’t need a UN mandate. It’s always desirable to have one but we believe that Article 51 of the UN Charter provides for individual and collective self-defence that provides very broad authority for countries to act even where there’s not a specific Security Council resolution authorising that action.” In other words, Nato’s authority is greater than that of the international community.
The implications are enormous: it has the potential to undermine the entire postwar international security system. You’d have expected some discussion. But there’s been a strange silence in Whitehall throughout the whole debate on Nato’s future. On 1 February the minister of state at the Ministry of Defence, Lord Gilbert, was specifically asked in parliament about Nato’s new strategic concept but replied: “There are no plans at present to consult the House before the negotiations are completed.” Neither has there been a consultation paper or any kind of public discussion. So much for open government.
Throughout the cold war, Nato stood for the collective defence of the western democracies (though at times Greece, Portugal and Turkey failed to qualify for that tag) and for 40 years it rehearsed strategies to keep Europe safe from Moscow. Now there is no Russian threat. Yet according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Nato’s defence spending last year was around eight times larger than all the former eastern bloc countries put together. Even if you combine their spending with that of China, North Korea, the rest of Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, it’s still only about half the amount shelled out by Nato countries. So where’s the threat?
The threat is “out of area”. That’s the new jargon to describe everywhere beyond Nato’s borders: Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Gulf, the Caucasus, even as far away as Central Asia. And the threat doesn’t come in the shape of main battle tanks which can be counted and blown up, but from the fear of huge refugee flows, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction: bags of anthrax spores or phials of nerve gases which can’t be seen, can’t be verified and may or may not exist. But as long as there are rogue states out there with a grudge against the west and a location near the oil reserves, the US will be ready to face down the threat.
The security problem is not to be tackled with economic co-operation or confidence-building measures. It is to be faced with a $400 billion riot squad. The US reserves the right to tackle suspected weapons of mass destruction with a first strike, and says it is prepared to use nuclear weapons to do so. Walter Slocombe said in December: “I’m not necessarily saying that Nato should use nuclear weapons in response to a threat or use of chemical or biological weapons against some non-member country, although I wouldn’t totally rule it out.”
The Americans want to share the task with Nato, while retaining the burden of leadership. As the US under-secretary of state, Thomas Pickering, put it last October: “During the cold war, it made sense for Europeans to concentrate on the threat to their own territory and for the US to assume the primary responsibility for common transatlantic interests elsewhere. But such an arrangement makes less sense at a time when the direct territorial threat to Europe has diminished and when new threats to our common interests may come from beyond Nato’s immediate borders.”
But will the Europeans agree? After months of heated internal debate it now seems they will. Fearful that the US could unilaterally conclude its own military agreements with Eastern European states outside the Nato framework, the Europeans have agreed to the principle of out-of-area operations. Even the French are prepared to countenance limited unilateral action. Alain Richard, the French defence minister, told me that “there can be some exceptions to the idea of a UN mandate”. In return the Americans are talking down the idea of a “global Nato”, talking instead of security within the “Euro-Atlantic area”. In other words, the whole of Eurasia.
The prospect disturbs both Moscow and Beijing. China is particularly concerned about American activity in Central Asia. Last year the US held joint military exercises with China’s neighbour Kazakhstan, the highlight of which was the arrival of 3,000 paratroopers who dropped in after a non-stop flight from their home base in the States. What better example of power projection could there be? And Azerbaijan, on the other side of the oil-rich Caspian Sea, has asked the US to locate a military base on its territory to ward off potential encroachments from Armenia and Russia. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia have asked Nato for help in drawing up security plans for oil installations.
So consider this possibility. Whereas the rationale for Balkan intervention has been the fear of refugee flows and the destabilisation of South-east Europe, the justification for future operations could be quite different. What if renewed fighting breaks out between Armenia and Azerbaijan or in nearby Abkhazia or Ossetia? The US, with its military commitments and large oil investments in the region, calls for peacekeeping support from its Nato allies. With Russia and China certain to use their Security Council vetoes, Nato invokes the self-defence clauses of the UN Charter, on the grounds that its strategic energy resources are threatened. The troops go in. UN legitimacy is further undermined and a new, not so cold, war settles across Eurasia. And it needn’t be the Caucasus, it could be the Gulf, Cyprus, North Africa or anywhere with the heady mix of ethnic conflict and the potential use of weapons of mass destruction. Kosovo isn’t going to be the last of Nato’s peace enforcement operations; it’s just the curtain-raiser on the alliance’s new role. And those men and women in uniform, too young to remember the Berlin Wall, may be going much further afield next time.
Are you ready for this brave new world? It’s creeping up on us now, being discussed in meeting rooms in Whitehall, Brussels, Washington and the other capitals of the alliance. Not that you’d know it from a government that has made more public pronouncements on the manager of the England football team.