Richard North, 08/11/2004  

Even by the standards of The Guardian, today's opinion piece from its senior foreign correspondent, Jonathan Steele, is more than usually stupid. Headed, "Nato is a threat to Europe and must be disbanded", Steele's thesis, encapsulated in the strap, is: "Our security doesn't depend on the US; we should free up our thinking". In fact, this is more than stupid. It is downright dangerous.

In the interests of greater "European" foreign policy coherence, Steele argues, vague pleas for Tony Blair to end his close links with the White House are not enough. The call should not be for "more" independence. We need full independence. We must go all the way, up to the termination of Nato.

Says Steele, an alliance which should have wound up when the Soviet Union collapsed now serves almost entirely as a device for giving the US an unfair and unreciprocated droit de regard over European foreign policy. As long as we are officially embedded as America's allies, the default option is that we have to support America and respect its "leadership".

Apparently, this "makes it harder for European governments to break ranks, for fear of being attacked as disloyal," so we should now dismantle Nato. It has become a threat to Europe, also acting "as a continual drag on Europe's efforts to build its own security institutions. Certain member countries, particularly Britain, constantly look over their shoulders for fear of upsetting big brother." This has an inhibiting effect on every initiative.

In this Steele's observations are one-dimensional – and wrong. Unlike the European Union, Nato is a voluntary organisation. No member is obliged to belong and none can be forced or in any way required to take action – or participate in any action against its will. And, as we have seen over in recent times, various members have been entirely uninhibited in opting out of Nato initiatives, with the "European defence identity" proceeding apace.

But what makes Steele's argument particularly stupid is that, before one advocates the abolition of an institution which has in the past unarguably contributed considerably to European, and therefore world, security, it is necessary to examine fully its role and current contribution - which he has not done.

Here, one needs to look beyond the headline roles – the grand alliances and high-profile initiatives – and look at the more mundane tasks with which Nato is involved, not least the development of common tactical doctrines, the establishment of joint military planning systems and, especially, the Nato harmonisation programme.

It is this latter programme that is one of the great, unsung successes of Nato, a programme which has ensured, over time, that allied forces can physically operate together. At one end of the scale, this is as mundane as ensuring that, for instance, the couplings on refuelling bowsers and aircraft fuel-tanks are standardised, so that allied aircraft can be fuelled with the equipment of any other ally.

But, at the other end of the scale, as theatres of operation become ever-more sophisticated, there is the need to standardise the various electronic systems, used for surveillance, weapons guidance and command and control – without which no modern armed forces can operate.

In this complex area, Nato has more than proved its worth with a demonstration programme – perversely under Pentagon leadership – set up in 2000 called the Coalition Aerial Surveillance and Reconnaissance, or CAESAR. This connected five intelligence and reconnaissance systems: the U.S. Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) and Global Hawk, the British Airborne Stand-off Radar (ASTOR), the French Horizon system, Canada's RADARSAT and Italy's CRESO, or Combined Heliborne Surveillance Radar.

Nato officials took all these platforms that did not interoperate and fixed them, allow them to plug and play through software patches, without everyone having the same equipment. On completion, the programme was called the "hidden jewel of Nato" and an example of what could be done if money is invested wisely.

Without such efforts, the forces of all the Western allies are weakened and, crucially, will be unable to work together. Yet, as outlined in an earlier posting, the EU commission is already turning away from such genuine co-operation. Under the aegis of the European Defence Agency (EDA), it is promoting common, EU-wide procurement and standardisation throughout the forces of member states, with ambitions to operate a compulsory standardisation programme, managed through CEN rather than through NATO.

This alone will mean that European states and the US will drift further and further apart and it is in fact only through Nato that this can be prevented.

However, Steele clearly does not understand this, and that is why he is dangerous. He sees the involvement of Nato as wholly negative while, at the same time believing that ending Nato would not mean that Europe rejected good relations with the US or ruled out police and intelligence collaboration on issues of concern.

Europe, he writes, could still join the US in war, if there was an international consensus and the electorates of individual countries supported it, but Europeans must reach their decisions from a position of genuine independence. In fact, without the close technical co-operation that comes from working as allies, in order that our forces are technically "interoperable" we cannot join the US in war.

Thus, Steele's conclusion is fatally flawed. "We can and, for the most part, should be America's friends. Allies, no longer," he asserts. In fact, unless we are allies, we will find that we can no longer be be friends.

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