Impossible bedfellows: civil-military cooperation through NATO's eyes

In a continued search for relevance in the post-Cold War world, the armed forces of NATO have adopted a burgeoning humanitarian and development agenda. But military and civilian intervention in conflict zones cannot and should not be amalgamated, argues Gloria Martinez.

Gloria Martinez
16 April 2010

Speaking at the Strategic Concept Seminar in Helsinki last month, NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said:

“We need to open up the way we plan and run our operations to include the indispensable civilian expertise – from rule of law to alternative livelihoods; from public health to cultural aspects and education. And we should also include the gender aspect and enhance the engagement of women in the prevention and resolution of conflict.”

These words sounded more like they had been articulated by Kofi Annan than the Secretary General of a military organisation such as NATO, and have provoked a wave of critical responses, most notably from Medecins Sans Frontiers.

It is no secret that in today’s international security context the setting of political agendas has shifted to allow decision-makers to resort to the use of their armed forces as an extension of policy. The recognition that natural disasters and conflict could have a negative impact on international stability and the security of states, has also resulted in an increased use of the armed forces as a tool of foreign policy. The spread of disease, forced mass migration, and unlawfulness as a consequence of natural disasters or the failure of governments to govern has increasingly drawn the presence of the armed forces of states for the purpose of delivering aid and restore some level of security in assistance to local authorities.

Today the armed forces are also involved in reinforcing migration policies, the fight against organised crime, drug trafficking and piracy. This has had further consequences on the distinction between the civilian and the military spheres and, as Edward Burke of FRIDE pointed out, has contributed to a process of militarisation of aid. The Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement highlighted some of its concerns in Issue 3 (2008) of its magazine about the increased presence of military forces in its area of operations and its implications.

Towards the end of the twentieth century there was a certain consensus that the armed forces of western democracies were becoming engaged in new missions that were less related to waging war for the defence of territorial or sovereign integrity. Instead, they were called to in defence of principles underpinning the broadening of international security agendas and the shift towards a concept of human security based on the system of human rights and the security of individuals. Crisis Management as a tool in international politics has also evolved along similar lines to view international military intervention as one part of a bigger process that often involves the subsequent reconstruction and democratisation of the state in question.

The underpinning principle that informs this approach continues to be the notion that democracies do not fight each other, and that economic development and interdependence in unstable areas will ultimately lead to greater global security. In this broader context, the armed forces of western states perform international roles that were not originally intended for the military and had traditionally been carried out by civilian agencies: civilian security forces, the civilian arm of international organisations such as the UN or the EU, national governments, non-government organisations or humanitarian agencies.

New political justifications for the resort to military capabilities led commentators (Charles Moskos, for example) to the conclusion that the world was witnessing a new postmodern military, which suggested that the armed forces of Western states were less associated with the nation-state and more with multinational operations and globalization. But despite the level of internationalisation of today’s militaries, the armed forces of Western countries remain national institutions. They are (supposedly) controlled by a civilian bureaucracy that is in turn elected democratically by society, and are understood to serve a national purpose. This fact often raises questions about their ability to carry out their duties with the levels of neutrality and impartiality, as well as independence, which generally characterise humanitarian and other civilian agencies.

The reality nevertheless is that as global security agendas have broadened, so have the agendas of the armed forces. Their missions reflect the progressive militarisation of foreign policies in response to the international shift away from a focus on military threats to non-conventional threats arising from environmental, developmental and socio-economic issues. The armed forces have become an instrument of security agendas that encompass both defence and foreign policies and act as an instrument of governments to implement such foreign policies. However, the ambiguity that often characterises political decisions to contribute armed forces to an operation, as well as the difficulties in negotiating mandates and coordinating peacekeeping forces, suggests that the armed forces are still a long way from being perceived as an independent, neutral tool for crisis management.

Furthermore, despite the significance of the evolution of the role that militaries play in crisis management, their ultimate goal remains the attainment of military objectives for broader political goals. That such political goals of crisis management have evolved to include a range of reconstruction and stabilisation processes does not mean that longer term objectives associated with these processes can be conflated with military strategies, even when these overlap.

The suggestion by Rasmussen that civilian agencies should be the ‘soft power’ in today’s international crisis management reflects the lack of understanding that exists in military circles about the work that each of the myriad of actors involved in this process actually do. This is especially the case with regard to humanitarian actors. Militaries continue to treat conflict scenarios as existing outside the rule of law; all civilians are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Humanitarian actors, however, do not make such value judgements, because it goes against the principles that inform the work that they do. This is not to say that the militaries have nothing to contribute to the relief process. But blurring the lines that distinguish military and humanitarian action is a recipe for disaster, as much for those participating in the relief process as for those civilians in need of assistance.

It is one thing to recommend some level of cooperation (which has proven successful in some instances and should be encouraged), but it is a very different thing to suggest that all should be part of one integrated response or “comprehensive approach”. As Donald Steinberg of the International Crisis Group noted, there are not enough initiatives at the national level to train soldiers to deal with the social complexities that often characterise today’s crises. As much as the role of the armed forces has adapted to a changing, complex security environment, the purpose of their existence as articulated by their training and their priorities remains different to that of humanitarian and other civilian actors. In the current international context, NATO’s existential crisis (which the Organisation has wrestled with since the fall of the Berlin Wall) is not surprising. But NATO is not, and can never hope to be, the UN. 

The Geneva Conventions were created for a reason; military and humanitarian action are two separate, very different things. Indeed, the latter was created to mitigate the devastating effects of the former. Given the changing dynamics of conflict and the difficulty with which enemy combatants can be separated from innocent civilians, it is understandable that the military, in a push to maximise the security of its forces and achieve its political goals, is resorting in unprecedented levels to a policy of ‘winning hearts and minds’. But this cannot be achieved by attempting to turn the military into a huge NGO, nor by militarising humanitarian action at the expense of the victims of conflict.

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