Small Wars

This Week at War: Will NATO ever fight again?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

Experts' advice to NATO: Slim down, scale back, and pass the ball

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright chaired a commission charged with reviewing NATO's "strategic concept." Last revised in 1999, the strategic concept is "an official document that outlines NATO's enduring purpose and nature and its fundamental security tasks." On May 17, Albright's "Group of Experts" released its report, which forecasts the security environment through 2020 and lists recommendations for how NATO should respond. The group's conclusion? NATO should slim down, scale back, and pass the ball.

Albright's panel called on NATO to adjust to the modern threat environment. According to the group, NATO needs better preparations against cyberattacks, ballistic missiles, and unconventional threats. The report noted that many member states -- their defense budgets weighed down with excessive personnel costs -- are spending too little on new military hardware. And NATO headquarters, with a bloated staff and far too many generals walking its halls, is itself due for slimming down.

But looming over the panel's effort is NATO's inheritance from Afghanistan. Following a review of lessons learned in Afghanistan, the report calls for guidelines on when and where the alliance will again operate outside its borders. The authors remind readers that "NATO is a regional, not a global organisation; its financial resources are limited and subject to other priorities; and it has no desire to take on missions that other institutions and countries can be counted upon to handle."

Although the report left open the hypothetical possibility that NATO could engage in another out-of-area mission, it also plainly discussed the political limitations that member states will put on the organization's ambitions. Those member states with detachments in Afghanistan will no doubt be eager to join the U.S. caravan that will begin departing in 2011. After that, crushing fiscal retrenchment and sour memories of Afghanistan will likely leave most member states in Europe incapable of any significant military expeditions.

Finally, the group reviewed the importance of NATO's many partnerships, which include relationships with the United Nations, the European Union, Russia, the Black Sea and Caucasus regions, Central Asia, and Africa. The report also discussed the need to improve NATO's doctrine for operating in partnership with civilian NGOs. The authors noted, "NATO is strong and versatile but it is by no means well-suited to every task." The report was an invitation for NATO to use its relationships to pass off tasks to others.

The report's lengthy discussion of these partnerships, combined with the inevitable decline in NATO's military capacity and its members' low enthusiasm for new expeditions, point to the alliance's evolving role. NATO's days as an armed-to-the-teeth phalanx blocking the Soviet Army are now in the misty past. After Afghanistan, NATO's military character will shrink, making way for a more purely diplomatic role. The staff in Brussels -- those who remain after the pink slips -- will spend more time coordinating NGOs and contractors than directing tank brigades.

Will China end up liable for the actions of its "rogues"?

This week's flurry of diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program concluded with the United States introducing another sanctions resolution against Iran at the U.N. Security Council. This occurred just one day after Iran, Turkey, and Brazil dramatically unveiled their own plan to swap some of Iran's low-enriched uranium for fuel for a medical research reactor in Tehran. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton claimed that the U.S. sanctions resolution had the support of Russia, China, and Europe.

The resolution appears to nullify the Iran-Turkey-Brazil proposal. That proposal was designed to negate the sanctions resolution against Iran. But its implementation would require Russia or France -- according to Clinton, supporters of more sanctions -- to supply the fuel for Iran's medical research reactor as part of the swap agreement. In theory the sanctions proposal and the swap agreement are not mutually exclusive. But politically they are. The result could be a split on the Security Council between the permanent five and some of the nonpermanent developing countries -- which currently include Brazil and Turkey.

The clash between the Iran-Turkey-Brazil proposal and the U.S. sanctions resolution risks a breakdown of the council's previously unanimous front against Iran. Even more dangerous for the Obama administration's agenda, the split could contaminate the ongoing review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, resulting in a rebellion by developing countries against the tougher nuclear inspections regime favored by the United States.

Clinton's sanctions resolution, the result of many months of negotiations with Russia and China, reveals the limits of what the Security Council can agree on. The resolution excludes restrictions on Iran's oil trade, restrictions on investments in Iran's energy sector, or a comprehensive ban on financial transactions with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or its affiliates. Without any of these measures, the resolution won't apply enough additional leverage on Iran to change its leadership's behavior.

U.S. officials hope that passage of the resolution by the Security Council will clear the way for governments disposed to the U.S. viewpoint to unilaterally impose their own restrictions on Iran, especially regarding investments in Iran's oil and gas sector and financial transactions with the Revolutionary Guard.

But the United States won't get any such cooperation from China, which is the main reason why the sanctions resolution is so weak. China has an enduring interest in Iran's oil that trumps any concern about a possible Iranian nuclear weapons capability. China is a leading investor in Iran's energy sector and a rapidly growing customer of its oil.

As the United States, Europe, and other allies extend their crackdown on Iran, China is very likely to fill in the gap by expanding its relationship with Iran along many dimensions. The result will be China's increasingly clear patronage of another "rogue," adding to a list that includes North Korea, Burma, and Sudan.

Viewed from Beijing, China's actions are pragmatic and transactional. China professes no intention of clashing with the United States or the West. It is merely taking advantage of opportunities to feed its growing industrial machine and thus raise the living standards of its population.

But the rest of the world might increasingly conclude that China is establishing a pattern of behavior that demonstrates that it is not becoming a responsible stakeholder in the international system. Such a trend would increase the risk of confrontation in the future. How China responds to calls to punish North Korea for its recent sinking of a South Korean warship will be another test of whether China wants to be a responsible stakeholder inside the international system or a corrosive force operating outside it.

The result could be a growing list of countries that will increasingly hold China liable for the transgressions of the "rogues" it sponsors. China's leaders need to ponder whether their scavenging for oil will be worth the risks they are taking with China's diplomatic agenda and prestige.

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

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