Review of the foreign media on current NATO activities:

What challenges is NATO currently facing?

Prepared by: Tom Crowley

Media coverage of NATO in the past month has naturally focused on reporting about the alliance’s two major theatres of operation; Libya – where there is media debate about the nature of NATOs proper role and the lack of progress on the ground – and Afghanistan (despite the strong economic and political progress, there are still concerns about security). However, the dominant discussion in media coverage and analysis of NATO actions still involves arguments about the future of NATOs existence. Even though outgoing US Defence Secretary Robert Gates called NATO “a two-tiered alliance”, citing unequal load bearing between members and a widespread lack of both military capacity and political will, in the past weeks NATO has evidently shown ability to act swiftly, as during border clashes in the Kosovska Mitrovica region.


Soft power versus military hardware

Speaking in June at the Security and Defence Agenda in Brussels, Secretary Gates raised the issue of clear and growing divisions in NATO between what he called “those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership but don’t want to share the risks and the costs.” As Defence Web reports, Libya and Afghanistan are prime examples of this; now that Norway has withdrawn all 6 of its F-16s from strike operations and Italy has removed its aircraft carrier from the region, the only remaining member states fully engaged in air strikes to protect civilians in Libya are the UK, France, Belgium, Denmark and Canada (although others are involved in enforcing the naval blockade and no-fly zone). In Afghanistan, the picture is slightly more complicated; in its article “Assessment of NATO” published on the 28th July, the Christian Science Monitor highlights that although all members agreed to take part and put troops on the ground, a number of them included “caveats” which restrict their ability to engage in combat. This leaves countries such as the US, UK, Canada and Denmark facing heavy casualties in intensive combat operations. According to unofficial data from, which monitors all casualties in Afghanistan, these four states suffer the greatest losses (for example, Denmark lost over 5% of its 750 troops whilst fellow NATO member Belgium, with double the population, has suffered only a single fatality).

 Besides a lack of political will to use what forces are available to NATO members, perhaps a greater concern is that there is a real lack of military capacity in member states apart from the US; whereas during the Cold War it accounted for around half of NATO defence expenditure, according to Gates today the US share is almost 75%. Although European members have 2.1 million uniformed soldiers to the US 1.4 million, a lack of investment and obsolete military infrastructures mean that few of these are available for international deployment; as Giles Merritt, director of the Security and Defence Agenda in Brussels pointed out, this was made painfully clear during the Libyan crisis, “We’ve got 2 million people in uniform and we can’t actually muster a comparatively straightforward, offshore strike force.” Some media see the problem as stemming from a European mindset that “soft power” can achieve total security when in fact, according to Patrick Keller coordinator of foreign and security policy at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Berlin, “military capability remains the backbone of all credible security arrangements” – military capability which is being reduced further by European defence cuts. Even the two states which have traditionally been at the forefront of European defence – the UK and France – cuts have led to the scrapping of aircraft carriers, fighter jets and drastic cuts in troop numbers.


Political and military Alliance

In light of these issues, some media have begun to debate over the purpose of NATO in the 21st century. Commentators such as Adrian Hamilton of the Independent claim that “NATO is dead” but see this as a chance for Europe to “get its act together” on the issue of defence budget cuts. Certainly there are signs that this is the direction Europe is heading in, for budgetary reasons if nothing else. For example, Britain and France signed a landmark treaty in November to share an aircraft carrier and set up a 10,000-strong joint expeditionary force. Other groups of smaller European nations have also begun creating joint expeditionary forces. Such initiatives are not in conflict with NATOs New Strategic Concept, which promotes a more active role of NATOs member states internationally, moving away from strictly military operations towards crisis management and a more political engagement.

Yet despite these problems facing NATO, other media sources report on rather positive developments; whilst the ethnic clashes and violence on the border between Kosovo and Serbia are an unwelcome development in an already tense region, NATO’s swift response to them and its rapid reinforcement of KFOR shows that it does still have the capacity to act quickly. Operation Ocean Shield, its anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, is also a model of co-operation with potential members such as Ukraine (Ukrainian Ambassador to NATO, Ihor Dolhov, stated for the press that Kiev is seriously considering participating in the mission). Even its erstwhile foe Russia has its ships in the region and works with NATO to prevent hijackings.

Looking at the mission in Afghanistan – where conventional wisdom has it that the country is the “graveyard of empires” – there are improvements; the Guardian’s Nushir Arbabzadah, who used to live in Kabul as girl, highlights the huge amount of economic progress compared with life under the Taliban as mobile phones have become widespread, women have been visibly empowered and a middle class has begun to emerge. The security situation is more precarious as ISAF troops hand over the Afghan Army (ANA) in areas such as Nad-e Ali in Helmand, but there is still tangible progress. Reporting on the handover, Kim Sengupta of the Independent highlighted how an area which 18 months ago came under regular insurgent attacks, is now deemed secure enough to transfer to the nascent ANA. Perhaps, Captain Ram Kumar, of 2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles summarised the situation best when he stated for the media, “Things are much quieter now, certainly and they are getting better. But you have to be a very brave man in Afghanistan to make strong predictions about the future.”      

Certainly there are challenges ahead for NATO, at a political as well as military and technical level, but whilst this leads some media to be distinctly pessimistic about the future of NATO, others see these crises as opportunities for NATO – and Europe in particular – to rebuild itself as a more flexible institution, fully capable of playing an active political and military role in the 21st century.