Center for Strategic Decision Research


NATO: Risks as Well as Opportunities

The Right Honorable Michael Portillo
Former Minister of Defense of the United Kingdom

At the present time, NATO has much to celebrate. Two years ago its leading members were locked in disagreement over Bosnia, and the organization appeared powerless to halt the slaughter. The end of the Cold War had removed NATO's reason for existence and the Alliance had yet to discover a new role and purpose.


Things look different now. NATO took effective action in Bosnia, first by bombing the Bosnian Serbs following the massacres in Sarajevo, and then by deploying large-scale ground forces in support of the Dayton Agreement. The effort was a thoroughly effective operation, which in itself defined a new role for NATO: promoting security beyond the territory of its members. NATO has begun to reorganize itself in line with that new role, and to tempt France and Spain into the Alliance's integrated military system.

Over the recent period there has been a flattering rush of Central and Eastern European countries seeking NATO membership as well as skillful negotiations that have overcome the substantial obstacles to a NATO-Russia agreement. These successes will rightly be celebrated at the Madrid Summit, particularly the enlargement of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries. While our Russian friends have protested loudly and launched a most effective campaign to woo opinion makers and editors in the West, and have succeeded in convincing many that NATO's enlargement to Russia's borders would be an affront to Russian pride and therefore a source of future instability, I see enlargement differently. I believe that we must not allow the world to be frozen in the Yalta pattern of 1945. Stability in Europe depends mainly on entrenching the new democracies. And they will flourish only if they feel secure. As NATO members they will feel secure. There are more democracies in Europe today than ever before, but since democracies do not invade each other, the prospects for stability are correspondingly good.


The admission of new member-states to NATO is an historic achievement, and the agreement with Russia is a triumph of diplomacy. But Russia and NATO both know that the Alliance faces important challenges in the near future. We hope that the champagne drunk in Madrid will leave NATO Ministers clearheaded enough to deal with these challenges adroitly.

Defining NATO's Role

One of these challenges is that NATO has not properly redefined its purpose. What threat to European security justifies such sophisticated military preparation? The Russians believe that NATO exists now, as before, to counter Russia. NATO denies it. The Western European public no longer feels threatened by Russia--or by anyone else--and European governments therefore continue to cut their defense spending.

We believe that Russia will remain democratic and pose no risk to security. We are more likely to be threatened by one of the militant dictatorships now developing weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, and exporting terrorism. As the Gulf War demonstrated, to protect our allies or our interests, we may need to fight in high-intensity conflicts far from home. NATO must articulate its purpose better and stop cutting its defenses. Otherwise dictators will think us weak-willed, and that could be dangerous.

The debate about enlarged security and the correct defense identity for Europe risks being only a sideshow. Europeans ought to do more for themselves but they will not be able to if they spend less. It is important to keep America involved in Europe, but while we can find posts for European commanders at top levels in NATO, we must not risk creating confused chains of command that would be ineffective in an emergency.

NATO has passed through a period of self-congratulation. There is a whiff of decadence about an organization that spends so much time contemplating how it is structured, rather than what it can do. I am afraid that NATO members have hollowed out their forces. In the future, ministers' meetings should focus on assessing the risks to peace, making a realistic analysis of how well we could respond, and on applying pressure to ourselves to bring our forces and equipment up to standard. That applies to new members too. We have not yet given enough attention to their military capabilities, to ensure that they can strengthen the Alliance's effectiveness and credibility. Spending approximately 2% of GDP on defense is not consistent with the major problems of transition that new members face.

NATO must not begin to think of itself as a peacekeeping or peace-enforcement organization. It must remain capable of military operations at the top end of the spectrum. One difficulty is that the United States, alone within the Alliance, has the C4I capability to provide battlefield superiority and the most potent force multiplier. Unless ways are found to bring the other Allies up to that standard, the Alliance risks becoming increasingly non-interoperable as the capability gap widens. Given the value of NATO to the United States, the challenge is to find the means to prevent such a destructive technology gulf from persisting.

The enlargement of NATO is both a triumph and a problem. More applicant countries will be refused than admitted. To those disappointed now, the Alliance offers the prospect of further admissions in years to come. But even if applicants meet all our criteria, they have no guarantee of being let in. Ratifying the first enlargement in the parliaments of member-states won't be easy, so those who do not enter NATO now may fear that NATO may be wary of proposing further additions to its numbers in the medium term. NATO has been careful to offer the prospect of membership to the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. Doing so provides important reassurance. But we must recognize that the countries that are not offered membership in Madrid may feel more out in the cold than before. Paradoxically, NATO's expansion to the East may reduce these countries' sense of security.

NATO must develop a strategy to make the Baltic countries, for example, feel that while NATO is not willing to extend to them the protection of Article 5, their sovereignty nonetheless matters to NATO. NATO should be prepared to make some "substantive gestures." Perhaps we could establish a NATO university of peace studies in Vilnius, have a prestigious annual NATO-sponsored lecture in Riga, and set up a Baltic security organization office in Tallinn. We would of course also develop a similar consideration for Ukraine.

Withdrawal from Bosnia

A more immediate challenge is that of Bosnia. NATO forces have done a superb job there and provided a pilot study of how to work with Russia and other non-NATO countries. But NATO proposes to withdraw its forces in summer 1998, and the former warring factions appear to be counting the days and procrastinating on nation-building.

The continued liberty of those indicted for war crimes makes the situation worse. While I understand that NATO forces do not wish to become policemen nor give up their valued reputation for evenhandedness, it is inconceivable that NATO should withdraw leaving these people at large and in positions of influence. The damage to NATO's prestige would be incalculable. I therefore believe that a NATO objective should be seeing that those who have been indicted are brought to justice in the Hague.

We should also be frank about NATO's "arm and train" policy. It was well-intentioned at its instigation, because the Serbs were clearly better armed and more militarily effective than the Bosnians. But the policy now risks producing an imbalance in favor of the Bosnians, which could be just as destabilizing.

If NATO were to withdraw leaving Karadzic in control of the Serbs and under conditions in which war could be quickly reignited, the impact on the Alliance's reputation would be devastating. For that reason it is difficult to see how NATO can actually pull out. I recognize the dilemma and the difficulty for the U.S. administration. The U.S. Congress appears to be in earnest about requiring withdrawal. But NATO must make it clear, at the least, as General Joulwan has proposed, that it will not tolerate a return to violence in Bosnia.


While glasses are raised in celebration in Madrid, NATO Ministers must work hard to ensure that Bosnia is not again the cause of division among the Allies nor a symbol of NATO's impotence.


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