A global role for NATO. Will Australia be recruited?

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of quickly ‘shocking and awing’ enemies to win victories has been spectacularly unsuccessful in Iraq. Washington now realizes that its earlier hope for creating ‘coalitions of the willing’ is not a militarily or politically practical alternative. Resumption of the draft in the US is political suicide and Washington needs foreign manpower more desperately than ever. Its global ambitions—and illusions—cannot be attained without them.

These goals involve a ‘long war’ against largely undefined, elusive terrorists and enemies in every corner of the globe for decades to come. The Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, released last February, emphasized NATO and mobilizing foreign troops “to share the risks and responsibilities of today’s complex challenges.” The National Security Strategy, issued on March 16, makes it plain that “…we must be prepared to act alone if necessary,” but also that an expanded NATO, especially one that adds nations to its membership, “remains a vital pillar of U.S. foreign policy.”


Washington now favours a rapprochement with ‘old Europe’ and the nations it dismissed prior to embarking on its war in Iraq in March 2002. It also wants to build a ‘strategic consensus’ to expand NATO’s role everywhere in the world notwithstanding its resolution after the 1999 war in the former Yugoslavia to never again allow NATO’s consensual voting procedures to constrain American actions—as, indeed, it has not. The Bush Administration now tacitly admits that its view after 2001 that it could unilaterally pursue its global role was a colossal failure. This is the vital context that now shapes Washington’s policy toward all its allies, not only NATO members but also all nations, including Australia, South Korea, and Japan—plus many other smaller powers.

The US’s ‘ambitious agenda’ was outlined by US Ambassador to NATO Victoria Nuland in an interview in the Financial Times on January 24. She has since detailed the American vision of NATO as not simply “a military defensive alliance” but as “first and foremost a political alliance devoted to strengthening and defending our democratic values at home and around the world.” The US wants a “globally deployable military force” that will operate everywhere—from Africa to the Middle East and beyond. It will include, among many others, Japan and Australia as well as the NATO nations. “It’s a totally different animal,” to quote her, whose ultimate role will be subject to US desires and adventures. NATO must have a “…common collective deployment at strategic distances.” The over-9,000 non-American troops from 36 nations now in Afghanistan are largely symbolic, a secondary issue to the much more important question of NATO’s future in American calculations over coming years.

If Washington has its way, NATO, which was originally to be a European-focused alliance, would now become global in scope. According to Kurt Volker, the State Department’s senior expert on NATO, it would transform “from a static alliance” to one that will operate “well beyond transatlantic geography.” Apart from the 26 nations that are formal members of NATO today, there will also be ‘advanced partnerships’ with as many nations as possible, ‘partners for peace’—of which there are now about 20, including nations in the former USSR and the Persian Gulf.

Thanks to Bill Leak.

The Munich conference on security policy last February—which Rumsfeld attended along with Brent Scowcroft, former Defense Secretary William Cohen, and other advocates of the traditional Atlantic alliance — reflected the American desire to transform NATO so it and its manpower will again be a useful weapon in its sheath of military choices. Senior diplomats from NATO members have discussed American plans since then and the informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Sofia in April was intended to give substance to what NATO Secretary-General De Hoop Scheffer describes as “NATO’s outreach.” The goal is to create a formal plan—not only adding more members but a mechanism to coordinate special forces, to be approved at the NATO summit in Riga next November.

The United States’ proposals, which will include Japan, Australia, and ‘others,’ are currently at a discussion stage, but Secretary of State Rice raised the topic in detail when she was in Sydney in mid-March to meet the Japanese and Australian foreign ministers. The NATO mission in Afghanistan is one model of cooperation that Washington will seek to extend, and it also wants all non-NATO military contingents to be ‘interoperable’ with NATO forces, making advance preparations so that they can immediately take part in NATO-led operations. France, quite correctly, sees Washington’s efforts as an attempt to retain America’s strategic leadership in the world, employing foreign troops in the process.

No nation should encourage the Bush Administration’s ambitions for NATO, which is based on revised neo-con fantasies. The same American leaders have ignored their own intelligence to pursue ambitions which have already traumatized Afghanistan and the Middle East, and now threaten the peace elsewhere.

All NATO members and nations such as Australia and Japan have to prepare for more troop requests in the future as part of Washington’s ambitious unilateralist goals everywhere. That is the central issue that the US’s traditional allies must now confront. American objectives—beyond fighting a war on ‘terror’–are inherently indefinable as to length and location, but, above all, enemies. Fear is the adhesive that creates alliances and keeps them together, and the fear of Communism and the USSR that led to NATO’s creation has been replaced by the fear of Muslim fundamentalism, terrorism, and the like. But just as the dangers of Communism proved illusory, so too will American prognostications of universal terror and chaos also prove to be a myth. The problem is what the US will do before its allies grow tired of its paranoid politics.

Even more importantly, the public sentiment in NATO states could become increasingly antiwar and turn against those in office who have followed American, This happened in Spain and Italy’s involvement in Iraq was an issue in the recent elections which brought about the defeat of the Berlusconi Government. While Washington might win in the short-run, ultimately there is a very good chance that its successes will produce a crisis in NATO–and perhaps the end of this organizational artefact of the Cold War.

We are at the beginning, not the end, of a profound transformation in US relations with NATO. European nations, not to mention nations such as Australia and Japan, must now articulate an independent political identity that is in their national interests and conforms to their values—the very thing that the US hoped NATO would prevent from occurring when it created it over a half-century ago.

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