A new lease of life for Nato

World View: Putin’s aggression has strengthened transatlantic alliance

Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses a news conference  in Brussels on Wednesday.

Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses a news conference in Brussels on Wednesday.


A few weeks ago, at the height of the crisis in Ukraine, representatives of some of the biggest defence contractors in the US were munching canapes on Capitol Hill at a fundraiser for a top Republican congressman and committee chairman.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea may have frightened Russia’s neighbours and generated widespread fears of a new cold war, but the mood at the fundraiser was, according to one attendee, “borderline euphoric”.

The defence industry’s friends in Congress and in Washington’s think tanks have been arguing for weeks now that the most effective response to Putin’s aggression is to boost defence spending and move more military assets to Europe’s eastern borders.

Some western governments are starting to listen. Nato countries have increased the number of air patrols over the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and started flying surveillance aircraft over Poland and Romania. The US has joined naval exercises in the Black Sea.

At Nato’s drab headquarters in Brussels, spirits may not be quite as euphoric as among the arms dealers in Washington, but there is an unmistakable pep in the step of an alliance that has been struggling to find a role for more than two decades.

Divergent interests
Throughout the cold war, Nato’s role was, in the words of its first secretary general, Hastings Ismay, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans down”. Once their common enemy was gone, however, Nato member states’ divergent interests became more apparent.

This made joint action more complicated and called in to question the alliance’s usefulness. Although Nato took in new member states from central and eastern Europe, the years immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union were troubling for the alliance as it went in search of new threats to justify its existence.

The wars in Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s saw Nato forces fight in combat for the first time, and the alliance has scarcely stopped fighting since. Its forces are still in Bosnia as peacekeepers and it patrols the Mediterranean in search of terrorists, but all its other operations today are outside Europe – in Afghanistan, Somalia and off the Horn of Africa.

Nato has also played a part in missions launched by ad-hoc groups of its members, such as the bombing of Libya in 2011, and it performs an important role in facilitating the interoperability of EU military forces, including Ireland’s.

Despite all this activity, questions about Nato’s future have persisted, amplified by US president Barack Obama’s declared pivot to Asia and the US public’s diminishing appetite for foreign military adventures.

Russia’s neighbours
Putin’s aggression has changed that, reinforcing a transatlantic alliance that had been strained by Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying on US allies. In recent weeks, Nato countries are rediscovering their attachment to the alliance, and some of Russia’s neighbours are knocking at the door.

Even the Nordic neutrals, Sweden and Finland, are witnessing a renewed debate about Nato membership. Swedish prime minister Jan Björklund called for a “doctrinal shift” in Sweden’s defence policy in response to the annexation of Crimea, while Finnish prime minister Jyrki Katainen declared last week that his country needed “an open debate about Nato”.

Whatever their political leaders say, most Swedes and Finns remain firmly opposed to joining Nato, and public opinion within its own member states could prove to be the biggest obstacle to the alliance’s renaissance.

An Ard poll in Germany this week found a majority opposed to sending more Nato flights over Poland and the Baltic states and almost half wanting Germany to occupy a middle position on Ukraine between Russia and the West.

Meanwhile, German politicians are complaining that Turkey’s posturing about a possible war with Syria could drag Ankara’s Nato allies into an unwanted conflict because of the alliance’s Article Five mutual defence pact.

Nato members are supposed to spend 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on defence, but all save a handful spend much less than this – Germany spends just 1.4 per cent. As austerity continues to bite throughout much of Europe, defence budgets will remain under pressure. Even in the US, defence spending is likely to fall in the next few years.

Unless the people of Europe and the US can be persuaded to spend more, Nato’s resurgence – and the defence contractors’ euphoria – could be short-lived.

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