Questions over Nato’s collective security

Questions over Nato’s collective security
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron (R) and US President Barack Obama (L), attend the NATO summit in Newport, South Wales, on September 4, 2014

As a symbol of Western resolve, the latest summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) ticked all the right boxes: Leaders of its 28 member states warned Russia to stop interfering in Ukraine, established a rapid reaction force to deter Russians from doing the same in other former Soviet bloc countries and pledged to almost double defence spending.

"We are strong and determined to take all steps necessary to provide effective protection and defence to our allies," said Nato secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen at the conclusion of the summit in Wales last Friday. "No one will leave here with any doubt that our collective security is as strong as it has ever been," said the summit's host, British Prime Minister David Cameron.

But the reality is that quite a few of the 60 heads of state and government left harbouring precisely such doubts. For although Nato remains the world's most powerful military alliance, it is also an organisation more adept at ducking rather than confronting Europe's current security challenges.

The handling of the Ukraine crisis is a case in point. Russia was condemned at every turn and its motives were repeatedly questioned: "One thing is a declaration and quite another thing is implementation" was how Mr Rasmussen scoffed at the Russian offer of a ceasefire in Ukraine.

But at the same time, despite the professions of support for Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko and for his country's territorial integrity, there was not much by way of substantive support from Nato.

Summiteers were eager to take photos with Mr Poroshenko but also reiterated the Western mantra that "there is no military solution" to conflict in Ukraine, which is not a member of the US-led alliance. Mr Poroshenko left with an offer of a relatively meagre US$20 million (S$25 million) in military aid.

Leaders consoled themselves with the argument that no Nato member state would ever have to face Ukraine's predicament since the alliance offers them full military protection. "This is a binding, treaty obligation... And here in Wales, we've left absolutely no doubt - we will defend every ally," United States President Barack Obama said at the end of the meeting. Backing up this mutual defence guarantee, leaders created a rapid reaction force but the details of this "spearhead force" are yet to be decided.

Nobody knows how big it will be: Britain, which will lead it, has offered about 1,000 troops, yet all the other nations contributing are too small to make up the planned strength of 24,000 soldiers.

Poland and Romania, the biggest former communist nations in close proximity to Russia, have offered to host the force. But at least for the moment, Nato troops will not be permanently stationed in eastern Europe, so the region which is most directly affected by the turmoil in Ukraine will also remain the least defended on the continent.

There is also considerable confusion about the strategic objective of this newly created force.

On the eve of the summit, the US and some European governments were touting it as a new, awe-inspiring capability, able to confront the increasingly powerful Russian armed forces, which earlier this year surprised Western military planners by concentrating almost 100,000 troops on Nato's borders.

But now, Nato officials are presenting their new formation as just a deterrent to Russia, rather than a fighting unit.

A similar fudge was applied to the thorny question of defence budgets. Having slashed their total military spending by a fifth over the past three years alone, Nato member states are now pledged to reverse the trend.

Still, the promise to devote 2 per cent of their gross domestic product every year to the military does not need to be reached until sometime during the next decade, and is subject to "economic circumstances".

This is not to say that the summit was useless: Nato's announcement that in the future, it will regard cyber attacks against the computer systems of its members as an "aggression" triggering the alliance's security guarantees is potentially significant.

And so are some of the tweaks to Nato's military command structures, which may streamline the otherwise bloated organisation.

But a military alliance created with the idea of all its members sharing the burden of providing their collective defence is slowly being replaced by an organisation in which a handful of countries take their military obligations seriously, while the majority do not.

And that does not herald a stable, peaceful continent.

This article was first published on September 07, 2014.
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