Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a former British Army Officer, surgeon, barrister, and senior member of the Voluntary Conservative Party in the West Midlands.
Determined, bold, and ambitious. All adjectives that could be used to describe the vision NATO’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, put forward in a speech at the beginning of June. And yet, barely a mention in the newspapers. But whilst Covid-19 continues to dominate the news agenda, Stoltenberg’s speech should not be dismissed. It has the potential to significantly alter the position from which NATO seeks to operate.
NATO has been a powerful military alliance since its inception. National and international threats have not diminished over the last 70 years or so; rather they have grown. The current pandemic should not lure us into a false sense of security. The importance of a strong and effective military alliance, through the auspices of NATO, is fundamental to upholding the democratic principles we hold so dear.
However, in setting out a roadmap for the organisation for the decade ahead, its Secretary General has fixed his sights beyond that. He aspires to something much more ambitious. A shift to focus upon diplomatic and economic levers. A shift to operating more globally; beyond its current North Atlantic milieu. In essence, a shift to operating more politically.
Stoltenberg’s words will have been warmly heard in Washington. It was precisely this type of refocusing that the United States’ administration was pressing for when the alliance leaders met for the 70th anniversary summit on the 4th December 2019. It clearly acknowledges the growing threat that China plays in the wider global security challenges. That said, achieving this ambition will prove much harder than articulating it.
Whilst the focus of the Secretary General’s speech concentrated on the construct of a more political NATO – a NATO “using a broader range of tools”; both military and non-military – this ambitious vision can only be looked at in conjunction with the broader challenges facing the Alliance. Such a paradigm shift would necessitate a change in mindset from its member states.
NATO’s burgeoning inbox is frequently inundated with concerns posed by Vladimir Putin and Russian adventurism. This threat has not retreated. Putin’s posturing and strongman rhetoric continues to present a substantial risk to the Alliance. However, in recent years, there has been the development of a fresh danger. A danger posed by member states themselves. From Viktor Orbán in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, there has been the emergence of a cohort of leaders who style themselves in the Putin mould.
The bedrock of NATO has always been its shared values. The alliance has been bound through a pledge of collective defence: each member state, a democracy that upholds the virtues of individual human rights. For the majority of the 29, this remains the case. However, a small, but vocal, minority within the alliance has strayed from this path. The principle of collective defence has diminished in importance for these nations.
The schism created by Erdoğan and his ever closer relationship with Russia are well documented. But Erdoğan is not the only leader who has chosen to pursue a more nationalistic political path. Casting one’s gaze to Hungary, we see a country that was once an exemplar of post-Cold War success; a former Communist regime that had succeeded in achieving a strong democracy.
But times have changed. Orbán has adopted an increasingly authoritarian domestic policy platform. However, from NATO’s perspective, it is Orbán’s adoption of a fragrantly pro-Russian foreign policy agenda that is even more worrying: one only has to consider Hungary’s attempts to progressively block and disrupt the cooperation between NATO and Ukraine in order to illustrate this. Whereas the sage heads sitting at the NATO top table recognise the malign influence of a Putin led Russia, Orbán and Erdoğan are amongst a powerful subset that willingly fail to do so.
It would be misleading to suggest that NATO, and its members, have always upheld its founding principles to the letter. Historically, member states have not always been governed under truly democratic principles. That said, the internal menace posed by the pro-Russian, authoritarian rule of some of its own members arguably presents the greatest threat to NATO’s integrity that it has suffered to date.
The importance of NATO cannot be underestimated. As recently as 2016, the Alliance set out its central mission: “to ensure that the Alliance remains an unparalleled community of freedom, peace, security, and shared values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and rule of law”. However, such a shared set of values operates on trust.
This brings me back to Stoltenberg’s vision for NATO 2030. An ambitious vision must be coupled with a compelling argument that member states’ defence and procurement strategies must be centred upon NATO’s intended direction. In a post-pandemic world, with the global economy having taken a battering, putting forward a persuasive case may be all the harder. Maintaining the two per cent minimum of GDP contribution has historically been challenging for many members. The reality is that, with competing demands upon treasury departments, a not insignificant contingent will formally rescind upon their commitment.
But that may be the least of NATO’s problems. The majority need to stand up to the minority and challenge its offending behaviour. Nation states such as Turkey and Hungary cannot be allowed to continue to operate in contravention of the principles of the Alliance. The Washington Treaty contains no provision to suspend members who do not act within the democratic ideals of NATO. However, that should not deter action against those states that fail to adhere to these; political and economic sanctions, for example, may well have the desired effect in the long-term, if not short-term.
And so, I end where I started. This is a determined, bold, and ambitious vision of NATO in 2030. It will however require an even more determined, a bolder, a more ambitious argument to be put forward in order for it to succeed. To have any chance of success, NATO itself will need to reform. It will need to assure member states that the collective Alliance remains true to its founding principles. It must convince its members to stand up against those who show a disregard for human rights or seek to pursue a pro-Russian agenda.
There is a Russian bear sitting behind the desk of the Kremlin; for the survival of NATO we must not let its cubs play in our midst.