View from abroad: Why Cold War is back — sort of

Published September 6, 2014
BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, Romanian President Traian Basescu, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev and British RAF Group Captain David Bentley watch a fly-past on the second day of Nato summit in Newport, Wales, on Friday.—AP
BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron, US President Barack Obama, Romanian President Traian Basescu, Bulgarian President Rosen Plevneliev and British RAF Group Captain David Bentley watch a fly-past on the second day of Nato summit in Newport, Wales, on Friday.—AP

IN case you haven’t noticed there’s a new swagger to Nato, the 28-nation Western military alliance that many thought had outlived its usefulness with the end of the Cold War.

Well, guess what, the Cold War is back — sort of — and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is once again in the international spotlight. No longer viewed as another has-been institution, a relic of the past, Nato is now universally recognised as a crucially important alliance to ward off threats from Russia, which threatens Europe’s security from the east, and the nasty “Islamic State” on Europe’s southern flank.

It’s quite a turn-around for an organisation which many had given up as irrelevant and out-of-step with a deeply connected, inter-dependent and post-modern world. Leaders were supposed to be nice to each other, sign treaties of amity and cooperation, invest in each other’s economies and give up on wars and conflict.

The talk was of “peace dividends”, turning guns into ploughs, the victory of democracy and the rule of law and a commitment to maintaining a liberal international order.

Nato talked of “partnerships for peace”, extended a hand of friendship to Russia and to other former foes, countries which were once part of the Soviet Union.

No longer. First, for all its economic networks and interdependence, flourishing of global trade and just generally, of globalisation, the world is proving to be a volatile, disorderly and unpredictable place.

Suddenly, the future is not that bright or that secure. Far from witnessing the “end of history” as predicted by Francis Fukuyama in the euphoric period following the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, we are entering an “age of anxiety”.

Know more: Obama says strains over Ukraine not leading to new Cold War

Mostly — but not only — this is due to President Vladimir Putin’s recent upending of the post-World War security order in Europe through his actions in Ukraine, starting with the seizure of Crimea five months ago and the subsequent destabilisation of other parts of the country.

Russia’s actions and the outrage they have prompted across Europe and the US have undoubtedly given Nato new lease of life. The alliance’s summit held in Wales last week is proof that far from being relegated to the dustbin of history, Nato is back — possibly even with a bang.

Or is it? While Nato’s rhetoric on Russia is strong and impressive, it’s far from certain that actions will match words. Take the decision to deploy a new and potentially significant Rapid Reaction Force to deter any further aggression by Russia against its neighbours.

The Force would be ready to be deployed within days should there be any military aggression against one of the 28 N ato member nations. The military unit, numbering 4,000 troops, would be on high alert at all times, with additional logistical support stations set up in Eastern European states

The decision is being hailed as an example of a new and more determined Nato but it falls short of the call by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk for the alliance put 10,000 troops in Poland.

And there are fears that Nato member states won’t be able to find the funds to finance the Force.

The problem is that not only is the alliance divided on how best to react to an increasingly aggressive Russia but defence spending in almost all member nations remains under two per cent of GDP, the goal set by Nato. Overall, Nato military budgets have shrunk by 20 per cent over the past five years, while Russia’s budget has risen by half.

Also, Nato has tried to organise rapid-reaction forces in the past, with disappointing results. It first announced it would create a Nato Response Force in 2002, with as many as 13,000 troops. But it took two years to get the unit up and running. Even today, the force needs about 30 days to mobilise. Until this year, it had deployed only once, in 2005, to provide earthquake relief to Pakistan.

Meanwhile, many Nato members in Europe have been deeply reluctant to challenge Russia — both for fear of spurring a wider conflict and because of domestic economic problems which could be exacerbated by a confrontation.

But the 65-year-old alliance’s worries aren’t limited to Eastern Europe. IS, the terror group that has declared an independent state in Iraq and Syria in recent months, is threatening to send violent European “foreign fighters” to Nato members’ streets.

Insiders say Britain is likely to join the US in airstrikes against Islamic State as public anger grows over the execution of Western hostages.

Also as Nato troops prepare to depart at the end of the year, Afghanistan represents another headache. Nato officials say Afghans are now responsible for almost 100 per cent of their country’s security. But Nato has said it will remain committed to Kabul through the Nato-Afghanistan Enduring Partnership signed in 2010 and the Resolute Support mission to “train, advise and assist” Afghan forces.

In addition, Nato is being challenged by Moscow to react to a new breed of “hybrid war”, a term used to describe Russia’s use of a broad range of hostile actions — including military force — to spur unrest.

The Nato summit in Wales may not have been the “most momentous” in the alliance’s history as some predicted. But it does mean that Norway’s former prime minister Jens Stoltenberg who will be taking over as Nato Secretary General on October 1 will be inheriting a very different alliance than the one led by Anders Fogh Rasmussen over the last five years.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2014



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