The author is former ambassador to the European Union and China
The recent meeting of foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels (on April 3) has attracted surprisingly little attention in India. Yet these NATO deliberations may well result in a major change in the security environment of Asian countries. The focus of the meeting, called at the initiative of the United States of America, was on a possible role for the NATO alliance in post-war Iraq and in Afghanistan. Briefing the press after the meeting, the NATO secretary-general, Lord Robertson, said that the question of a role for the alliance in Iraq “will need to be considered carefully”, but in the case of Afghanistan, there was “strong support…for a significantly increased NATO role in support of the international security and assistance force in Kabul”. “Six months ago this would have been unthinkable”, he went on to say, “[but] people are now willing to look at all the options, including a full NATO operation in Kabul.” In other words, NATO is preparing to take its first step into Asia — in Afghanistan.
Throughout the Cold War period, NATO’s objectives were confined to the territorial defence of its member states. Its area of concern was defined by the boundaries of its member states in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a continuing debate within NATO as to its geographical scope. The US has consistently pressed the view that the alliance faces new security concerns of a “multi-faceted and multi-dimensional” nature — such as ethnic conflict in the Balkans, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and so on. — and that its operations cannot be subject to clearly defined geographical limits. Thus, by the end of 1997, Washington was arguing that proliferation of weapons of mass destruction posed a new “unifying threat” to NATO, pointing particularly to Iraq and Iran. European members demurred, insisting on the formula that proliferation posed a “risk” that should be addressed through diplomatic (as opposed to military) means.
Until this month, most of the European members put up a resistance to the expansive US approach regarding the geographical range of NATO operations. However, they were obliged to steadily give ground to the US. The first step in this direction was taken in 1992, when NATO began to undertake peace-keeping and “peace-making” operations in the former Yugoslavia. These were “out-of-area” operations beyond NATO borders and were not undertaken in response to any territorial threat to a NATO member. Initially, NATO was careful to claim a United Nations security council mandate for these “humanitarian” operations but, in 1999, it launched military action against Yugoslavia without a UN mandate.
Many of its European members were uncomfortable with the legal implications of this development and described it as a one-time exception. They continued to insist that NATO “out-of-area” operations should be confined to peripheral regions in the Balkans or, possibly, North Africa. As recently as last December, the US was unable to persuade its allies to accept a NATO role in the Iraq operations. The ministerial meeting of March 3, therefore, marks a giant step in the direction of redefining NATO’s area of operations in global, or at least intercontinental, terms.
The meeting was called to heal the rift in the alliance caused by French and German opposition to the US in the security council on the Iraq question. The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, revived his earlier proposal for a NATO role in Iraq, this time in the context of the post-war situation. He suggested that the Atlantic alliance could be involved in such areas as “stability operations”, peace-keeping or the search for weapons of mass destruction. As he later noted with satisfaction, “no one spoke out against such a role…There was a willingness to consider a role for NATO in Iraq.” Thus, it would seem that the Europeans, anxious to mend fences with the US, dropped their earlier objections to any operational role for NATO beyond the peripheries of Europe.
However, the proposal proved problematic on other grounds. France and many other European members are calling for a much more expansive role for the security council than the US is prepared to accept, in determining the post-war dispensation in Iraq. The question of a NATO involvement cannot be pursued until this issue is resolved. As Lord Robertson said in his press interview, “although there was no opposition to a NATO role…most people still think that the whole issue of how the US is involved is yet to be resolved and we must await the outcome of that”.
In recent weeks, the secretary-general himself had been promoting a similar proposal to restore a sense of common purpose in the alliance. This envisaged a NATO role in Afghan- istan. Germany reportedly presented the proposal in the ministerial meeting — despite its long-held opposition to NATO taking on distant commitments. It was enthusiastically endorsed by Canada and others. No one opposed the proposal but France made the important point that, while it would be appropriate for NATO to offer logistical support, the international security assistance force in Kabul should remain under the UN flag.
Secretary-general Robertson artfully describes the proposals as involving a “significantly increased” NATO role, implying that the alliance already has a role in Afghanistan. The fact is that the alliance as such has no role, although many of its members individually have contributed troops to ISAF.
How would a NATO presence in Afghanistan affect our regional security environment' Currently, many NATO member states are making a valuable contribution through their ISAF contingents to maintaining peace and stability in the Afghan capital. The ISAF operations have been led by the United Kingdom, Turkey and, currently, Germany and the Netherlands — all NATO members. There can be no objection if NATO member-states were to increase the size or efficiency of their contributions, provided they do not demand a formal role for the NATO alliance as such. If the international community accepts the validity of a formal NATO involvement in the affairs of the region, it would set a precedent that can have incalculable consequences in the future. The legal beach-head can be expanded in directions that cannot be anticipated today. A major new player would have made a sudden arrival in our neighbourhood.
China and, perhaps, Russia may be expected to take a bleak view of such a development, although it is difficult to predict if they will actively oppose it in the security council, given the importance of maintaining good relations with Washington. For India, the best course probably would be to rely on quiet diplomacy to urge our friends in NATO to refrain from seeking a formal role for the alliance.
If they arrogate to themselves a role in Asia, the European countries will run the risk of getting drawn into distant entanglements that cannot be foreseen today. We need also to compare notes with such important regional countries as Russia, China and Malaysia. Finally, these developments underline the importance of keeping in touch with NATO officials on a regular basis. It is necessary for us to keep abreast of thinking in NATO circles well before ideas have been translated into concrete actions. That is when we can most effectively press our own views. Once firm decisions are adopted, it may be too late to present our inputs. Two leading Asian countries, Japan and China, maintain a regular bilateral dialogue with NATO in Brussels. It is high time we followed suit.