Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 11:59 UK

Nato at 60: New doctrine for new threats

Flags fly outside Strasbourg cathedral
Nato's new doctrine appears to sit uneasily with its core defensive purpose

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Nato is celebrating its 60th anniversary wondering whether it should seek to become more of a world policeman.

It is already at war in Afghanistan, about as far away as could be from the plains and cities of western Europe it was set up to defend against the Red Army.

Now there is talk of a new strategic doctrine, one that would give it the freedom to intervene even more in conflicts around the world.

Take note of the words of US President Barack Obama's National Security Adviser General James Jones. He was once Nato's supreme commander and has ideas about Nato's future.

Ukraine and Georgia have been promised membership eventually but in practical terms that would create a new crisis with Russia

In a speech in February he said: "Nato is as relevant to our common security in the first half of the 21st Century as it was to our common defence in the second half of the 20th Century."

He laid out what he thought Nato's new role should be: "Nato must also change. It needs to become less reactive and more proactive. I think it needs to become less rigid and more flexible. It needs to become less stationary and more expeditionary."

Gen Jones listed the types of threat that Nato should adapt itself to meet as he seeks to widen the concept of defence into the concept of security.

It is a long list - terrorism, the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the spread of nuclear and chemical weapons and cyber-technologies, overdependence on fossil fuels, regional and ethnic conflicts, poverty and corruption, narcotics and economic chaos.

And that list does not even include Nato's still primary role of defending its members against external attack.

These days that threat is largely theoretical, though some Eastern and Central European members still fear Russia, especially after the Russian action against Georgia last summer. It is a club everyone in Eastern and Central Europe still wants to join - Albania and Croatia did so only this week.

Lop-sided compromise

Afghanistan provides a good example of the problems Nato faces when it mounts an expeditionary war. The main problem is that not everyone wants to take part. Only a handful of member states, led by the US and UK, provide significant numbers of combat troops in Afghanistan. Others keep their forces out of harm's way in out of the way places.

Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, file image
Nato's "out of area" doctrine allowed it to send troops to Afghanistan

It is unlikely that President Obama will be able to persuade many of the others to up their game in Afghanistan, though Britain for one is sending more troops.

Instead the emphasis in the new plan he has formulated for the war in Afghanistan calls for a much greater civilian effort to develop the country, and there Nato members could do more without risking their soldiers.

It is a lop-sided compromise with the US doing the heavy lifting and indeed it is getting harder and harder to call Afghanistan a Nato operation given the dominance of the American role.

Uncertain future

Nato has already gone through two strategic doctrines. Its first and most successful was to defend Western Europe and the United States.

When the Soviet Union fell, a new doctrine of "out of area" operations was approved. This enabled Nato to bombard Serbia, not in the Nato "area" (defined by the territory of its members) in 1999. It also helps justify the war in Afghanistan.

The third doctrine will develop the concept of out of area operations further.

But that does not mean ignoring Nato's core defensive role. That sits rather uneasily with the new doctrine.

Nato is doing two things - it is on the defensive on its home territory but on the offensive out of area. Which role should be the more prominent?

Certainly, the hopes that the core role would be reduced as the threat from the Russians diminished have not been fully realised. And this has raised the question as to how far Nato should expand to the east. Ukraine and Georgia have been promised membership eventually but in practical terms that would create a new crisis with Russia and the issue might be left hanging for a number of years.

The fear of Russia has probably slowed down futuristic thinking that one day the Americans might leave Europe and Europeans might defend themselves. France, an advocate of more purely European defence structures, has even rejoined the military structure of Nato.

So, at 60, Nato has a strong past but a less clear future.

Print Sponsor

Q&A: France and Nato
11 Mar 09 |  Europe
Aid agencies issue Afghan warning
03 Apr 09 |  South Asia
Timeline: Nato
19 Mar 09 |  Country profiles
Profile: Nato
19 Mar 09 |  Country profiles

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific