Nato's Riga summit: next stop, big thinking

Sten Rynning
5 December 2006

Nato's heads of state and government, meeting on 28-29 November 2006 in Riga, Latvia, pledged to advance peace and security and defend common values of democracy and freedom. The area included in this commitment stretches from Afghanistan to Darfur. There is no doubting the military alliance's ambition, which is evident in the text of the summit declaration. But there is no doubt either about its primary current concern, one that reflects Nato's current troubled condition as a whole: Afghanistan.

In the course of 2006, Nato - as part of the United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) - expanded into first the southern and then the eastern regions of Afghanistan, encountering strong resistance and more intense fighting than most of the troops had hitherto experienced. What did Riga do to help them?

Not all that much. In particular, Nato leaders were obliged to grapple with the many national caveats that have spread like a cancer in the allied body, preventing Nato forces from doing a host of things, and thus hampering command and control, and ultimately operational impact. If the alliance is to stand united, its various national contingents must be free to back up one another.

In this respect, the headway made at Riga was limited. The four large western European states - Germany, France, Spain, and Italy - agreed that in an emergency their forces would come to the rescue of other forces in the south and east. It is now left to British, Canadian, American, Danish, Estonian, and Dutch forces to struggle along and wonder at which point heavy fighting becomes a political emergency.

The summit did secure a pledge from Nato nations that they would now meet the minimum level of military requirement for the Afghan operations - as defined by Nato's military authorities, and following political commitments previously made by these same nations. It remains to be seen whether the summit provided such a shake-up that these commitments will be taken seriously this time: keep an eye on the national announcements that should soon follow.

Other than that, the summit emphasised the link between development and security and also the need to act against the production of narcotics and the way in which it finances insurgents. It also called on neighbouring countries to act in support of Afghanistan's government. There were good intentions here but little in terms of deliverables.

In sum, Nato in Riga did not act firmly on the issues that matter: more troops, fewer restrictions, more development, and more regional security.

Sten Rynning is associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Southern Denmark. He is the author of Changing Military Doctrine: Presidents and Military Power in Fifth Republic France, 1958-2000 (Praeger, 2002) and NATO Renewed: The Power and Purpose of Transatlantic Cooperation (Palgrave, 2005), the co-editor of Missile Defence: International, Regional and National Implications (Routledge, 2005), and guest editor of the Nato special issue of the Journal of Transatlantic Studies (3/1, 2005)

Two ways of thinking big

Nato is split politically and therefore strategically, which is the root problem here. The political split runs between adherents of an Atlantic order and an autonomous Europe as part of a new multipolar order. Unsurprisingly, France is among the latter. Spain and Italy have joined France following leftwing turns in national elections (in 2004 and 2006 respectively). Germany is there too, following its "civilian" outlook and the way in which ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroder exploited this politically. This could now change under chancellor Angela Merkel's leadership, but until then it is left to the Atlantic nations to labour in southern Afghanistan.

Nato needs to bring UN development agencies and notably also the European Union into play in Afghanistan in order to promote social progress. In Nato, this is known as "stabilisation and reconstruction" capabilities and "concerted planning and action", but these issues are blocked as long as France (along with its partners) fear a "reverse Berlin Plus" scenario (referring to the March 2003 agreement defining relations between the European Union and the United States within the alliance); that is, the development of a situation where Nato will begin to run the European Union as an adjunct to military operations. In Riga, Nato did promise to do more here, but for the moment, the bleak fact remains that the political split prevents allies not only from reinforcing each other in zones of combat but also from undertaking sound functional cooperation.

In consequence, Nato does not have an appropriate strategy in Afghanistan. Nato has a plan for inserting troops and advancing a level of development via the so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, but real strategy is about the integration of all available means in support of policy. The consequences are clear: as policy is hampered, strategy de facto becomes military strategy, and development and regional security play either negligible or happenstance roles.

What, then, should Nato do? Ideally, Nato should think big - really big. Nato must map out the world, not merely in terms of the global partnerships that were also part of the Riga conclusions, but in geopolitical terms. Global partnerships are about advancing cooperation with like-minded nations, which is fair enough. However, the key questions are: what does Nato hope to achieve in terms of energy access and supply; how does it intend to manage China's continued rise; how can it make a credible partner of recalcitrant Russia and emerging India? We can also put these questions differently: how can Europeans be made to think big, and how can Americans be made to think big and of Europe at the same time?

A realistic geopolitical assessment removes most obstacles to transatlantic cooperation. It is in the interest of all allies to prevent Russia from dividing Europe with its energy arms, just as it is in everyone's interest to prevent China from securing command of central Asia's energy resources. The Nato allies should in fact combine two lines of thought: how can they use their presence in the arc stretching from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan to advance their interests in politics, oil, and gas; and how can they reach an understanding in this respect, primarily with China, and secondarily with India and Russia?

Also in openDemocracy on Nato:

James Appathurai, "Europe's security priorities: a Nato perspective"
(21 August 2002)

A dangerous divide

One thing is certain: the division of the west will harm western interests and advance the interests of others. The division may happen because politics at some level cannot be predicted or rationally controlled. Still, the 7 November mid-term elections in the United States will help matters. The new Democratic Congressional majority will convince Europeans that the new strategic agenda - focused on global threats - will not go away merely because of a change in majority. This should be a wake-up call for Europeans. Democrats - along with reviving realists ("ethical" or otherwise) within the Republican Party - will need close allies in the effort to move beyond go-it-alone policy. This should provide reason enough for adding Europe to the geopolitical equation.

Nato's fate is notably tied to the flow of these political currents in a geopolitical topography. The very weakness of the Riga summit declaration on a number of points is a strong reminder of both the perils of division and the potential gains of cooperation.

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